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Embracing positionless football: The case for the Jets to sign Le’Veon Bell AND Tevin Coleman

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NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

There might have been a day in the NFL when offensive skill positions were rigidly defined.

Running backs lined up in the backfield and took handoffs. Wide receivers lined up out wide and ran routes. Tight ends were in-line and blocked while sometimes slipping out into patterns.

While there are still players who fit these descriptions in the NFL, today’s league is much more flexible in dealing with unique talents. Many players have skills that fit multiple positions, and teams use them accordingly.

Zach Ertz might be listed as a tight end on the Eagles roster, but his skill as a receiver led him to run more than half of his routes from the slot in 2018. Travis Kelce and Rob Gronkowski ran just half their routes from the slot themselves. Sure you might label these guys as tight ends, but functionally they spend a lot of time as big slot receivers. (Source: PFF)

Todd Gurley is most valuable to the Rams taking handoffs, but his skill as a receiver led the Rams to stick him in the slot 6 times per game. Alvin Kamara joined him there on 4 passing plays per game, while Christian McCaffrey and Tarik Cohen were slot receivers around 3.5 times each game. (Source: PFF)

Meanwhile some receivers are good making plays with the ball in their hands. Instead of forcing these guys to run a route and catch a pass, sometimes it’s easy to just give them the ball. Cordarrelle Patterson got almost 3 carries per game in 2018. Tyreek Hill and Robert Woods also got more than one carry for each game played this season. (Source: NFL.com)

Some players will be maximized from getting more handoffs than receptions. For others the ideal ratio is the opposite.

Still, you are doing many of these players a disservice to list them at one specific position. Many have a role more complex than that simple designation.

I hope you have been following Michael Nania’s series of excellent breakdowns on potential Jets free agent targets. You should definitely give it a read.

He started by discussing a number of free agent wide receivers. Most of them project as slot receivers like Golden Tate, Adam Humprhies, and Jamison Crowder.

As I read these profiles, I became less and less enthused by the options. A lot of it had to do with the pricetags. Spotrac projects the market value for prominent free agents.

$10.2 million for Tate? $10.4 million for Humphries? $8.1 million for Crowder?

Man, that’s a lot of money for pedestrian production.

If Tate bounces back he might be worth it, but he’s on the wrong side of 30 coming off a down year.

Don’t get me wrong. I think the Jets need to upgrade the receiver position, but I think they need a go to guy, somebody who can allow Robby Anderson and Quincy Enunwa slide into the support roles they are better equipped to handle.

Now that won’t be easy to find, and there’s nothing wrong with adding a few more supporting pieces. With that said, plowing eight figures to address the slot isn’t my idea of a great move.

A number of people have asked me which of these receiver options I liked best. I couldn’t answer. None of them sounded very good to me.

Then Michael wrote about “running back” Tevin Coleman.

The general view among Jets fans is that Coleman is a potential cheaper alternative to Le’Veon Bell at running back.

I’m not sure I agree with that. I would not be a huge fan of Coleman as a lead back. Just take a look at the weaknesses listed in Michael’s breakdown.

There are quite a few numbers that back these claims. Coleman has rated poorly in Football Outsiders’ Success Rate, which measures the frequency at which a back produces a positive result based on down and distance. Coleman ranked 37th of 47 in 2018, 39th of 47 in 2017, and 25th of 42 in 2016

Stuffed frequently. 47.3% of career carries have resulted in two yards or less and no first down, versus the league average of 43.3%

Not reliable or efficient in power situations. Has converted only 13 of 22 (59.1%) career 3rd/4th & 1 situations, well below the league average of 71.5%. 0 for 3 on 3rd/4th & 2 and 0 for 1 on 3rd/4th & 3

I want my top back to have big play ability, but I also want him to help sustain drives with 5, 6, and 7 yard runs. I want to trust him to grind out needed yardage on critical downs.

Those numbers tell the story of a back who can’t do that. Coleman is more of an all or nothing runner. He’s a supporting player in the backfield, not as the star. This makes him a poor alternative to Bell in my view.

But what does Coleman do well?

Very good receiving back. Since 2016, among running backs he ranks 2nd in receiving touchdowns (11) and 16th in receiving yards (996). His 11.1 yards per reception average ranks 2nd among the 68 running backs with at least 50 targets over that span, and his 8.1 yards per target average ranks 3rd

Generated a 126.7 passer rating when targeted in 2018, best among the 32 running backs with at least 40 targets. Ranked 6th in 2017 (108.8) and 1st in 2016 (143.4)

What if Coleman isn’t an alternative to Bell? What if he’s an alternative to those slot receiver options.

Passing production counts all the same whether the player producing appears as a running back or a wide receiver on the roster.

Coleman’s Spotrac projection is $5 million per year. Instead of paying an ok slot receiver $10 million, you might be able to get a “back” with top flight receiving skills for half as much.

Going back to the profile, another of Coleman’s positives was as follows.

From our friends at The Falcoholic: “He has terrific hands and is savvy as a route runner for a running back, and his speed makes him incredibly dangerous.”

Let’s take a look at that route running.

The Falcons felt comfortable putting him in the slot. This is an advantage because it forced the defense to tip its hand. Here a linebacker is aligned across from Coleman. Since an in-game position switch to slot corner is unlikely, the only reason a linebacker would be aligned in the slot across from a running back is that he’s in man coverage. So the quarterback is already given the knowledge of the coverage presnap.

Coleman is running a shallow crossing route.

He uses the tight end inside of him to spring open. Coleman delays his break because he sees the tight end’s route upfield is going to create a pick on the guy covering him. Once the pick develops, Coleman cuts sharply inside and is wide open.

You saw the savvy route running to get open. Now you will see the speed after the catch to turn a short completion into a big play.

Because Coleman is listed as a running back, he frequently will draw linebackers in coverage instead of the slot corners conventional slot receivers draw. This in turn frequently creates a mismatch. Coleman’s speed can be too much for a linebacker.

I wouldn’t argue to sign Coleman instead of Bell. I would argue to sign Coleman in tandem with Bell.

Just like Coleman, Bell has receiver skills of his own and can line up as a receiver. Once again you see him one on one against a linebacker. This both tips the coverage presnap and creates a favorable matchup.

The other aspect that makes the back with receiver skills so appealing is how it puts the defender in an uncomfortable position. The linebackers on these plays essentially have to play like they’re cornerbacks. They don’t like it. They’re not used to playing like that.

Take the Bell play. The coverage actually wasn’t bad, but most linebackers don’t have the ball skills to capitalize on that type of solid coverage.

Now imagine the stress having two backs with receiver skills like this would put on the defense, especially if they are on the field at the same time.

At this point you might be saying, “Sure Coleman might be a good receiving back, but is he really going to produce as many catches as a real wide receiver.”

If so, I would argue that you are asking the wrong question. Coleman doesn’t necessarily need to produce as many catches as those other guys to replicate their value. Since he is a hybrid player, he can produce value on the ground. Maybe you don’t want him as your every down back, but he can make splash plays as a runner as the Nania profile suggests.

Tremendous big play threat in ground game. Has 38 career carries for 15+ yards, which is 10th most in the league over that span despite ranking 24th in total carries. 7.2% of career carries for 15+ yards, smashing league average of 5.0%. His 9.0% rate of 15+ carries in 2018 ranked fourth in the league

And having a player with Coleman’s speed can produce value that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. His presence could unlock other opportunities for the offense.

In the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college I worked at a catering company. I was out to lunch with my grandmother one day and told her about my job. She got really excited. Apparently the guy who owned the company was an old friend of hers and my grandfather.

After I told the owner who my grandparents were, he took me under his wing and spent the summer giving me advice. He told me the most important business advice he could give me was, “If a competitor comes up with a good idea, steal it. They’ve done all of the hard work.”

I won’t dive deep on ethics in the business world, but that is advice NFL coaches certainly follow. When one team does something effectively in this league, other teams love to copy it.

Take how the Saints used Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara.

On this play Ingram was in the backfield, and Kamara was lined up as a receiver. The Saints bring Kamara in motion to the left of the formation. Kamara draws so much attention that the defense ends up flowing in his direction. The play is a handoff to Ingram going in the opposite direction who ends up with a walk in touchdown as a result.

Here’s an angle that shows just how much attention the potential for a handoff to Kamara got the defense flowing in the wrong direction.

Kamara might not have anything to show for that play in the box score, but he certainly provided the Saints with value.

Now imagine a big play guy with speed like Coleman in that role. Given that speed and his propensity for big plays, wouldn’t he draw the defense’s attention?

It’s no wonder the Saints had Kamara and Ingram on the field together more than 5 plays per game in the 11 they both suited up this season? (Source: NFL Stats)

By having two skilled receiving backs on the field, it puts a defense into a tight spot. What happens if you put both Bell and Coleman out wide, and the defense counters by putting corners on them?

The Jets happen to have a hybrid type player under contract. Quincy Enunwa is listed as a wide receiver, but he’s tough to bring down once the ball is in his hands. In fact, his 7.5 average yards after the catch was sixth best in the NFL in 2018. (Source: PFF)

He’s perfectly capable of taking a handoff so perhaps you could move him into the backfield. Of course, with him aligned in the backfield and the defense trying to avoid a mismatch against Coleman and Bell you might find yourself with Enunwa running a route against a linebacker like we see below in one of the few creative bursts Jeremy Bates had in 2018.

Big plays happen in the NFL for a few reasons.

Sometimes they are created by mismatches. These mismatches in turn are created by coaches who understand how to utilize the skillsets their players have.

If you get caught up in rigid positional definitions, you are behind the times in today’s NFL.

A team that signs Tevin Coleman expecting him to be a pure running back might be disappointed. He might be listed on the roster as a running back, but that doesn’t mean he is best used lining up in the backfield all game taking handoffs and the occasional screen.

You would be better served picking your spots on the handoffs to try and hit homeruns while utilizing his receiving skills. This is a hybrid player.

The Jets have an opportunity this offseason to fit a bunch of these hybrid players together to create headaches for the opposition.

I think they should explore it.