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How many RBs do the Jets need?

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What is the best strategy?

NFL: AUG 15 Preseason - Jets at Falcons Photo by Frank Mattia/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

During free agency the Jets used some heavy capital on the running back position to help the offense be more productive and give Sam Darnold more options while taking some of the expected load off his shoulders. The theory is that the more diverse the offense, the less opportunity a defense has to zero in a a couple of players.

Let us look at the running back depth in detail to see how these players can best be utilized (or not so) in the team structure.

Le’veon Bell

Le’Veon Bell was signed to a four year, $52.5 million contract that will take him up to his age 30 season. Bell is a unique talent who has elite vision as a runner along with receiving skills that rival any running back in the NFL. He is a three down All Pro level talent who will be the foundation of the offensive attack. With Bell on the field, a large portion of the defensive game plan will be on how to limit his talents. This in turn will open up the field for the receivers and tight ends to be successful.

Bell will be a focal point of the offense for (hopefully) the next four years and garner a high percentage of the RB snaps for the Jets. He rarely needs to come off the field since he is such a skilled receiver and an excellent pass blocker. Bell fits well into everything the offense does and is a great decoy on early down pass plays and misdirection plays. Bell will be such a focal point of the defense. They will naturally slide to his side of the field because of his high usage rate.

Ty Montgomery

The Jets doubled down on the running back position when they signed Ty Montgomery to a 1 year $805,000 contract. Montgomery calls himself “The Hybrid” who will play a varied role as a RB/WR mix. He can line up in the backfield as a RB then shift out wide as a WR. By doing so he will probably be covered by a inside linebacker which is a definite mismatch for the offense.

Montgomery was a college wide receiver who the Packers morphed into a RB because of injuries on their team. So when Montgomery splits out wide he has a much higher degree of receiving talent that most RB’s possess. Where most RBs can run slant route or are available for a dump off pass, Montgomery can run an entire route tree if necessary. Let’s look at his skill set.

This is just a pure draw play where Montgomery is able to break the line of scrimmage and add yards downfield. He has quick feet with a knack for finding the crease in the defense to pick up nice chunks of yardage.

Although he was a WR at Stanford, Montgomery is not built like one. He is 6’ 0” 221 lbs with big hands (10 1/8”) and very muscular legs which he uses often to drag tacklers for extra yards. Despite his stockiness, Montgomery still posted a 4.21 short shuttle and a 40.5” vert which belies his stout frame.

Montgomery is a tough kid who seems to enjoy the physical part of the game. On this next clip Montgomery could have run out of bounds for an 8 yard gain. It’s first and 10. There is no need to sacrifice your body for a few yards, but Montgomery has his own ideas. He takes on two men ( LB and SS) to gain the first down. This is the type of play that will gain him respect and endear him to his teammates. It is also a mindset that permeates a team. It expresses a desire to be tough and physical. Defenses will realize this when they watch tape of the Jets. It means any team playing the Jets is in for a 60 minute fight for every yard. It is an effective way to get yourself into the head of an opponent before you even play them.

The Packers evolved Montgomery from a #3 WR into a multi-threat weapon who can beat you in numerous ways (as a receiver, a between the tackles RB, a QB protector, and a safety valve). Montgomery was also a kick returner in college with above average open field vision (He has 35 kick returns in the NFL.) so he can he be a emergency return specialist if needed.

I mentioned that Montgomery was a receiver first in college and the NFL. Here he is lined up in the slot against the Giants and gets totally lost in coverage. It is very difficult for LB’s and safeties to cover a diverse receiving threat who can run all types of routes. This is a basic seam route that pops wide open.

The reason you didn’t see Montgomery run a high variety of pass patterns in Green Bay is because NFL offenses don’t have those type of plays designed for RB’s. It would be wise for the Jets to incorporate some of those routes into the playbook to take advantage of Montgomery’s skill set. Imagine an ILB or SS trying to cover a curl route, back shoulder throw, or an out and up double move. With Bell in the backfield and Montgomery split out wide, he would be wide open on every play. Something to think about.

Montgomery had some soft tissue injury issues at times in Green Bay, and the late season disarray in Packerland had them trade Montgomery to Baltimore in October for a 7th round pick. There was some dissension in Green Bay, but Montgomery’s Draft profile touted him as a high character player with a team first attitude. Baltimore then decided to allow Montgomery to test the open market after the season. These seem to be two head-scratching moves to allow a multi talented player in his prime to sign with the Jets for $805,000, pennies in today’s NFL.

This was (in my opinion) a great signing for the Jets. It gives them two multi talented players who could play together or by themselves who are both in their prime playing years. I only wish the Jets had added an additional option year to Montgomery’s contract in case he has a huge year for them. We shall see.

Now what do you do?

That gives the Jets two players in the offensive backfield who should be used a lot. The question then becomes how many more running backs are really needed, and for what purpose? Whoever the Jets keep as reserve running backs are not going to play that much and could be game day scratches. Yes, you could have a backup RB as a special teams guy, but he would need to be great (at special teams) if you kept him for that reason.

You could keep an extra WR instead of a RB as a special teams guy because the difference in talent levels from top to bottom isn’t so pronounced in the WR group. Almost every team is going to cut a RB at the final cutdown that has potential NFL talent. The RB market will be saturated with fringe NFL talent level players dying for a job. You could sign two or three to the practice squad who could be ready in an instant should you need a replacement because of injury.

Usually teams keep a FB type player on a roster as an extra blocker or a short yardage runner. The Jets, like many teams will utilize a H-Back when needed for blocking. They don’t need a short yardage runner because Le’Veon Bell is a better short yardage runner than any fullback a team could find. It is a inefficient use of a roster spot to have a fullback.

So the Jets now have an interesting dilemma at the backup running back position, a position that (if everything goes as planned) the Jets will have little need for. So what is the best course of action in terms of using roster space to it’s maximum efficiency? There are numerous scenarios that the Jets could use so let’s see which you think is best.

Bilal Powell

Bilal Powell is a quality backup who has shown flashes of brilliance at times and always seems to do well when given the opportunity. Even though he doesn’t have the receiving skills of Ty Montgomery he has nearly the same size (5’ 11” 207 lbs) and speed (4.52/40). He is 5 years older, however, and will be 31 in October.

Make no mistake. Powell is an all around fine back, but his age and past injury history must give cause for concern. If needed would he be a bell cow type back would could step in for Le’Veon Bell, or would you need to restrict his snaps? Also do you want to give this opportunity (as the 3rd RB option) to a soon to be 31 year old or try and develop a younger back? If the latter is that RB currently on the roster? These are all good questions that you would need to answer.

As for Powell he has shown the type of skills that a team needs in a feature RB, let alone a backup player. Here is a sample.

Although he lacks breakaway speed, Powell has what I term football speed. He will not test well, but always seems to outrun the first defender or two. He also doesn’t have elite vision but takes nice angles against pursuers to gain an advantage. Here he cuts back to an opening to the left and is able to turn the corner with speed to sprint by defenders and into the end zone for a splash play.

Powell has excellent hands for a RB but lacks a true downfield threat as a receiver. He has 204 career receptions and has caught about 69% of his targets which is great for a RB. This came with some questionable QB play over the years. Yet Powell only has 5 receiving TDs, and his longest reception is 36 yards with a 7.7 yard average per reception. He still can dazzle at times and turn a short pass into a 1st down.

Powell has always had the skills to help the Jets and has appeared to be a valued teammate with a positive voice in the locker room. I would say the Jets should keep Powell as the third RB because he he is a low cost insurance policy against injury to the top two options plus he is not practice squad eligible. Yet you could argue he has no future with the Jets and takes up a valuable roster space. That space could be used by a younger back with more upside who could be the RB of the future. Plus that back would probably be much cheaper. So the question is whether you think the Jets should keep Powell who has no special teams value, or go with another younger player who would play special teams plus be molded into a future valuable backup like Powell is today?

Trenton Cannon

Cannon was a 6th round pick in 2018 who saw 185 offensive snaps and 151 special teams snap his rookie year. Cannon has great speed (4.40/40) but also a really great burst, which we call “short area speed.” it allows you to fly through a hole quickly before it closes. This is highlighted by his 10 yard split (1.49 sec) which is very good. He is not big (5’ 11” 185 lbs) and came to the Jets the hard way via the Division II route. He started his football career at tiny Shepherd University (enrollment 3,778) but transferred to Virginia State in 2015.

He played 3 years at Virginia State (32 games) where he dominated with over 4,000 rushing yards, 51 total TDs averaging 7.3 yards a carry. He had 48 receptions for a great average of 12.7 yards a catch. He also returned 25 kickoffs for 821 yards (32.8 avg) and 2 TDs as a senior.

A player coming from a Division II school will need time to acclimate to the speed and ferocity of the NFL. So far Cannon has done quite well in his niche on the Jets. He is still raw as a runner and even more so as a receiver where he has very little technique but good hands and a lot of heart.

With the Jets he had 38 rushing attempts for 113 yards (3.0 yard avg) and a TD with zero fumbles. He also had 17 receptions on 25 targets (68% comp. rate) for 144 yards (8.5 avg) and 0 TDs. One of those receptions went for 35 yards which distorted the average a bit. He returned 1 kickoff for 20 yards and had 9 tackles on special teams.

Here is his only TD for 2018 on a 4 yard run which he covers up the ball and gets through the hole quickly before #47 Levi Wallace can close in for the tackle.

Remember this is a rookie getting his first taste of extended play because of injuries late in the year. He looks very rigid in his play; almost robotic because he is nervous and unsure of himself. As he gains confidence he should begin to look more fluid and react to the play instead of thinking about it. Here he did a nice job because his hole is closed to the right and he works off the block of #89 Chris Herndon, cutting off his backside as Herndon crushes his man down inside. Cannon keeps his head up, covers up the ball, gets through the opening quick, and powers into the end zone.

This next play shows exactly what I described earlier as Cannon shows very little nuance in running the route. He is supposed to go through a play fake, which he eschews in favor of making his way out into his route. This is a pick play as #17 Charone Peake is supposed to “accidentally” pick off the ILB who is covering Cannon on the play. In his haste to get out into the route Cannon (by not going through with the play fake) messes up the timing of the play. He almost runs into Peake on his way and just basically runs out into the flat and turns around. There is no deception at all. This parallels a high school play.

In the end Cannon does a nice job of catching the ball away from his body, realizing where he is and keeping his feet in bounds. Remember this was a raw rookie in his first NFL game so the butterflies were probably the size of dinosaurs in his stomach.

Cannon is a young, speedy RB prospect who is in his infancy as an NFL player. He has a solid skill set to build upon and working alongside Le’Veon Bell could accelerate that development to some degree. He is also penciled in as the primary kick returner right now, but remember pencils have erasers so nothing is a guarantee in the NFL.

Yet he will be nothing more than a 4th option at the RB position if the Jets retain Bilal Powell. He has special teams value, but do the Jets need a 4th option at the RB position every game? With the huge amount of young running backs who will be available after the final NFL cuts I doubt that a team is going to hold a roster spot open for a 2nd year player with all of 38 NFL carries. What should the Jets do with Cannon?

Elijah McGuire

McGuire came to the Jets as a 6th round pick in the 2017 NFL draft. McGuire is a bigger RB than Cannon (5’ 10” 214 lbs) and he has more power as a runner. He missed the first 8 games of 2018 with surgery on his foot to fix a broken bone. This was his 2nd foot injury after he had one in college He still had a decent amount of play snaps in 2 years with 180 carries for 591 yards (3.3 avg) with 4 TDs and 36 receptions on 57 targets for 370 yards (10.3 avg) and 2 TDs with a 63.2% catch rate.

McGuire is not as fast as Cannon (4.53/40) plus he has poor vision. He doesn’t see the field well and struggles to find the correct opening. His 3.3 average is anemic, and his 180 carries is enough of a sample size to make some conclusions. Here is a typical play that McGuire makes the wrong read. He needs to find the hole.

On this play the Jets are pulling their RG #61 Spencer Long and using him as the lead blocker through the A gap to the right of the center. The hole is just not there so McGuire does the second best thing, not hesitate. He slithers through the smallest crease showing that power I talked about to get himself 3 yards on the play. He didn’t dance or look for another opening. He just got what he could which is not a bad play.

The difference is if he had the vision to see the whole play, there was a big gainer. He just was unable to see it. Once #55 Jerry Hughes is pushed way upfield, and Jonotthan Harrison blocks down on the left defensive tackle the entire left side is wide open with a possible TD run. Everyone get downfield to get on their blocks, and even Brian Winters makes a great cut off block on the ILB. If this play was run with Le’Veon Bell he would have jump cut left and scampered away for a TD.

This type of vision is an innate ability. Either you have it or not. It can’t be taught or learned. Once Hughes flies by, the great ones will feel the hole to the left and instinctively move that way. It is nice that McGuire finished the play strong and got what he could, but if you have that kind of vision you can make huge splash plays in the running game.

In some instances the poor rushing stats of an offensive line can be obscured by a special back. This year we need to see what the rushing stats are with an All Pro type back as compared to a 2nd year 6th round pick.

Now in the battle between McGuire and Cannon I feel that McGuire is currently way ahead of Cannon as a receiver. Granted Cannon is a year behind McGuire and possibly could surpass him, but as of the end of last year this was not the case.

This was a nice play design by the Jets with a play fake that left both RB’s wide open; Darnold had his choice of players to throw to.

This is your basic flare pass into the flat to a RB. It’s a harder pass to complete than it looks because the QB and RB are on the same lateral plane as Sam, yet Sam has to somehow put the ball on the money so the RB doesn’t have to break stride. This pass is perfect, and it is a good thing it was as it allows McGuire the ability to get his head up right away and avoid the tackle attempt by Tremaine Edmunds. There is not a lot of shake and bake in McGuire’s game. He gives a little juke then runs over the tackler and gains an extra 3 yards in the process showing his power.

McGuire is not unlike a lot of RBs in the NFL. He is a fringe NFL talent but yet has some skills to help a team. He is never going to be a feature back, but he is a cheap backup who can be a team’s power back with skills in the receiving game. He is not a great blocker and does not excel at special teams which will make it hard for him to make an NFL roster if he wasn’t rostered on the talent starved Jets.

So what would you do with the Jets if you made the decisions? There are 5 RBs for 4 spots or maybe 3 spots.

Let’s look at the options.

Le’veon Bell and Ty Montgomery are going to be the mainstays of the Jets running attack for the most part barring injury. This is a given.

Bilal Powell is a quality veteran backup who could be a quality fill-in for a short period of time. I don’t think Powell could be a bellcow back for any long period of time but a quality replacement for a game or two in a time of need. He will turn 31 in October so he has this year and maybe next (if he is lucky), but his future with the Jets is short-lived. He could be replaced if you thought you had a younger RB with upside. The question whether that RB currently on the roster?

Trenton Cannon showed glimpses of talent last year with only 185 offensive snaps on the year. It is hard to impress with so little playing time and only 55 total touches. He is a player who may develop. He is taking a huge step up in talent from Division II. He will need time to progress. Can he do that on the practice squad? He will be a distant option on the roster, and if the Jets can find some special teams mavens Cannon’s spot will not be guaranteed. Do you keep him as a fourth RB, or cut him and place him on the practice squad where he could be called up in case of injury? I could be wrong but I don’t think teams will be knocking down the door for his services if he is cut.

Elijah McGuire could be in the same boat as Cannon. In fact he could be in a worse spot because he lacks special teams value. Yet with 10 open spots on the practice squad there is more than enough room for 2 RBs who could be called up if needed. McGuire has a paltry 3.3 career average per rush in 180 attempts so the Jets could do better. Of course if you place him on the practice squad he could be replaced at any time you need the space.

With the talent the Jets have atop the RB depth chart it gives them options to maybe use a roster space for another position. A 3rd and certainly 4th RB would get very few snaps so why use a roster space on them when you have practice squad eligible players who could be called up in an instant to fill holes in case of injury?

What about bringing in a RB from another team after cut down day? He wouldn’t need to play right away with the players in front of him so it would give him time to learn the playbook.

Do we need to keep 4 RBs? An extra space for a WR or possibly a CB that is cut may be a better choice of roster space. We need to find secondary help so an extra player on the squad would not be a bad thing. There are so many options.

So what do you think should be done?