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Could the Jets Change Pace and Pick a Running Back Early?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 10 Clemson at Boston College Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There is buzz growing about the Jets potentially picking a running back with the 23rd pick in the first round.

Is this buzz legitimate? Who knows? It is the night before the NFL Draft. There are hundreds of rumors this time every year. Most don’t pan out. A handful do.

What makes this rumor interesting is it how it would cut against the standard operating procedure of many key figures in the Jets organization.

Offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur doesn’t have a ton of NFL experience. He has only coached in the league for seven years, but the teams he has worked for have generally not invested big resources into the position.

Here is a list of the leading rushers in NFL offenses LaFleur has coached in some capacity. You can see how the player was acquired. You can see the player’s rushing production. You can also see how many more yards the leader had than the second leading rusher. A low number is a sign there was a backfield by committee situation.

Now for the elegantly designed GGN chart...

(An asterisk goes next to players who were inherited from a previous coaching staff. Mostert was inherited from a previous coaching staff but re-signed as a restricted free agent. He gets no asterisk since the re-signing was done under that coaching staff.)

You can see that through LaFleur’s coaching career he has generally not experienced the type of one man backfield you might expect from an early first round pick. There have been lots of rotations with the second guy in the 400-600 rushing yard range.

There haven’t been a ton of big investments at running back by these teams. In fact, the Browns in 2014 finished 32nd (and last) in the NFL in cap space dedicated to running back. The 2015 Falcons were 31st, and the 2016 Falcons were 32nd. In 2017 the 49ers were 30th. You also might note the lack of early round picks. The only player picked higher than the third round was Hyde, who was selected by the previous management team.

The numbers did go up in LaFleur’s last three seasons in San Francisco. They were seventh in 2018, first in 2019, and third in 2020. There are a few caveats here, however.

In 2018 and 2019 much of that was due to an uncharacteristic big contract the 49ers gave to Jerick McKinnon in free agency. McKinnon had the sixth highest cap hit in the league at running back in 2018 and the ninth highest in 2019.

The contract went poorly for San Francisco as McKinnon never played a snap in either season due to injury. At the time they gave him the deal, the Niners outbid the Jets for McKinnon’s services. Any time you sign a player to a contract that makes Mike Maccagnan throw up his hands and say, “This is crazy. I can’t match this,” it’s probably a sign you’ve made a mistake.

This is the one big investment a LaFleur team has made at running back. One might wonder the impact that failure might have had.

Meanwhile in 2020 the Niners again were near the top of the league in total spending at running back, but the money was spread around. No running backs were top ten cap hits at the position but three were in the top thirty.

Of course LaFleur has coached exclusively in offenses run by Kyle Shanahan. Shanahan has either been the offensive coordinator or head coach in all of LaFleur’s coaching stops.

A similar theme plays out looking at Shanahan’s offensive coordinator jobs that predate LaFleur.

Now for the elegantly designed GGN chart...

In Kyle Shanahan’s younger days as coach he did have one lead back piling up big yardage with more frequency, but his teams still weren’t spending big resources at the position. In fact, it was just the opposite.

The two biggest influences of Kyle Shanahan as a coach were his father, Mike, and Gary Kubiak. Kyle worked under both as offensive coordinator, his father in Washington and Kubiak in Houston.

The older Shanahan and Kubiak worked together for years in Denver. In the late 1990’s they masterminded Denver offenses that won back-to-back Super Bowls. You could make a convincing argument they led the charge in devaluing the running back position. Their blocking schemes produced dominant run games while constantly plugging in cheaply acquired runners. Sixth round pick Terrell Davis made the Hall of Fame. Fourth round pick Olandis Gary, sixth round pick Mike Anderson, and third round pick Reuben Droughns all produced 1,000 yard seasons in the Shanahan/Kubiak Denver offense.

Denver also did use a second round pick on Clinton Portis who blossomed into one of the league’s best rushers in the system until they traded him to Washington for star cornerback Champ Bailey.

Absent both Shanahans, Kubiak coached undrafted free agent Arian Foster into a star in Houston and helped cheap free agent Justin Forsett lead the AFC in rushing in Baltimore.

Most of LaFleur’s DNA cuts against the idea of investing premium resources at the running back position.

Interestingly, Joe Douglas’ background has a similar theme. In over two decades in the NFL, teams employing Douglas have only picked one running back in the first round. That came in his first NFL season, 2000, when the Ravens selected Jamal Lewis.

Lewis was a successful pick who once had a 2,000 yard season, but that was a very long time ago in a very different NFL.

Douglas has only been part of two teams where a running back was picked in even the second round, Ray Rice to the Ravens in 2008 and Miles Sanders to the Eagles in 2019.

You might read this and think there is no chance the Jets will take a running back early under these circumstances. The general manager and the guy installing the offense have grown up in the league under people who saw little value in the position.

That could be accurate. The influence of mentors can be a powerful thing. There are a couple of caveats here, though.

The first is that neither Douglas nor LaFleur were in charge before they came to the Jets. Douglas wasn’t making the final call in the Draft room, and LaFleur’s vision wasn’t being implemented in the offense. A mentor’s influence can be powerful, but we don’t always agree 100% with our mentors. It’s possible Douglas and/or LaFleur didn’t agree with the way their previous teams invested in the position and resolved to do things differently when they got a chance.

It’s also possible that they view Najee Harris or Travis Etienne as a special talent and are willing to make an exception for them.

Now that we have talked about the influences of the people running the Jets, we can get to the question of whether picking a running back in the first round would be wise.

The answer depends.

If you want to completely maximize the value of the pick, running back simply isn’t the way to go. At other positions you can dream of your first round pick being an impact player for a decade, perhaps longer. No such dreams exist at the running back position. Only two backs older than 30 years old had more than 100 carries last year (and one of those two was because Adam Gase thought the objective of his job was to get that back carries, not win games).

There is something to be said about financial value as well. One of the great advantages of a first round pick is the player’s ability to provide impact at a steep discount. That discount is far less steep for first round running backs.

Let’s compare the discount the Jets will get taking a quarterback 2nd to taking a running back 23rd.

The quarterback the Jets select second is projected to have an average cap hit of $8.8 million over the next four years. If he pans out, it will be a substantial value for the Jets. Fifteen quarterbacks currently have a contract with an average salary of at least $25 million.

The 23rd pick in the Draft is projected to have an average cap hit of $3.325 million for the next four years. The fifteenth biggest running back contract is only $5 million.

This puts a lot of pressure on any running back picked 23rd.

Could I tell you a running back would definitive be a bad pick? No, what if this back can play at a level of Alvin Kamara, Christian McCaffery, or Derrick Henry? These are premium offensive weapons whose value transcend their running back label.

I would, however, argue that the running back would need to be a special player to justify the pick. Just being a competent back won’t cut. You don’t need to use a first round pick to find competent. There are only fifteen backs in the entire NFL with a $5 million per year contract.

Those expectations aren’t impossible to meet, but the high bar for success might tempt Douglas and LaFleur to follow the examples set by their past employers and proceed with caution.

(All cap numbers were obtained through Over the Cap.)