Over the next few months, we’re taking an in-depth look at each of the Jets’ rookies. However, before we start looking at the undrafted free agents, we have one more veteran addition to review in running back Austin Walter.
The 24-year old Walter is listed at 5’8” and 202 pounds and was undrafted out of Rice in 2019. He has played in five games in his NFL career, touching the ball twice on offense and also contributing on special teams.
Walter was a three-star high school recruit and eventually committed to Rice along with his twin brother.
During his first two seasons, Walter averaged over five yards per carry, totaling 780 yards and five touchdowns. He also caught 20 passes for 59 yards and two more scores.
In 2017, he moved from running back to wide receiver, although he continued to see plenty of work in the backfield, rushing for 400 yards and four scores. He caught 18 passes for 219 yards and a touchdown in his new role and was named as an all-Conference USA honorable mention.
Walter remained in a dual role in 2018, setting a career-high by rushing for 564 yards and four scores and also catching 44 passes for 525 yards and two more scores. He also posted the best numbers of his career as a return man with an average of over 27 yards per return. He was once again an all-conference honorable mention.
After going undrafted in the 2019 draft, Walter was initially unable to get a contract offer, but the 49ers signed him after he impressed them at a tryout. He played in four games for them in preseason, rushing for 125 yards and a touchdown and catching six passes for 40 yards.
He was released in final cuts by them but did spend time on the Giants’ practice squad and was activated by them for one game to make his pro debut, although he was only on the field for one play.
Walter then spent some time with the Dallas Renegades of the XFL, performing well as a kickoff returner and registering 50 yards on six offensive touches.
The 49ers re-signed him to their practice squad in September and he ended up playing four games for them during which time he returned kickoffs and had two touches for 30 yards on offense.
Walter initially signed a one-year extension with the 49ers in February but was then waived in May and claimed by the Jets.
Now let’s take a look at what Walter brings to the table, divided into categories.
Walter is extremely small. Despite his listed height, he actually measured in at less than 5’7” at his pro day.
Some of his pro day numbers were okay - he had a 4.54 in the 40-yard dash and a 6.75 in the three cone drill - but others were underwhelming, including a 31-inch vertical and 15 bench press reps.
He did manage to run a sub-4.5 at the regional combine shortly before his pro day, though.
Walter started off his college career as a conventional running back and that’s how he was used by the 49ers but he did add another string to his bow with his move to wide receiver while at Rice.
In his junior year, Walter played most of his snaps on the outside. However, in his senior year, it was in the slot where his snap count was highest.
Walter shows excellent burst and accelerates quickly, which can make him effective on outside runs.
However, he also has the ability to cut back decisively, enabling him to also be effective between the tackles, especially in the kind of zone-based system the Jets and 49ers use which will aim to spread out the defense.
He displays good balance with his center of gravity close to the ground and makes quick changes of direction.
Walter may not bring much in the way of power, but does possess the ability to slip tackles because he’s elusive and small, so it’s not easy to get a clean hit on him when he’s moving at speed.
Walter barely averaged three rushing touchdowns per season at Rice, so he’s not really much of a threat close to the goal line, although he has had some short yardage conversions with the 49ers, most of which have been on outside runs.
He goes over the top on this touchdown run, just about breaking the plane for his lone preseason score.
Walter’s experience at the wide receiver position mean that he can perhaps bring one or two extra things to the position that you don’t usually see from a young running back, although most of his production at the NFL level so far has just been on dump-offs.
His route running experience is obviously going to be better than any college running back that hasn’t played at the wide receiver position and he displays that here, gaining separation with a sharp jab step and tracking the ball well over his shoulder.
Drops haven’t usually been a big issue for Walter, although he did have five in his senior year. On this play he drops the pitch but then gets the ball out of bounds in case it’s ruled a lateral.
Walter showed some improvement in pass protection over the course of his college career. In his first two seasons, he gave up three sacks, but he gave up just two pressures and no sacks in 50 pass blocking reps in his final year.
Walter’s lack of size could be an issue if he’s required to pick up the blitz at the NFL level, though. That manifested itself on this play.
Having lined up outside and in the slot a lot, Walter also has more run blocking experience than most running back prospects, but he never graded out particularly well in that role.
Walter has some good experience as a kickoff returner, which might represent his best chance of earning a role on the 2021 Jets.
His numbers for his first three years in college were underwhelming but he averaged 27.3 yards per return in his senior year. He then went on to have some good success in the XFL.
He also saw limited work in this role with the 49ers and had a couple of good returns although his overall numbers were underwhelming.
In addition to his return duties, Walter has also covered kicks, rushed punts and been used as a blocker on return units, but hasn’t made any significant contributions in any of these roles.
Walter seems to have good vision and the decisive style that will be necessary to have success within the Jets’ new system. He is particularly adept at seeing downfield, so he doesn’t just hit the hole and get tackled at the second level and can make a cut to avoid a tackler in space.
On this play, the wide receiver blocks down but is driven back off his spot but Walter reads this and is able to get outside but can still cut back to get to the marker.
He may still need some work on his instincts in terms of the passing game, whether that is blocking or running routes. On this play, he didn’t seem to be expecting the ball and it led to an interception.
Walter has had no penalties at the NFL or XFL level and his only penalty in college was for an illegal shift in his freshman year.
Walter is obviously a determined player, who has shown a team-first attitude in his willingness to try out various different roles.
At the end of the 2019 season, he reportedly turned down the opportunity for a futures deal, saying that he wanted a chance to prove himself and that’s why he joined the XFL. Having done so, he wasn’t invited to any training camp for 2020, but the gamble paid off as he got his shot with the 49ers early in the regular season.
Walter doesn’t seem to have had any injury issues so far in his career, although he did spend 11 days on the Covid-19 reserve list last season.
Walter has obviously been identified as a good fit for the Jets’ system and has experience of playing in it because he played in San Francisco. The fact that they signed him twice suggests they also viewed him as a potential fit and his skill-set would seem to confirm this.
In addition to having been coached by a staff that included the likes of Robert Saleh, Mike LaFleur and John Benton, Walter has been teammates with Tevin Coleman, Ronald Blair and Matt Cole.
A late addition such as this would usually be viewed as an extreme long-shot to make the team but Walter’s special teams ability, coupled with the fact that the Jets have an open competition for playing time at running back, gives Walter a slim chance.
If there are injuries, he’ll have to make the most of his opportunities and will need to make some impact plays in preseason to prove himself. Otherwise, he could be an interesting project with his experience at multiple positions, so the Jets may opt to keep him on the practice squad if they feel he has untapped potential.