Offseason Outlook: Runningback

Why, hello there. I'm back after my day-long exile after posting my offseason outlook for the quarterback position. I've clearly not learned my lesson about sharing my ideas about anything, so it's time for me to share my outlook for the runningback position. In this post, I am not going to explore the fullback position; suffice to say, I'd rather have Nick Bawden than Trevon Wesco on the roster next season, but I don't care that much about looking for other alternatives.

Feel free to leave your feedback or suggestions below this post.

There are currently four RBs on the Jets roster for the 2022 season. I will begin my analysis with them in order of 2022 cap hits from highest to lowest.

La'Mical Perine, Age 24, 2 Years of Experience

I'm not going to spend too much time dissecting Perine; the Jets have made pretty clear what they think of the former 4th round pick out of Florida. He played in 4 games this season, compared to 7 games as a healthy inactive. In two seasons with the Jets, he has played in 14 games and has achieved 326 total yards (23.3 YPG) and has scored 2 TDs (none since his rookie season). He was drafted to be a spell back to Le'Veon Bell, but the Jets signed Frank Gore a week after the 2020 draft to split the load with Perine. When Bell went down early on (and was then cut after a one-game return), Gore became the feature back in Gase's offense and Perine slid down the depth chart behind two other backs, essentially making him RB4 at the end of his rookie season.

In his sophomore year, he finished fifth in touches and yardage among RBs with 8 touches (all of them rushing attempts) and 31 yards (3.9 YPC), with 14 of them coming on one carry. PFF assigns him a grade of 69.1 as a pass blocker, which is good for second on the team among HBs, but his abilities as a pass blocker aren't nearly developed enough to justify such horrid production with the ball in his hands. Perine didn't get much of an opportunity to play in Gase's offense and LaFleur's offense found several RBs better suited to the system.

Perine is going to be cut; he has no trade value and the cap charge to cut him is just above $372 thousand (the Jets could cut the charge in half by making him a post 6/1 cut and deferring the other half to 2023, but I don't think that is necessary given the low charge and the fact that the Jets currently have a lot of cap space already). I can see the Jets trying to bring him back on the practice squad if he clears waivers (and I fully expect him to clear waivers), but even then, you can't count on him being a contributor in 2022.

Michael Carter, Age 23, 1 Year of Experience

Carter led the Jets in 2021 with 183 touches, nearly double the touches that Ty Johnson and Tevin Coleman had. On those 183 touches over 14 games, he tallied 964 total yards (just under 69 YPG) and 4 TDs. He demonstrated a great sense of his environment as a rookie, his awareness allowing him to break 19 tackles by PFR's count and force 54 missed tackles by PFF's count.

Those abilities are what helped him the most as a runner, as the Jets didn't run the ball very often early in the season when it could have helped Zach Wilson and then saw Wilson become the Jets' most effective runner in the final quarter of the season. As a runner, Carter had 639 yards on 147 carries (4.3 YPC) and all 4 of his TDs. More than half of his yards (335) came after contact, demonstrating his ability to keep direction and continue driving forward in the tackle.

As a receiving back, Carter was good. Maybe not as good as we'd hoped he'd be, but you can chalk that up to having some poor weapons in front of him for much of his time this season. He took in 325 receiving yards on 36 receptions (9.0 YPR), which is somewhat less than ideal, though I would point out that for as terrible as the Jets defense was at covering screen passes, the Jets offense was just as bad at running screens. Hopefully, with the return of Mekhi Becton and his abilities as a battering ram for ball carriers behind him next season, both of those numbers will rise. What he has to work on his own, however, is his availability as a receiving option. He caught 36 passes on 55 targets (65.5 catch pct) and had 5 drops by PFF's count (though one of them was on Mike White throwing the ball WAY too hard against the Bengals in the first half).

Finally, I need to touch on his pass blocking. PFF assigns him a grade of 42.7 in that regard. I think that's a little low, but he had 4 games with a grade below 30 as a blocker and I can't really fault the grades in those games for being low. Two of them were in his first two games returning from his ankle injury, but he was still a liability in those games. He likely was not fully healthy in those games so perhaps a fully healthy Michael Carter would have had a higher overall grade, but I can't cut him much slack because he suffered three injuries in his rookie season that cost him varying amounts of time; he's going to have to work to shed the "injury prone" label next season.

Of the four RBs currently contracted for 2022 right now, Carter is the only one I can virtually guarantee will be on the roster. I wouldn't want to trade him unless there was a team out there that is willing to give up a 2nd round pick in this year's draft for him, and even then, it wouldn't make much sense to move off a cheap, effective RB at age 23 unless I were guaranteed to get one of the top RB prospects in that draft. No, I don't think he can be the next Jonathan Taylor, but if he somehow does, that would obviously be excellent. I expect him to be a featured part of the offense, though he will need to be a part of a rotation in the backfield to maximize his talents and keep him healthy.

Ty Johnson, Age 25, 3 Years of Experience

Johnson led Jets RBs in games played with 16 in 2021, managing to stay healthy when all of the others at the position either suffered an injury or contracted COVID-19 at some point during the season. The only game he missed was against the Dolphins in December, and he was held out of that game as a healthy inactive when the team punished him for having 3 drops the previous week against the Saints (killing 3 consecutive drives to start that game). He was tied for second on the team (along with Tevin Coleman) in touches with 95 and tallied 610 total yards (35.9 YPG) and achieved 4 TDs.

On the ground, Johnson carried 61 times for 238 yards (3.9 YPC) and 2 of his TDs. This is a fairly low YPC for him as a RB3, so he's definitely going to have to work on his ability to fight through contact. He only had 3 broken tackles on those 61 carries by PFR's count, but then again, his usage was more often than not between the tackles, which neither fits his skill set nor his 5'10'', 210lb frame. By PFF's count, 33 of his 61 carries were up the middle and he forced 2 missed tackles when running that way. Compare that to 6 forced missed tackles when running behind or outside the tackles on his 28 other carries. His usage doesn't get all the blame, but it was definitely a factor in his limited production as a runner.

In the receiving game, he was... well, it's hard to ascribe a rating for him as a receiver. He had 55 targets in the 2021 season and had 9 drops by PFF's total. That's a drop percentage of 16.4%... which sucks. That's legitimate grounds for not at all being targeted in a game, since you would be dropping nearly 1 in 5 passes thrown your way. Yes, I know that 3 of them came in one game, but two of them were really, really bad drops, the kind that would have gotten him benched had the Jets not had only one other RB in La'Mical Perine available on the sidelines to replace him. Beyond his drops, though, he had 34 catches for 372 yards (10.2 YPR) and 2 TDs. He actually had the most receiving yards per game among RBs with 23.3 rec YPG, slightly ahead of Michael Carter who had 23.2 rec YPG, so you could make the argument that- technically- he was the most effective receiving back on the roster. He has a great burst element that allows him to make a quick turn and sprint immediately after making the catch (presumably along the sidelines), but actually getting the ball in his possession was the challenging part.

Finally, as a pass-blocker, Ty Johnson is decidedly not the best option. In three NFL seasons, PFF has given him a grade no higher than the 50.4 grade he received in 2020, and his 2021 grade of 38.1 is probably enough to give him only a single snap per game as a pass blocker- if even that- to make sure the quarterback has the protection he needs. Even if you do that, though, you run the risk of something so horrible like the game against the Colts where- on his only pass-blocking snap of the day- he was graded with a wretched 0.5 grade as a blocker. I don't remember that play off the top of my head, but he's credited with allowing a hurry and pressure on that snap. It must have been really bad if the Jets decided to not give him another that day. He did receive higher grades elsewhere in the season, but there's a good reason the overall grade is so low.

Given his deficiencies, there's no guarantee Johnson is on the roster next season. I fully expect him to be on the roster in training camp, as I imagine that Johnson would probably not clear waivers if the Jets were to release him. They could cut him for no cap hit if they decide that his $965 thousand is too much to bear for someone who is a liability as a pass blocker, inconsistent as a receiver and coming off a career-worst season as a rusher. He has some value, but it's unclear if he has enough value to justify carrying him on the active roster. If the Jets are able to upgrade at this position for an acceptable cost, Johnson could become expendable. For now, I expect the Jets to move on from Ty Johnson once the season begins, but if any RBs get injured in the preseason, he would likely be the first replacement for them to carry onto the roster.

Austin Walter, Age 26, 2 Years of Experience

Walter was a bit of a late season surprise, playing his first game of the year against Houston in Week 12 when they used him as a virus replacement and made him active over La'Mical Perine despite the latter being healthy to play. In four games played this season, he was a somewhat effective RB, tallying 101 rushing yards and a TD on 26 carries (3.9 YPC). He was used sparingly in those games since he was the team's sixth option at the position (seventh, if you include Josh Adams), but he handled himself fairly well.

It's a very small sample size (only 12 carries), but he was probably the RB best suited to be their runner between the tackles, achieving 54 rushing yards (4.5 YPC) with just over half of those yards (28) coming after contact. That's a little strange, considering that at 5'8'' and 202lb, you'd think he'd be better suited to work outside the tackles. Maybe it's just a usage issue like with Ty Johnson, but the 4.5 YPC between the tackles is the best among all the RBs on the roster this year.

As a receiver, he gained 9 yards on 2 catches, though the catches were for 11 yards and -2 yards respectively, so his receiving abilities are undefined. He didn't drop any of his 3 targets, so he probably has sure hands.

There's not a lot for me to dissect about his play as a pass blocker. Though he had a grade of 82.5 as a blocker from PFF, the caveat is that he only had 6 pass blocking snaps. This also comes a season after he scored a horrid 6.2 pass blocking grade on 3 snaps for the 49ers in 2020. With such wildly different grades in such small sample sizes, you can't say one way or the other if he can be counted on as a pass blocker, though I assume that there's a good reason both teams gave him so few snaps in that regard.

Like Ty Johnson, there's no guarantee Walter is on the roster in 2022. They can cut him for no cap charge or retain him for $895 thousand, though it's not a stretch to say that a guy who spent most of 2021 on the practice squad and didn't get much playing time when on the active roster is likely not to make the active roster next season. Heck, the Jets released him from the reserve/injured list in the preseason and wasn't back on any team's practice squad until he returned in October. At his age, there's no reason to expect anyone would claim him off waivers given his limited production, so he'd be pretty easy to stash on the practice squad should the Jets want him there. Given all that, there's a very minimal chance he's on the team beyond the preseason next year, if he's even there after OTAs.

So given that I can only safely guarantee one of the RBs currently on the roster will actually be there, the Jets should be actively looking for RBs in the offseason to- at the very least- compete with Ty Johnson for the rotational job or even push Michael Carter for the usual starter's job. Unlike the previous list I made (and like most lists I will make this offseason), I will be including my three favorite options in two different tiers. With that in mind, let me first begin with the upper tier and list my three favorite options from it.

1st Tier

James Conner, Age 26, 5 Years of Experience

James Conner is set to enter free agency next year after a Pro Bowl season with the Cardinals. He has been a true free agency steal for them, and in hindsight, it is confusing how little he signed for in the offseason. They didn't officially sign him until the third week of April for only $1.75 million on a one-year contract. Given how productive he was in three seasons as a starter with the Steelers (one year as Le'Veon Bell's backup) where he averaged at least 71 YPG and never had fewer than 6 TDs, the fact that the Cardinals managed to get him for a year barely above minimum wage is extraordinary.

With the Cardinals, Conner had 1,127 total yards and a robust 18 TDs in 15 games (75.1 total YPG). Purely on the ground, he had 752 rushing yards (50.1 YPG) on 202 carries (3.7 YPC). The YPC number is fairly poor, but outside of LT DJ Humphries, the starting component of that offensive line has a poor run-blocking grade with all of the starters individually scoring below 60 as run blockers. Conner has 568 of his rushing yards come after contact, which is just above 75%. Behind a better run-blocking front in New York, Conner could flourish.

In the passing game, Conner is probably better than Michael Carter, both as a blocker and a receiver. On 236 passing routes ran in 2021, PFF assigns him a grade of 86.2 (best in the league among players who played more than 500 snaps, 3rd-best overall). As a pass blocker, James Conner was the best in the league by PFF's grading with a score of 88.5, with only Mark Ingram coming anywhere close with a score of 85.2 in 199 fewer snaps.

At 6'1'', 233lb and 27 years of age, James Conner is going to want to cash in on his Pro Bowl season with his accomplishments in all facets of the game. The Cardinals likely want to retain him, but it's unclear if they would be able to do so; they currently only have $18 million in cap space for 2022, so unless they win the Super Bowl and guys agree to take pay cuts to run it back, some guys have to go. With only 39 players contracted for 2022 per Over the Cap, the oldest active roster in the NFL and a likely 10 draft picks to use, they will need to get younger, and one position you always want to get younger at in this league is the runningback position.

Let me put this up front; I do not want the Jets to repeat the mistake they made with Le'Veon Bell. I don't want to set the market for a guy a year after he left the Steelers again (technically, Ezekiel Elliott was atop the market, but still). Still, you can still bring in talented backs on expensive contracts if you know what you're doing with them and can keep the cost relatively low.

With that in mind, if Conner were to sign with the Jets, I project that it would be on a three-year, $25 million contract, fully guaranteeing $20 million of that total over three years. Ideally, he would play at least the first two years on that contract and could then get cut prior to the third season, so I'd load the contract in a way that allots him the first $17 million over the first two years and leaves only $3 million in guarantees for the final year. If he plays well enough to earn the remaining money on the final year, then great, but I'm just looking for the first two seasons of production so he could support Zach Wilson as he develops into a hopeful franchise QB. Conner may get better offers elsewhere and I don't want to go too high over the $8.333 million AAV I listed, but I think that this is a reasonable offer. Still, he's likely to chase the money, so if he gets a better offer and signs for the higher cash amount, the Jets will need to look elsewhere.

Melvin Gordon, Age 29, 7 Years of Experience

Gordon is no stranger to expectations, having once been drafted in the first round by the Chargers and then signing a two-year, $16 million deal with the division rival Broncos in 2020 after a failed holdout in 2019 estranged him from the team that drafted him. He played below his usual high standards in that contract year which lowered his value, but he returned to form in the two years with the Broncos that made him want the big money.

Now, he'll be chasing a third contract. He'll be 29 before the next season begins, so it's unlikely any team will be willing to commit to him long term. Still, he has been productive for the Broncos, having back-to-back 1,000+ scrimmage yard, 10-TD seasons with them. While they do have the money to retain him, they did spend a second round pick on a RB last year, so they may have gotten their fill of Gordon.

He does fill a need for the Jets in that he provides the power rushing that they lack. 633 of his 918 rushing yards came after contact and 117 of his 203 carries went up the middle. I'd pretty confidently state that the Jets have a better run-blocking interior than the Broncos, though they are better at pass-blocking than the Jets. If he's looking for better blocking up the middle where he gets the majority of his usage, the Jets could fill that need.

By PFF's estimation, his best days in the passing game are behind him. As a pass-blocker, he's graded rather poorly since his Pro Bowl 2018 season, not having a single season since above even 50 as a blocker. The Jets likely would not want to have him protecting Wilson from rushers too often. He also only had a 7.6 YPR on his 28 receptions, so his abilities as a receiver may be on the decline. Given the fact that Gordon is not best suited for pass blocking and the fact that they probably would rather have Michael Carter in the game on obvious passing downs anyway, you would just see Gordon as the short yardage and early down back.

If Gordon were to sign with the Jets, I project it would be on a two-year, $10 million contract, fully guaranteed. You might be a little scared of fully guaranteeing a multi-year contract for a RB entering his age 29 season, but he's been very durable over the last three seasons. He missed only one game in 2021 and one game in 2020. In 2019, he missed four games, but that was because he did not report to the team when the season began amid his holdout; he remained healthy and active once he returned, getting 204 touches in his 12 games that year. He played in at least 13 games every year before 2018, and even though he only played in 12 games that year as well due to injury, he still made the Pro Bowl. If you can get even 80% of his prior production, it's still worth it if he only plays in 12 games. He might choose to sign elsewhere (even if it's for less money) for a chance to join a contender. If he does (or he gets a better offer and signs it), the Jets will have to turn elsewhere.

Dalvin Cook, Age 27, 5 Years of Experience

I'm cheating a little bit here, as Dalvin Cook is not set to become a free agent in March and is still under contract with the Vikings through the 2025 season. The Vikings, however, are currently over $9 million in the red in 2022 and need to clear a lot of cap space. I expect that they will apply a post 6/1 cut to Danielle Hunter if they are unable to trade him so that they could clear $20 million, but I also think that they could do the same with Cook to clear just under $9 million. They would first try to trade him (they don't get any additional cap relief in a trade, but could still do with the draft compensation), and if they are taking calls, I'd want the Jets to be involved. Maybe they could even swing him by trading the Vikings back the pick they gave us for Chris Herndon and the 6th we gave them.

Dalvin Cook is one of the most exciting RBs in the NFL; he had a lot of trouble staying on the field his first two years in the league after being drafted in the 2nd round in 2017, but he has been much more durable in the three seasons since, earning three consecutive Pro Bowl nods while playing at least 13 games in those years. In his last three seasons, he has averaged 314 touches, 1,652 scrimmage yards and just under 12 TDs.

He's not the best receiver, though he has a career 78.8% catch percentage, so he's likely to catch the passes thrown in his direction. He has 21 drops in his five seasons (18 in the last four, 15 in the last three), so it's not a sure thing, but once he has the ball in his hands, he has the chance to do something magical with it. Though he is coming off a down season in this regard, he has forced 36 missed tackles on receptions in the last three years.

He's not a good pass blocker, so the Jets would likely be using someone else on the obvious passing downs anyway. The Vikings got a great pass-blocking season out of him in 2018, but he has had only bad ones since, possibly due to his injury history. Cook would fill the need of the early down back, being able to break tackles (19 broken tackles in 13 games this year) even when going up the middle. That's probably the extent of his usage, though, so don't expect him to be a three-down back in New York.

Cook is already on a contract, so a trade to the Jets would give the team control of him through the 2025 season. In 2022, he would have a fully guaranteed $8.3 million in salary, plus up to $1 million in roster bonuses and incentives he could make for playing time. After that, though, the Jets could cut him after one season (if they absolutely have to, since they probably shouldn't just regard Cook as a one-year rental) for no additional cap charge. If he remains on the roster through the new league year in 2023, however, $2 million of his $10.4 million salary becomes fully guaranteed, and he would still be eligible for the bonuses and incentives that year. After that, however, there is no further guaranteed money. The salary cap is set to significantly rise in 2024, so they could choose to keep him that year for his $11.9 million salary plus bonuses and incentives (or have him agree to a pay cut like they did last year with Jamison Crowder), but the likely outcome is that he would be cut after two seasons for a maximum amount of $22 million paid to him. Hopefully, working in a rotation rather than as a featured back would allow him to remain healthy and keep him fresh for the best production possible, and if that happens, the trade would be well worth it.

2nd Tier

I'm not going to go into too much detail on guys in this tier. These guys are likely to fill only one specific role with the Jets in a RB rotation and I would not be willing to give multi-year contracts to any of them. Here are my three favorite options of this tier.

Tevin Coleman, Age 29, 7 Years of Experience

This one is probably the most likely to happen among the options on my list. Despite his age, Coleman is still a productive player, serving as the Jets' RB2 in carries and rushing yardage for this season even while missing 6 games. He also unlocked a previously undiscovered ability as a return man on kickoffs, averaging 28.8 yards per return in his first season since his 2013 college season returning kicks. He's a good spell back at a minimum and has been a generally good pass blocker in his career (not in 2021, though), so the Jets should have some interest in bringing him back.

I project he would be signing a one-year, $1.5 million contract (a third of it guaranteed) with an additional $500 thousand in per game roster bonuses. Considering that he has averaged 12.7 games per season in his seven-year career, I'd set the high bar for his appearances at 14 games. If he produces as a runner, blocker and kick returner the same way he did in 2021, this contract would be a good one.

Sony Michel, Age 27, 4 Years of Experience

I'm not totally certain Michel will reach free agency after the Rams traded two mid-round picks for his services last year and he posted close to 1,000 scrimmage yards, but we all know that the Rams have deep cap issues and have a lot of tough decisions to make this offseason. If Michel reaches free agency, he presents as a veteran option who has received close to 200 touches per year in his four NFL seasons thus far. Except for 2020 when he only played in 9 games, he's been a very good short-yardage and power rushing back, achieving at least 49 1st downs with his legs in the three other seasons.

I project that he would sign a one-year, $2.5 million contract if he were to sign with the Jets. As a former first round pick of the Patriots, he has made a bit of money during his career, so he might not be looking for just the biggest contract. A chance to move into the Patriots' division and play against them twice after they declined his fifth-year option and sold him for mid round picks from a late-selecting team may provide its own incentive to come here.

Boston Scott, Age 27, 4 Years of Experience

I don't know if Boston Scott fits into the 2nd tier or not, but he does have some qualities about him that the Jets need to add. He has the size to attack defensive lines up the middle and he has a decent ability as a receiver. His pass blocking is not up to par per PFF, but PFF indicates he is actually a fairly decent run blocker. Perhaps the Jets could use him as a fullback/halfback hybrid.

I would project him to sign for one year at the veteran minimum $965 thousand, though to make sure he comes to New York, the Jets would have to guarantee maybe a third of his salary.

Honorable mention: Jordan Howard, Age 27, 5 Years of Experience

Another Eagles RB, he fits for about the same reasons as Boston Scott, though his pass blocking is worse than Scott's. Howard was on the Eagles' practice squad for much of the season while Scott was on the active roster as a backup to Miles Sanders and Kenneth Gainwell. Scott also has more special teams experience, but I think that Howard could do well as a kick return blocker. If the Jets can't get Scott, they may try to get the other Philadelphia RB.

I would project him to sign for one year at the veteran minimum for $1.035 million, though I wouldn't guarantee anything.

My Preference

I don't need the Jets to acquire one RB from each tier; just one RB of this group will do provided that they spend a mid round pick on a RB. Considering the draft, if you can guarantee which specific RB we could get by their prospect rankings (courtesy of The Draft Network), I would say that I'd like to bring back Tevin Coleman to compete with Ty Johnson for a roster spot and draft Hassan Haskins out of Michigan in the 4th round. Since the Jets have drafted a RB in the 4th round two years in a row, I don't think it's out of the question that they do so again this year.

However, since we cannot guarantee that any RB would be available in any particular spot where I would feel comfortable taking one, I'd have to make my preference just off free agency alone. So, my preference would be to sign James Conner from the 1st tier and bring back Tevin Coleman from the 2nd tier to the contracts I laid out earlier. I would not be willing to pay too much more than I previously mentioned for Conner and I definitely won't want to bring back Coleman for anything more than the contract I projected for him.

I would still like to draft a RB to compete with both Coleman and Johnson for the third and fourth spots on the depth chart behind Conner and Carter (and what a duo band name that would be) to make sure that the spot is four deep in case one of them suffers a season-ending injury at any point in the preseason.

Bonus Options in the 2022 Draft

I mentioned my desire to draft Hassan Haskins of Michigan in the fourth round if possible, as he is a back with the size to be an early down back for this team if we don't bring in the two backs I regarded as my preference. He doesn't have much to offer in the passing game, but he is a good runner with plenty of tread left on the tires and an almost entirely clean injury history.

Another worthy draft swing could be Brian Robinson Jr. of Alabama in the fifth round. He's like Haskins in play style with more upside as a receiver, but Haskins is more proven as a three-year starter at Michigan while Robinson only burst onto the scene this past season as a starter.

Tyler Allgeier of BYU would be a solid option to bring in to reunite with Zach Wilson. He too has the frame of a guy who could drive up the middle for this offense, and he has a prior connection (obviously) with the Jets quarterback. He probably isn't going to be much of a pass blocker, but he has some value as a receiver as well as a runner. The issue with him is that I can't be totally sure where's going to get drafted; TDN currently has him as the 221st-ranked prospect while PFF has him as the 77th-ranked prospect. A third round pick is a little too rich for me and he could be gone by the sixth round, so I don't know whether he is a real option.

Finally, among expected UDFAs, I would like to bring in Master Teague of Ohio State, Snoop Conner of Ole Miss and Raheem Blackshear of Virginia Tech (go figure). Teague could be a power back, Conner could be a receiving and blocking back and Blackshear could be a receiving and off tackle back.

Thanks for reading if you've made it this far. In my next column (and I'm not doing these daily, by the way), I will give my outlook on the WR position over the offseason.

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