Cotton Bowl hero Rhamondre Stevenson can give the New York Jets long-sought traction and power in their rushing attack.
Asset management remains a hot topic when it comes to the running back discussion in the NFL draft.
We’re well-removed from the 2013 and 2014 editions when not a single rusher went in the first round. The position enjoyed a bit of a resurgence through flashy premier round names but choices like Ezekiel Elliott, Saquon Barkley, and Christian McCaffrey have not been on a championship team just yet.
Another top-10 choice, Jacksonville’s Leonard Fournette, earned a Super Bowl ring in February … albeit in another Floridian locale while his former employers prepare to choose first in the coming draft on April 29. Last year’s first 32 nearly saw the position go uncalled again before the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs took Clyde Edwards-Helaire with the final choice.
The New York Jets are in an interesting spot with their rushing attack. How should they approach it? One could argue it might be best if they don’t, but Oklahoma’s Rhamondre Stevenson could become a tantalizing latter-day steal on the New York ledger.
Run All Night
The Jets’ quarterback situation has understandably been the center of offseason attention. They’ve made it clear that they plan to address their passing quandary with the second overall pick in less than two weeks. But no matter who lands in that spot—be it Zach Wilson, Justin Fields, or a third party yet to reveal himself—his job will be much easier if he doesn’t have to win games completely by himself and has reliable rushing assistance.
One (of the many) thing(s) that Sam Darnold was never blessed with during his time in New York was a reliable run game; their best ranking over the last three seasons being 23rd in 2020. The brutal part about it is that wasn’t an issue exclusive to Darnold.
New York’s last four-digit rusher was Chris Ivory in 2015—the closest thing the Jets have had to glory days in the past decade. Forget 1,000 yards for a moment. Even when a zero was removed, the Jets had trouble: Ty Johnson‘s breakout against Las Vegas last December was their first 100-yard showing in over two full calendar years.
The Jets tried to solve this issue with big money, hoping to recapture Le’Veon Bell‘s lightning after his 2018 opt-out. After 17 games, 863 yards, and countless rumors of strife with Adam Gase, the Jets cut Bell under the cover of a rare Tuesday night football game.
A macabre gift awaited the Jets once it became abundantly clear early that 2020 was not to be their year, players were granted consequence-free opportunities to show their stuff, prove that they could stick it out on an NFL roster. Some, namely front seven standouts like Foley Fatukasi and John Franklin-Myers, took full advantage of the situation.
The rushers could’ve done so as well, with fourth-round choice La’Mical Perine working with practice squad staple Josh Adams and the veteran newcomer Johnson. But Gase opted to instead give the prime rushing opportunities to a 37-year-old Frank Gore, even while the young projects flashed some strong potential in the latter stages of the season.
Even with Gore’s relative monopoly on the position, the young triumvirate showed flashes of brilliance when called upon. In the aforementioned December showdown with the Raiders (the good offense likely overshadowed by Gregg Williams’ doomed blitz), Johnson and Adams united for 178 yards on 30 carries (a strong 5.9 average). Perine was among the top ten in rookie rushers and was working on a receiving prowess before injuries and a positive COVID-19 test ended his season.
While promising, the triumvirate still consists of young projects. The new quarterback could use an experienced rusher to work with, one that knows that NFL grind. New York did that and then some with the addition of Tevin Coleman, a multi-faceted rusher that knows that championship feeling through participation in two Super Bowls. Contrasting the four-year, $52.5 million deal bestowed to Bell, Coleman inked a one-year contract worth $2 million, his payday likely lowered through an injury-plagued 2020 campaign.
Everyone knows what the Jets plan to do with their second overall choice, but their other first-round pick, the 23rd choice yielded from the Jamal Adams trade has raised further questions. Some have theorized that national champions like Travis Etienne and Najee Harris could show up in the slot, but the Jets would be far better off using the choice on a blocker or another playmaking receiver.
The addition of Coleman allows them the luxury of not worrying about the running back situation in the first round. Recent trends show that using high capital on running backs doesn’t often lead to success. Of the then highest-paid running backs in 2020, only two (Derrick Henry and Mark Ingram) partook in postseason action. The Jets haven’t taken a rusher within the first two rounds of a draft since LaMont Jordan in 2001 and their last rusher chosen in the top round was Blair Thomas in 1990. There’s no need to break that trend this time around.
The Jets may still look to bolster their rushing room a bit, but Coleman and the projects allow them to be patient in terms of adding more talent. Rhamondre Stevenson of Oklahoma could be the solution that works on several fronts.
Stevenson has often appeared in the latter stages or at the cusp of the top 100 on many bigger boards, meaning he’ll likely go late in the Friday portion of the draft or early in the Saturday session. His progress up the professional draft board was likely hindered by only two years of major football (having joined OU as a JUCO star from Cerritos College), a tenure that was further shortened by a suspension for an unspecified offense.
But when Stevenson was on the field, he was guiding the Sooners to major victories. He notably created bedlam in … well, Bedlam … when he put up a game-best 195 yards from scrimmage in a 41-13 victory over Oklahoma State. After a strong day against Iowa State in the Big 12 title game (133 yards, another game-best), Stevenson saved the best for literal last, torching the Florida Gators for a jaw-dropping 186 yards on the ground in a surprisingly one-sided Cotton Bowl Classic triumph.
While the Jets have Coleman and an intriguing trio of projects to develop in their current rushing room, Stevenson is a proven talent who knows how to work in high-profile situations. That’s an area the Jets, working on a decade-long playoff drought, worked on this offseason through the signings of Coleman, Corey Davis, and Sheldon Rankins. Through the drafting of a Big 12 offensive star like Stevenson, they can continue that endeavor through the unlikely source of the draft.
Full House/Scheme Fit
The art of the fullback is a lost treasure in the modern NFL. Gone are the days of Mike Alstott, Daryl Johnston, Lorenzo Neal, and Tony Richardson. But while it’s an endangered species, the fullback is still used by a number of contending teams.
Derek Watt made a name for himself in Pittsburgh. His divisional rival in Baltimore, Patrick Ricard, has reached consecutive Pro Bowls. Robert Saleh and Mike LaFleur enjoyed working with Kyle Juszczyk over the past few seasons in the Bay Area. Alas for the Jets, the free agent Juszczyk was among San Francisco’s top offseason priorities, but there’s a prime opportunity to work with one should they add Stevenson to the fold.
The Jets haven’t regularly worked with a fullback since Richardson worked with them for three seasons (which followed several years of working with Richie Anderson), the latter two ending in the AFC title game. Attempts have been made to revitalize the spot (Lex Hilliard, John Conner), though none truly stuck. Gase’s system embarked on its own endeavor, briefly toying with tight end Trevon Wesco in the spot before abandoning the idea in the early stages of last season. Should they work with Stevenson, they can create a more stable goal-line situation and be a threat both on the ground and through the air.
The Sooner’s size and strength (weighing in around 230-245 pounds.) has had some scouts and analysts potentially viewing him as a fullback to work with. Stevenson himself has turned down the idea of lining up as a fullback, saying that no coach has spoken to him about such a role in a report from Ryan Chapman of SI.com. ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr., however, felt otherwise.
“When you look at Rhamondre Stevenson, he’s got running back skills on that big fullback-type of frame. Just amazing, with his feet and his agility, for a big guy,” Kiper said in March, according to Chapman’s report. “But you feel like he could be a combo-type guy. Possibly he could. I think he goes early Day 3 and you can figure him out when he gets in the league. But certainly he’s gonna make a roster, he’s gonna help you and he had a really good year. I think he’s one of those early Day 3 picks.”
Then there’s the issue of scheme fit. Stevenson doesn’t have much experience in the zone scheme. He’s a big boy who projects better as a gap ball-carrier, yet inside-to-mid-zone intrigue is there.
Stevenson’s 79.5% adjusted success rate in the zone scheme, per Dynasty Nerds, provides optimism that he could possibly fit into the Jets’ new-look offense. The problem is that he only had 11 observed opportunities in the scheme this past season. Although the football world is expecting the Jets to run a ton of wide zone, it’s not as if inside zone and gap schemes will be completely ignored, and Stevenson could do well on inside-zone opportunities.
In the end, the first year under Robert Saleh and Mike LaFleur is going to be one where the Jets have the most wiggle room. They’re working with a new staff and there shouldn’t be many playoff expectations to worry about. They can work with their projects, confirmed and theorized, with a coach that seems more likely to build homegrown talent.
Drafting Stevenson with their extra capital in the latter days could lead to something both interesting and fruitful from a gridiron standpoint.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags
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