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Which free-agent RB actually makes sense for NY Jets?

Ezekiel Elliott, NY Jets
Ezekiel Elliott, New York Jets, Getty Images

The New York Jets have been linked to free agent running backs, but some make more sense than others

One of the biggest storylines for the New York Jets this offseason surrounds the health of Breece Hall.

Prior to his ACL injury, not only was Hall running away with the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award, but he was also staking his claim as the most explosive running back in the league.

Then came the dreaded news of his injury. Running back returns from ACL tears are tricky. Week 1 of the 2023 season is just 10 months and 19 days after Hall’s injury occurred. The average return from an ACL tear could take anywhere from 10 months to over a year, as Odell Beckham Jr. demonstrated.

Therefore, it’s natural that the Jets should be linked with a running back. Michael Carter and Zonovan Knight had very poor statistics in 2022, and Israel Abanikanda is a fifth-round rookie. It appears that the Jets are at least doing their due diligence on Dalvin Cook, and the rumors have been swirling in that direction.

However, Cook is not the only free agent back out there. Let’s examine the options and see if there’s any back that makes more sense—or any that makes sense at all.

What are they looking for?

Before we even get to the names, let’s discuss what the Jets would actually want out of a free agent back. At this point in the game, there are no players out there that can come close to touching what Hall did. Cook’s best days are behind him, just as they are for all of the players on this list.

What the Jets need from their back is the ability to help tide the team over until Hall can get back to full speed. The team drafted Abanikanda for his home run ability; that’s not what they’re looking for in a free agent. Rather, it’s the little things that they may or may not have: rushing efficiency, pass-blocking, receiving, and grinding out short yardage.

Carter and Knight have the ability to bring some of these elements, but they certainly did not show it with any sort of regularity in 2022. Carter cannot entirely blame the run-blocking, as he was playing poorly at the same time that Hall was thriving.

Knight, on the other hand, is harder to figure out due to the extreme split between his first three games played and his next four. The stacked box that he played with, combined with atrocious run-blocking, could explain a lot of his fall-off.

Still, it’s insurance for those things that the Jets are looking for. Michael Nania already demonstrated definitively that Cook does not have those things. He’s also rumored to be seeking a $10 million deal. That’s a nonstarter for the Jets.

2022 Carter & Knight statistics

Just for comparison’s sake, let’s put out the stats of the Jets’ two main backs (besides Hall).

  • EPA (Expected Points Added) per rush: Carter -0.190 (43rd), Knight -0.163 (unranked)
  • DVOA: Carter -9.8% (33rd), Knight -24.4%
  • Rush success rate: Carter 44% (40th), Knight 42%
  • Short-yardage (<=2 yards) success rate: Carter 38.5% (43rd), Knight 42.9%
  • EPA per target: Carter -0.083 (30th), Knight 0.286
  • Yards per target: Carter 5.33 (24th), Knight 7.14
  • Pro Football Focus pass-blocking grade: Carter 30.2 (41st), Knight 69.7
  • Pressure rate allowed: Carter 19.6% (43rd), Knight 0%

Both backs really struggled in rushing efficiency behind the league’s 30th-graded run-blocking offensive line (when weighted by snap count). Knight showed flashes of being a highly effective receiver and pass-blocker, albeit in really small sample sizes (14 targets, 18 pass-block reps). Carter had a very poor season across the board, but he was closer to average in terms of receiving efficiency.

Kareem Hunt

The Jets reportedly inquired with Cleveland about Kareem Hunt last season following Hall’s injury. They pivoted to James Robinson when the price was too high. Now that Hunt is a free agent, you’d think that they would at least check in.

However, Hunt’s numbers from last season also picture a back in pretty steep decline. Despite being only 27 years old, it seems apparent that Hunt has lost more than one step.

Here were Hunt’s underlying rushing numbers in 2022 compared to 42 backs with at least 100 carries, per NFL Next Gen Stats and Football Outsiders:

  • EPA per rush: -0.116 (30th)
  • DVOA: -4.1% (28th)
  • Rush success rate:  49% (T-28th)

These numbers become all the more concerning when considering the performance of Hunt’s backfield mate, Nick Chubb. Chubb was top in the NFL in DVOA and in the top five in EPA and RYOE per rush. That would belie the theory that Cleveland’s run-blocking caused Hunt’s decline. Hunt was also not particularly effective in short-yardage situations, ranking 24th with a 66.7% success rate.

As a pass-blocker, Hunt ranked 22nd with an 8.47% pressure rate allowed and 22nd with a 54.6 Pro Football Focus pass-blocking grade. He wasn’t atrocious compared to other backs and would be an upgrade over Carter in this area, but he’s not good at it, either.

Even as a receiver, Hunt was not all that effective. He had -0.06 EPA per target in the passing game, which ranked 29th. His 4.77 yards per target ranked 34th. In this area, he is not even much of an upgrade over Carter, who ranked 30th in EPA per target and 24th in yards per target.

There just doesn’t seem to be much of an advantage to signing Hunt. He performed poorly with one of the best run-blocking units in the league (tied for sixth per PFF weighted averages). He’s not going to improve with the Jets.

Ezekiel Elliott

Ezekiel Elliott connected himself with the Jets earlier this offseason only to have Hall shoot that down (before deleting his tweet). Since then, we haven’t heard much from the former Dallas star. Elliott certainly looked washed last season, but let’s see if there’s anything he can bring to the table.

Here were Elliott’s statistics for 2022.

  • EPA per rush: -0.066 (30th)
  • DVOA: -0.9% (24th)
  • Rush success rate: 49% (T-28th)
  • EPA per target: -0.189 (37th)
  • Yards per target: 3.72 (44th)
  • PFF pass-blocking grade: 61.1 (15th)
  • Pressure rate allowed: 4.26% (5th)

Obviously, Elliott’s rushing and receiving numbers weren’t great last year. Dallas’ offensive line was ranked 13th in PFF weighted run-blocking grade, but Tony Pollard performed much better behind the same line (12th in EPA per rush, 16th in DVOA, 22nd in rush success rate).

The areas in which Elliott could bring an upgrade are in pass-blocking and short-yardage situations. However, he’s been up and down as a pass blocker throughout his career, posting a 38.1 PFF grade in that area as recently as 2021.

In short-yardage situations, Elliott had a 71.1% success rate in 2022. That was the eighth-highest mark among backs. He also had 45 such attempts, the fourth-most. Elliott could probably help solve the Jets’ short-yardage conundrum, but he doesn’t seem to bring much else to the table.

If you could get Elliott on the veteran minimum, maybe he’s worth a shot. But that’s about it.

Leonard Fournette

Leonard Fournette’s name will always call up the image of a first-round bruiser. However, he hasn’t necessarily been an effective back in a long time. Here are the former Bucs running back’s rushing stats from 2022.

  • EPA per rush: -0.202 (46th)
  • DVOA: -8.7% (32nd)
  • Rush success rate: 51% (T-19th)
  • Short-yardage success rate: 60% (T-25th)

Tampa’s offensive line ranked surprisingly low in PFF’s run-blocking grades at 25th. Still, There’s no reason to believe Fournette will be a more effective rusher than what the Jets already have. However, his contributions in the passing game were more mixed.

  • EPA per target: 0.17 (6th)
  • Yards per target: 6.30 (12th)
  • PFF pass-blocking grade: 34.2 (36th)
  • Pressure rate allowed: 5.2% (10th)

Fournette actually had a productive season as a receiver, at least in terms of efficiency. However, PFF graded his pass-blocking as terrible despite an above-average pressure rate.

On a league-minimum contract, Fournette might be worth a shot, but that’s about it.

Kenyan Drake

Running behind the Ravens’ offensive line, you’d think Kenyan Drake would’ve had a good year statistically. That was not the case, though. Here were his numbers as a rusher.

  • EPA per rush: -0.115 (38th)
  • DVOA: -5.8% (31st)
  • Rush success rate: 47% (T-34th)
  • Short-yardage success rate: 46.2% (T-41st)

As a running back, Drake was ineffective. The Ravens had the ninth-best run-blocking offensive line, which further calls his play into question. He was not much better as a receiver or a pass-blocker, either.

  • EPA per target: -0.228 (not qualified, 43rd out of 53)
  • Yards per target: 3.42 (not qualified, 52nd out of 53)
  • PFF pass-blocking grade: 45.1 (not qualified, 36th out of 47)
  • Pressure rate allowed: 8.33% (21st)

In other words, Drake brings nothing positive to the table at this point. Hard pass.

Should the Jets sign anyone?

Honestly, when you compare the body of work that Carter, Knight, and Abanikanda have put forth, there is no particular reason to believe that any of the free agents will outperform them significantly. Is it worthwhile to add an older player who ranked marginally better in one area or another?

If the Jets’ run-blocking is as bad as it was last season, there is no evidence that any of these backs will perform any better. Other than Fournette, all the other backs ran behind above-average run-blocking and produced below-average results, sometimes significantly so.

In fact, there is a decent possibility that even a compromised Hall will be more effective than some of these players, given their poor performance in 2022.

Personally, I would prefer to bet on Carter, Knight, Abanikanda, and even undrafted free agent Travis Dye over bringing in any of these veterans. They have James Robinson written all over them.

If the Jets could get Elliott or Fournette on a veteran minimum contract, perhaps they’re worth bringing in to compete for a spot. That is the extent that I would go to acquire any of them.

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Jets71
Jets71
11 months ago

I with you 100%, none of these guys are exciting and I’d rather hope for a bounce back year from MC, than think one of these guys can recapture their old form. That said, Cook would be my choice IF they decide they want someone as insurance.

Matt Galemmo
11 months ago

What’s surprising to me is not that the Jets haven’t (and presumably will not) sign any of these guys, it’s that no one has. Is every front office now on-board with advanced analytics? These are big names and there is usually an owner somewhere that says “I want that guy.”

Throw in Hopkins, and honestly, I’m not used to this.

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