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The huge misconception about NY Jets RB Zonovan Knight

Zonovan Knight, NY Jets, Bam
Zonovan Knight, New York Jets, Getty Images

New York Jets’ Zonovan Knight is a more promising RB than you think

Take one glance at Zonovan “Bam” Knight‘s rookie-year stats and you would think the former undrafted free agent is nothing but a roster-bubble type of player for the New York Jets entering the 2023 season.

With 300 rushing yards on 85 carries, Knight averaged only 3.53 yards per carry in 2022, ranking 51st among the 52 running backs with at least 80 carries (ahead of his teammate Michael Carter by only 0.003 YPC). Citing his awful YPC, some Jets fans are not overly optimistic about Knight entering 2023.

However, when you unpack Knight’s rookie-year numbers, it becomes clear that the 22-year-old is a much more promising player entering his second season than his surface-level stats suggest. As per usual, adding context reveals truths that are hidden beneath the lies of the box score.

I am higher on Knight’s potential than most. Allow me to explain why.

His statistical drop-off over the final four games is highly misleading

Knight’s 2022 stats can be split into two very distinctive sections. His first three games were excellent and his final four games were abysmal.

  • Weeks 12-14: 15.3 carries, 76.7 rushing yards (5.0 YPC), 3.3 receptions, 22.7 receiving yards, 99.3 total yards from scrimmage
  • Weeks 15-18: 9.8 carries, 17.5 rushing yards (1.8 YPC), 0.8 receptions, 8.0 receiving yards, 25.5 total yards from scrimmage

Knight was producing at the level of an elite running back through the first three games of his NFL career. His final four games were so bad that his entire seven-game body of work sunk to bottom-tier levels despite the scorching hot start.

But was the drop-off actually due to a nosedive in Knight’s individual performance? Or were there other factors at play?

For many reasons, Knight’s decline had far more to do with his surroundings than his own play – and that is the biggest misconception surrounding Knight. Many people judge him by his poor stats without understanding the context behind them.

Over his first three games, Knight had Mike White at quarterback. White commanded respect from his first offensive drive, proving he was a significant upgrade over Zach Wilson. White continued playing well enough over his initial three-game stint for defenses to pay him a standard amount of respect.

Following White’s injury in Buffalo, the quarterback position became a carousel of awfulness over the next four games. Zach Wilson started the next two games and struggled mightily; in the second game, he was benched for the noodle-armed Chris Streveler. White returned for Week 17 but was clearly injured and performed terribly. Joe Flacco was hardly better in the season finale.

The steep decline in quarterback play from Weeks 12-14 to Weeks 15-18 caused a dramatic change to the way defenses attacked the Jets’ offense. With such horrendous quarterback play over the final four games, defenses were completely unafraid of the Jets’ aerial attack, so they allocated all of their resources to stopping the run. This did not happen in the first three games with White under center.

According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Knight faced eight-plus defenders in the box on 10.9% of his carries from Weeks 12-14. That ranked second-lowest out of the 27 RBs with at least 30 carries over that span.

From Weeks 15-18, that number ballooned all the way to 38.5%, ranking seventh-highest out of the 41 RBs with at least 30 carries over that span.

Alongside the massive increase in loaded boxes, Knight had to deal with terrible blocking from a banged-up offensive line. On many plays, Knight was getting contacted multiple yards behind the line of scrimmage. While the lineup was not much different than the one Knight ran behind in his first three games, the unit’s woes were exacerbated by the increased aggressiveness from defenses.

Combine the high rate of loaded boxes with the poor offensive line play, and Knight had absolutely no room to work.

From Weeks 15-18, Knight amassed a total of -7 yards before contact, per PFF. Yes, negative seven. He was the only running back in the NFL (min. 30 carries) with negative yards before contact over that span. Knight had 70 total rushing yards over this span and 77 of them came after contact. He essentially had to create everything himself.

Seen below are a few plays that sum up Knight’s final four games. Most of the time, he was running at a loaded box behind an offensive line that had no answers for the heavy traffic.

I don’t think it’s fair to hold Knight’s final four games against him. It was a nightmarish environment for a running back. I’m not sure there are many running backs in the league who would have significantly outperformed Knight in the same situations.

Flashed greatness with merely competent support

With merely competent surroundings over his first three games, Knight exceeded expectations and looked like a potential star.

From Weeks 12-14, Knight averaged 1.61 yards before contact per carry, which is slightly higher than the 2022 league average for running backs (1.42). The Jets recorded an average run-blocking grade of 60.1 over those three games, which, for reference, would have ranked 15th-best out of 32 teams in the 2022 season.

As I mentioned before, Knight also faced an extremely low rate of eight-man boxes over this span (10.9%, second-lowest of 27 RBs). However, that also was partially due to the Jets’ low usage of heavy personnel packages in those games, which minimized the number of situations that teams could even consider using an eight-man box.

Relative to the Jets’ blockers in the box, defenses actually used a slightly above-average level of aggression against New York from Weeks 12-14. On Knight’s carries, the Jets had an average of 6.43 blockers in the box while the defense had an average of 6.59 defenders in the box. The -0.15 margin ranked 17th out of 27 RBs with 30+ carries over this span (Knight ranked 34th/41 with a -0.36 margin from Weeks 15-18). Like Knight’s YBC and the Jets’ run-blocking grade, it’s another middle-of-the-pack ranking in a category related to RB support.

Altogether, Knight’s support from Weeks 12-14 dictated that he should have performed at an average level. Instead, he was outstanding.

The box-score stats were great: 76.7 rushing yards per game on 5.0 yards per carry and 99.7 scrimmage yards per game in total. What’s especially encouraging is that the advanced metrics back up Knight’s impact over this span.

Per NFL Next Gen Stats, Knight tied Josh Jacobs for second-best out of 27 qualified RBs with +1.4 RYOE (Rushing Yards Over Expected) per carry from Weeks 12-14. This shows that he was exceeding the expectations of his blocking by a wide margin. Knight also ranked seventh-best with 0.03 EPA (Expected Points Added) per carry, showing that his carries were meaningful and he was not gaining empty yards.

This was a tiny sample size. Three games are not enough to declare anything about a player. Knight must continue proving himself.

But the flashes Knight showed were really bright, and all Knight needed to show those flashes was mere competence from his quarterback and offensive line. His numbers tanked when the situation became nightmarish, and Knight will have to prove in the future that he can avoid stooping quite that low when things get rough. Still, it’s encouraging that he showed the potential to be the type of RB who can take an average level of support and use it to play at a top-flight level.

That is how you add value to your team as a running back: exceeding the expectations presented by the situation.

Top-flight elusiveness is an encouraging trait

How did Knight exceed the expectations of the situations presented to him? Breaking tackles.

Knight’s ability to break tackles was the most encouraging aspect of his game in 2022. On a per-carry basis, he was one of the league’s best running backs in this category.

Knight ranked 51st among running backs with 85 carries but was 28th with 29 missed tackles forced. His average of 0.341 missed tackles forced per carry was the best mark among the 52 running backs with at least 80 carries. It wasn’t even close, either – the gap between Knight and second-ranked Dameon Pierce (0.282) was 0.59, which is greater than the gap between Pierce and 12th-ranked Khalil Herbert (0.225).

Even over his rough finish to the season, Knight was still breaking tackles. From Weeks 15-18, Knight forced 10 missed tackles on 39 carries for an average of 0.256 per carry, which is just a hair behind Travis Etienne’s season-long mark of 0.258 (6th of 52 RBs). It didn’t reflect in his production, though, because many of those broken tackles were merely to get back to the line of scrimmage.

Intriguing outlook in passing game

Knight’s sample size in the passing game was even smaller than his sample size in the run game, so he still has much to prove in the areas we are about to discuss. But the early signs were promising.

In three aspects of the passing game, Knight displayed the potential to become a valuable player in the future if he can maintain his early success over the long haul.

Soft hands

Knight was a reliable safety blanket target over his limited opportunities, catching 13 of the 14 targets thrown his way. His 92.9% catch rate ranked third-best among running backs with at least 10 targets.

While Knight was credited by PFF with a drop on the one incompletion, I’m not sure I agree with that decision. You be the judge.

Other than that, Knight caught everything thrown his way.

Again, Knight has to maintain this success over a larger sample for it to really matter, but the early signs are encouraging. Aaron Rodgers loves to target his running backs, so if the Jets have drop issues at that position, it will hurt. They need guys who can be relied upon to catch the easy ones and Knight looks like he has the potential to be that player.

One reason to believe Knight will maintain his soft hands going forward is the steady progress he made as a pass catcher throughout his NC State career.

After a disastrous freshman season where he had four drops against six receptions (40.0% drop rate), he improved to two drops against 21 receptions as a sophomore (9.1%) and then concluded his career with 21 receptions and zero drops as a junior. Knight’s rookie-year success was a continuation of this trajectory.

Blocking

Knight stayed in to block on 18 snaps and was not credited with allowing any pressures. His 69.7 pass-blocking grade at PFF ranked 18th out of 90 qualified running backs.

Again, it’s too small of a sample to definitively state he is a quality blocker just yet, but he displayed good traits on film.

Most of all, I thought Knight displayed an eagerness to put his body on the line. He didn’t show any fear or hesitancy when taking on blitzers – exactly the mentality New York should be seeking from the position that serves as the last line of defense in front of Aaron Rodgers.

Just like his hands, Knight’s pass-blocking significantly improved each season throughout his college career. Knight’s PFF pass-blocking grade rose from 31.5 as a freshman, to 47.3 as a sophomore, to 62.5 as a junior. He was already on an upward trajectory in this area and then took another apparent leap in 2022.

Proficiency in the flat

During his time under Nathaniel Hackett, Aaron Rodgers’ favorite route relative to league average was the flat route. When the big plays aren’t there, Rodgers loves to take the easy throws underneath and let his guys make plays.

The majority of Knight’s targets came in the flat, and he was highly productive on those plays. Knight caught 10 of 10 flat targets for 89 yards and accumulated +5.9 total EPA on those throws, placing seventh-best among running backs.

When targeted in the flat, Knight displayed soft hands and an ability to smoothly transition from securing the ball to turning up the field. Once in space, Knight flashed tackle-breaking skills and balance along the sideline.

Overall, Knight flashed tremendous after-the-catch skills. Among running backs with at least 10 targets, Knight ranked eighth in YAC per reception (10.2) and third in missed tackles forced per reception (0.462) – gaining 133 YAC and forcing six whiffs on just 13 catches.

Concerns

Fumbles

Ball security is something Knight will have to work on. Knight had two fumbles on just 98 touches in his rookie season (both retained by the Jets), which is concerning since he had fumble issues in college.

At NC State, Knight had seven career fumbles, with at least two in each of his three seasons. He never had more than 163 touches in a season, so he wasn’t necessarily a high-volume back to justify it.

Home-run hitting

With mediocre speed, Knight will likely never be much of a home-run threat in the NFL. Knight ran a 4.58 at the combine and it showed in his rookie year. He did have the big 48-yarder against Minnesota, but other than that, his longest play of the year was 19 yards.

Knight vs. Dalvin Cook

I’m optimistic about Knight going into his second season. He showed a plethora of promising signs in his rookie year, even if they were overshadowed by the misleadingly bad numbers he posted in dismal circumstances over the final few games. I love me a running back who breaks a lot of tackles, doesn’t drop passes, blocks well, and makes plays after the catch.

At just 22 years old with low mileage on his tires, the next few seasons should be the peak of Knight’s career, and I think the Jets should capitalize on that. When I look at Knight’s rookie-year performance as an individual, separating him from his surroundings, I see a player who will be a very solid NFL running back going forward – one I would fully trust as the RB2 behind Breece Hall.

My confidence in Knight is part of the reason why I do not believe Dalvin Cook would help the Jets as much as others think he would. If we put name recognition aside, focus solely on individual performance in the 2022 season, and project future outlook based on age and mileage, I believe 22-year-old Knight will outperform 28-year-old Cook in 2023 if they played in the same offense.

If the Jets sign Cook, my take is that it would be a mistake to hand Cook the RB2 role without first giving Knight a fair chance to compete for it. If Cook proves to the coaches that he is clearly a better option than Knight, so be it – just make him earn it.

Some would contend it’s ridiculous to claim a player of Cook’s caliber has to prove himself against a second-year UDFA. I disagree. Despite popular opinion, Cook was not good enough in 2022 to be considered a slam-dunk upgrade over Knight. This is especially true when you consider his likely downward trajectory in the future due to his age and the fact his efficiency has already been declining for two straight seasons.

The context behind Knight and Cook’s respective 2022 seasons is what puts them much closer than box-score lovers realize. While Knight had to fight through impossible circumstances in 2022, Cook was in a highly favorable environment with the Vikings.

Justin Jefferson was the man demanding all of the attention from opposing defensive coordinators. They did not care about the Vikings’ run game. This is backed up by the numbers courtesy of NGS. Cook faced a loaded box (more defenders than blockers) on just 15.5% of his carries – the lowest rate among the 52 running backs with at least 80 carries. Knight had the eighth-highest rate at 38.8%.

To boot, Cook’s Vikings finished the season with PFF’s third-best run-blocking grade of any team (74.3). Other metrics paint different pictures about Minnesota’s run-blocking quality – ESPN’s run-block win rate had the Vikings placed 18th-best, while NFL Next Gen Stats’ xYPC (Expected Yards Per Carry) had Cook at 16th out of 52 qualifiers (4.4). Agglomerate the three stats and the fairest estimate is to say the Vikings’ run-blocking was probably around 10th-best, give or take a few spots.

With a league-low rate of loaded boxes and above-average run-blocking, Cook should have been incredibly efficient as a rusher if he’s still as good as people seem to think he is. Instead, he was one of the league’s worst running backs in most advanced rushing metrics.

Among the 42 running backs with at least 100 carries, Cook ranked 39th in EPA per carry (-0.20), 40th in stuff rate (23.5%), 36th in rush DVOA (-10.8%), and 30th in RYOE per carry (-0.1).

Plus, Cook has a long-standing track record of hurting his team with drops, bad blocking, and fumbles – avoidable mistakes that can be directly attributed to the RB himself and have little to do with uncontrollable variables. These are aspects of the RB position we can confidently expect to stay consistent in the future regardless of a player’s surroundings.

Since 2019, Cook ranks third among running backs in drops (19), second in pressures allowed (26), and first in fumbles (16) – his combined total of 61 across the three categories leads all running backs over the past four years.

While Cook’s high volume of games and touches over the past four years certainly hurts him in those rankings, he is still poor in all three categories on a per-play basis:

  • Among the 49 running backs with at least 100 pass-blocking snaps since 2019, Cook ranks 33rd in pressure rate allowed (9.5%)
  • Since 2019, Cook ranks sixth-worst out of 31 running backs (min. 500 touches) with 1.29% of his touches resulting in a fumble
  • Career drop rate of 10.1% versus 2022 RB average of 6.9%

The Vikings could deal with Cook’s weaknesses in these areas when his rushing efficiency was elite. In 2022, it wasn’t, so he was an all-around liability. I don’t care how many total rushing yards, total rushing touchdowns, or fantasy points he had. Throw those meaningless numbers out the window. I view Cook as a player who could hurt the Jets in 2023.

Knight’s fumble concerns make that area a wash for now, but Knight showed the potential to be significantly better than Cook at catching and blocking. As a rusher, Knight showed the ability to exceed his blocking in 2022 with his incredible rate of broken tackles and his flashes of elite efficiency when the conditions were anything but hellish.

Of course, all of this optimism surrounding Knight is just a projection for now. Knight has to prove me right by stockpiling quality reps and building on the upside he showed last year. Until then, it’s just that – upside. At some point, the production has to be there. We’ll see if Knight can use the preseason to prove he deserves consideration for the Jets’ RB2 role.

And, hey, Cook could be a productive player for the Jets in 2023. I’m not ruling that out. With a smaller role than he’s ever played before, perhaps Cook can stay fresh and be more efficient. I don’t know if I see his drop, fumble, and blocking woes disappearing, though, so my question is, how good does he have to be as a rusher to cancel those things out and still make a positive impact?

It will be interesting to see how it all plays out. Just don’t sleep on Bam Knight. There’s more potential within him than you might think. For many reasons, I am not sold that Cook would provide better security behind Breece Hall than Knight would.

I fully understand how crazy my Cook criticisms (and Knight praise) appear to most people. That’s fine. I stand by my claims and I understand the counterarguments. The fact that we can all watch the same player and have completely different opinions is what makes sports fun.

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Rich
Rich
9 months ago

Great article. I like Bam more than others, too. I was high on him in training camp last summer. He showed good burst and toughness after contact. He was our RB1 in my opinion after Hall went down. The whole operation was just in shambles by week 11. That OL, God Almighty. Ugh. Still feel for Mike White. I’m actually excited to see Abanikanda this year. I loved his college tape. Home run hitter potential.

Last edited 9 months ago by Rich
mlesko73
mlesko73
9 months ago

I’m 100% in agreement and do not want Cook here. If Knight can fit the bill so much the better.
I’ve said elsewhere, based on Cook’s metrics and shortcoming I’d rather have Fournette

Jonathan Richter
9 months ago

Just like your deep dive article on Cook, this just confirms in me that our RB room is fine and Cook isn’t worth the cap space.

Peter Buell
9 months ago

I hope the reports on Bechton being way behind and Turner being flung like a rag doll are either early season D over O or Jets D being that good because if reality we may need a good LT.
It would need to come from trade because not many teams cut good tackles regardless of depth.
One place to look may be Tampa Bay.
They are paying for that Super Bowel win with cap hell. Not so much this year but the next 3.
Depending on how much void money we will have, we might be able to ease thier suffering a bit while upgrading the roster.
Tristan Wirfs would be a huge pickup..So.would Chris Goodwin.though his cap is $8.6 and $27.5 but he also has $19,.7.5 and $3.7 in void year hits.
Wirfs hit this year is $3.7 and $18.5 the next two years. He also has void years but is much more palatable..Three years at $325k.per.
We could trade Corey Davis and Bechton. Probably cut Brown.
I don’t know if dead cap money goes to the new team in a trade.
if not it opens $20m if it does over $30.
. Worthwhile? I don’t know enough about the numbers yet but Goodwin and Wirfs makes this a much more secure team. Especially Wirfs who would fill a huge hole

Jonathan Richter
9 months ago
Reply to  Peter Buell

I’m confident in Brown’s return, and I doubt TB gives up on a 1st rd pick who is justifying the selection.

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