The running game is going to be a priority for the New York Jets
When the New York Jets brought in Aaron Rodgers, it seemed like a commitment to a pass-first offense. However, knowing the roots of both Robert Saleh and Nathaniel Hackett, that is unlikely to be the case. Certainly, Rodgers is not going to hand the ball off play after play, but the team will likely still be intent on establishing the run game.
From 2019-22, the Packers ranked between 16th and 22nd in the NFL pass-play percentage in each season. Part of that may have been influenced by winning a lot and Rodgers’ 2022 injury. On the flip side, despite the Jets’ desire to run the ball, their constant losing forced them to pass; under Saleh, they have been the third- and fourth-most pass-heavy team in the league.
The Jets’ running game fell apart in 2022 when Breece Hall and Alijah Vera-Tucker went down for the season. By the end of the year, defenses stacked the box and sent the Jets’ running game into the Dark Ages. Zonovan Knight had -7 yards before contact in the final four games of the season.
If the team is going to rebound from that, they’ll need many major improvements. There are several reasons to expect that they’ll get that help, along with a few areas of concern. Which factors will win out?
An elite quarterback-receiver combo
If stacked boxes were the nail in the coffin for the Jets’ 2022 running game, Rodgers should be able to mitigate that issue. When Rodgers won his back-to-back MVPs and Davante Adams was at the top of his game in 2020-21, the Packers faced the seventh-lowest and 12th-lowest rates of loaded boxes, respectively. Even in 2022, with Christian Watson exploding in the second half of the season, the Packers faced the 11th-lowest rate of loaded boxes.
In 2022, Garrett Wilson shredded opponents in virtually every type of coverage. The problem for him was that he did not have a quarterback who could get him the ball consistently enough. Before Wilson hurt his ankle in training camp, he and Rodgers appeared to be developing chemistry. Having Rodgers paired with Wilson could do for the Jets’ running game what Kirk Cousins and Justin Jefferson did for Dalvin Cook (who faced the lowest rate of loaded boxes in the NFL in 2022): unload the box and give running backs a chance.
In 2022, here were the league-average RB numbers against loaded boxes (defined as a play in which the defense has more players in the box than the offense) compared to non-loaded.
- Yards per carry: 4.2 loaded, 4.6 non-loaded
- Expected yards per carry: 3.9 loaded, 4.4 non-loaded
- EPA per rush: -0.082 loaded, -0.067 non-loaded
Lightening the box could benefit the Jets’ running game tremendously.
Another blocking receiver
Since Corey Davis joined the Jets, Jets X-Factor has repeatedly pointed out that his blocking excellence is a big part of his appeal. It never shows up in the box score (or even Pro Football Focus grades), but it is a critical part of the Jets’ run game plan. This allows them to run more effectively out of 11 personnel, as Davis takes the place of a tight end. That gives the offense a huge advantage with a nickel corner on the field instead of a linebacker.
Although Allen Lazard called the Jets first so he could continue to play with Rodgers, Lazard’s blocking is likely one of the reasons the Jets were amenable. The 6-foot-5, 227-pound receiver is not far from a tight end’s size, and he offers some of that same run-blocking skill. He also often blocks out in front of screens, something many receivers give a half-hearted effort for, at best.
Having both Lazard and Davis can help the Jets’ run game tremendously. When both are healthy, there are unlikely to be too many snaps where neither one is on the field. That gives the Jets the flexibility to keep both players fresh and still have a run-blocking advantage. When they’re both on the field, a run that is initially well-blocked could turn into a huge gain due to the receivers blocking in front.
Even if Davis gets injured (which almost always happens), Lazard has been durable in his NFL career. To a certain extent, he is acting as insurance for Davis in addition to being a co-receiver.
Return of heart and soul
Most fans and analysts attribute the demise of the Jets’ running game to the loss of Hall. Intuitively, that makes sense, as Hall was possibly the most explosive runner in the NFL before he tore his ACL. However, the loss of Vera-Tucker also played a significant role. Here are the Jets’ rushing stats with Vera-Tucker overall, with Vera-Tucker and without Hall, and without either one.
- With Vera-Tucker: 133 rushes, 4.99 yards per carry, 24.1% first-down rate, 8.27% explosive run rate, 66.7% short-yardage conversion rate
- With Vera-Tucker but no Hall: 54 attempts, 3.76 yards per carry, 18.5% first-down rate, 5.56% explosive run rate, 75% short-yardage conversion rate
- Without Vera-Tucker and Hall: 205 rushes, 3.64 yards per carry, 14.6% first-down rate, 4.88% explosive run rate, 47.4% short-yardage conversion rate
Obviously, the numbers with Vera-Tucker and without Hall are not significantly different than the ones without either player. However, there’s enough of a disparity there to see some impact. Furthermore, when you look at just the first three weeks when Vera-Tucker was playing at guard, the numbers are even starker.
- Weeks 1-3, with Vera-Tucker at guard and no Hall: 28 rushes, 4.36 yards per carry, 21.4% first-down rate, 7.14% explosive run rate, 100% short-yardage conversion rate
Although this is a small sample size and highly susceptible to outliers, even Michael Carter performed better in the first few weeks when running behind Vera-Tucker. Once Vera-Tucker moved from guard to tackle, though, he was not as good in the run game. Though Hall didn’t miss a beat, Carter suffered from the switch.
Guard is Vera-Tucker’s true position, the spot where he can become an All-Pro. That was his draft projection, and that’s what he showed clearly in 2022. Vera-Tucker could potentially develop into a solid tackle, but the Jets would lose his dominant upside as a run-blocker, in particular.
Getting Vera-Tucker back should help the Jets’ running game. Getting him back at guard could be a game-changer.
For now, Tyler Conklin and C.J. Uzomah are the Jets’ starting tight ends. However, 2022 third-round pick Jeremy Ruckert is having a strong camp thus far. Jets X-Factor has been pushing for Ruckert to make a case for the TE2 spot over Uzomah.
Saleh pointed out that Ruckert came in behind the eight-ball in his rookie season due to an injured foot, which kept him in a boot for OTAs and part of training camp. However, in his Week 18 cameo against the Dolphins, Ruckert dominated as a run-blocker. That left us wondering whether Ruckert could be ready to usurp Uzomah’s spot on the depth chart.
Considering that Uzomah had just 26 targets in 2022, Ruckert’s readiness as a receiver is likely not so relevant. It’s his blocking that matters far more. Uzomah was a poor run-blocker in 2022 despite being the lead blocker on so many rushes. There’s no NFL evidence about Ruckert as a pass-blocker, and Uzomah is okay-ish in that area (per Michael Nania’s article linked above). But the possibility that Ruckert could replace Uzomah would bring added potential to the Jets’ running game.
Bringing back the fullback
Nick Bawden has consistently played with the first-team offense in training camp. You have to wonder what would have been in 2022 had he not gone on injured reserve. Considering the San Francisco roots of the Jets’ offensive staff, there’s a good chance he would have made the team. In 2023, he appears to be close to a roster lock.
In 2021, on 33 rush attempts, the Jets averaged 5.0 yards per run play when Bawden was on the field. If you narrow it down to only attempts by running backs, it was still 4.9 yards per carry. That would have ranked in the 86th percentile among running backs in 2021. Although it was too small of a sample to truly evaluate, the early returns on Bawden as a run-blocker were promising. His film and his 74.9 PFF run-blocking grade (which would have been the second-best among fullbacks) indicates that he contributed to the success.
Bringing Bawden into the fold has the potential to help the Jets’ running game.
Offensive line liabilities
Despite Vera-Tucker’s return, the Jets will potentially have as many as three significant run-game liabilities along the offensive line. Connor McGovern is usually good enough in that area, although Nania did not think particularly highly of his 2022 efforts. However, Duane Brown, Laken Tomlinson, and Max Mitchell all performed extremely poorly as run-blockers in 2022. For all three of them, there is reason to be concerned about a repeat performance.
Brown played with a torn rotator cuff in 2022 and remains on the PUP list following surgery. Whether his shoulder will be fully ready to go in Week 1 remains to be seen. Saleh’s comment that Brown will be back “at some point” is not encouraging. However, even if Brown is fully healthy, his age (38 by Week 1) and history as a better pass- than run-blocker call into question how much better he will be.
Of course, Brown’s 44.4 PFF run-blocking grade in 2022 (66th of 69 tackles) was a complete outlier for his career. The year before, he had a 69.6 grade. Still, after a poor season in 2022, he could still be a big liability even if he’s healthy.
Tomlinson, meanwhile, is coming off an incredibly disappointing season as a run-blocker. That was his strength in San Francisco. In 2022, though, he ranked 61st out of 68 guards with a 47.9 PFF run-blocking grade. While the Jets are expecting a bounce-back year from Tomlinson, the very nature of his fall-off calls into question his ability to rebound. If he run blocks the way he did in 2022, it could have a large detrimental impact on the Jets’ running game.
A month-plus before the season starts, it appears that Mitchell is going to be the team’s starting right tackle. That is concerning in both run- and pass-blocking, but especially on running plays. A big knock on Mitchell coming into the NFL was that he lacked strength, which was clearly on display in his rookie year. Defensive players threw him aside in the run game.
Considering that Mitchell dealt with dangerous blood clots, it is unlikely that he had a full offseason training program. Has he added the strength necessary to improve his run-blocking, and if so, will that translate on the field?
It appears from the first preseason game that the answer to both of those questions is no.
(Mitchell wears No. 61)
How much it matters
An NFL running game is almost completely dependent on blocking. Analytics show that you can predict the yards gained pretty accurately based largely on the blocking leverage, regardless of who the running back is. Run plays with even one blown block have a very poor track record. Having three offensive linemen who are significant liabilities in the running game could be disastrous.
This further calls into question why Mekhi Becton is not getting more of a look as a starter. It appears right now that it might be due at least somewhat to his conditioning, as well as the fact that his knee is still bothering him. He needs to be able to sustain a full game’s worth of reps. Still, the truly dominant area of Becton’s game in 2020 was the running game. His sheer size and strength allowed him to bully run defenders regardless of technique.
Going from Brown or Mitchell to Becton would instantly upgrade the Jets’ running game tremendously.
ACL return history
Much of the dialogue surrounding the Jets’ running back room has recently surrounded Dalvin Cook. The underlying reason for that is Hall’s health. The running back remains on the PUP list after tearing his ACL on October 23, 2022. The Jets’ opening game will be 10.5 months after his injury, which is exactly the average time that it takes to get back on the field after tearing an ACL.
Whether Hall will be back for Week 1 is still not entirely clear. Saleh and Hall insist that he will be, and the coach said that Hall will be activated in the next couple of weeks. (Robby Sabo has suggested that Hall could begin the season on the PUP and miss the first four games.) Even if he is active, the Jets are going to slow-play him. That is why there is so much emphasis on the Jets’ running back depth, which is suspect.
It is unclear how effective Hall can be after tearing his ACL. Data modeling indicates a strong chance of a positive outcome given Hall’s age, athleticism, and draft status. Still, running backs average 18 months to get back to peak production level post-ACL. The Jets are hoping for an outlier situation, and that’s never considered a likely proposition.
If Hall is still an effective running back, even if not as explosive, that could be a huge benefit for the Jets’ offense. But if he’s 2021 Saquon Barkley (3.7 yards per carry, 3.1% explosive run rate), that will be a problem.
Suspect running back depth
The reason Cook has been on the radar is due to the uncertainty surrounding the Jets’ other backs.
Carter is coming off a miserable sophomore season after a promising rookie year. There are questions about whether he can bounce back. Knight had three strong games out of the gate but then fell off over his final four games. Izzy Abanikanda has game-changing speed, but he has questions about his vision and ability to break tackles. Additionally, considering how poor Abanikanda was in college as a pass protector and receiver, he may not see extensive action.
Michael Nania recently took some heat on Twitter for expressing a preference for Knight over Cook. I share that opinion for similar reasons. I would be fine with acquiring Cook over Carter as long as the price was low, but I do not think that will be the case. One way or another, I think that Knight has the most potential to be a reliable all-around back in 2023.
Cook, meanwhile, is a veteran on the way down and brings little upside besides a minor number of explosive plays with wide-open lanes. He is not going to grind out the tough but necessary yards, nor is he reliable in have-to-have situations. His deficiencies in pass protection, receiving, and ball security seal the deal.
I see Cook as having very similar skills to Abanikanda, except Cook’s are diminishing while Abanikanda’s can still develop. In fact, Abanikanda has superior straight-line speed (4.39 vs. 4.49 40-yard dash) and gets up to speed much more quickly (1.54 vs. 1.59 10-yard split; 2.56 vs. 2.63 20-yard split). Although Abanikanda never ran agility tests and Cook is a lot more athletic in gameplay than his 4.66 RAS would indicate, their film is eerily similar.
Whether or not the Jets do acquire Cook, their running back room is a reason for concern in the early going.