Two years ago, Jets fans sat up at night listening to Le’Veon Bell’s newly released rap album to find out the All-Pro would be on his way to New York.
Flash forward to the end of the 2020 season, and 37-year-old Frank Gore, not Bell, was the guy lining up in the Jets’ backfield. It’s safe to say this team hasn't exactly found its running back of the future for quite some time.
That’s why, as we count down to the NFL Draft on Thursday, pundits everywhere have New York selecting one of the top two backs in this class: Alabama’s Najee Harris and Clemson’s Travis Etienne.
There’s no question the Jets are one of the most running back-needy teams in the league on talent alone. Tevin Coleman, Ty Johnson, La'Mical Perine and Josh Adams make for a relatively underwhelming corps on paper. Drafting Harris or Etienne would immediately bump each guy one spot down the totem pole, making that running back room not only more palatable, but also into one of the better groups in the NFL.
So will the Jets prove the experts right and pull the trigger on a running back at pick No. 23 or 34?
History says that probably won’t be the case.
The Jets haven’t drafted a running back in the first round since they selected Freeman McNeil in 1981. They haven’t taken a running back in the top 40 picks since Marion Barber Jr. in 1988.
Of course, with each new general manager comes a new draft philosophy, but Joe Douglas’s pedigree doesn’t suggest that he’ll change course.
His mentor, Ozzie Newsome, didn’t select a running back that high in his 17 years as the Ravens’ general manager. Douglas’s one year in Chicago, and his four years in Philly, all saw his teams pass on running backs in the first round, only to draft the position on Day Two or Day Three instead.
He was also forced to assume the cap hit from the deal Mike Maccagnan gave Bell, even though Douglas was reportedly never keen on spending that much on a running back.
It’s not that the Jets’ GM doesn’t believe in establishing the run. He just views it as more of a product of the five guys at the line of scrimmage than the one guy eight yards behind it.
Robert Saleh and Mike LaFleur seem likely to agree with that sentiment. Both come from San Francisco, where Kyle Shanahan’s West Coast offense used a slew of backs to mirror the effects of one bell cow. His Niners have drafted just one running back in four years: Joe Williams in Round Four back in 2017.
Williams never recorded a carry and was out of the league by 2018.
In spite of that, San Francisco has finished in the top half of the league in rushing in each of the last three years, including a second-best 144.1 yards per game during their Super Bowl run in 2019. Those units have leaned heavily on Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson Jr. and Matt Breida, all of whom started their careers as undrafted free agents. Coleman was the lone exception.
It’s more probable, then, that New York bolsters its offensive line in the early part of the draft before adding another running back into the mix in the mid-to-late rounds.
The Jets’ offensive line ranked 29th in the NFL last season, according to Pro Football Focus. As things currently stand, the starting five on the line are the exact same five that started for New York last season. That can’t be the recipe for an elevated rushing attack in 2021, and since Douglas didn’t use the team’s cap space to address the position in free agency, he’ll likely do so in the draft.
Landon Dickerson—not Harris—might just be the Crimson Tide player most suitable to strengthen the Jets’ rushing attack. Wyatt Davis and his 5.4 40-time—not Etienne and his 4.4 40-time—might just be the more impactful player in LaFleur’s offense.
Only time will tell whether Douglas will defy prior conventions at 23 or 34 by going with a running back. Maybe he’ll couple that pick with a lineman, using his first three selections on the offensive side of the ball.
If history has told us anything, though, it’s that Harris or Etienne donning the green and white might be more likely to happen in Photoshop than in reality.
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