July 28, 2021

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Jets running back options in NFL free agency, 2021…

4 min read
Jets running back options in NFL free agency, 2021...


Two years ago, the Jets signed Le’Veon Bell to a monster free-agent contract hoping that he would solve some of their offensive problems.

Two years later, that decision now looks laughable. Bell did not make it through two years with the team before it released him in October as unhappy as he was unproductive with the Jets. 

Now, the team faces a decision at running back again this offseason.

While most of the focus is on who the Jets’ quarterback will be in September, that quarterback is going to need a good running game behind him. It is something the Jets have failed to build in recent years and one of the contributing factors in Sam Darnold’s struggles.

The Jets have not finished better than 23rd in the NFL in rushing in Darnold’s three seasons. During his time with the Jets, the team has had a 100-yard rusher just three times. New offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur comes from the Kyle Shanahan system that emphasizes outside zone running concepts and play-action passes off of them. It is critical for the Jets to improve their rushing attack this offseason.

But how do the Jets go about that? Obviously, they must upgrade an offensive line that only has left tackle Mekhi Becton as a long-term answer. But they also must add to the running backs room where La’Mical Perine enters his second season as an unknown and not someone you can pencil in as an every-down back.

There are some intriguing backs scheduled to hit free agency, but will the Jets go down that road again? Former general manager Mike Maccagnan signed Bell to a four-year, $52.5 million contract in 2019 over the objections of former coach Adam Gase. The marriage felt doomed from the start and Bell did not rush for 100 yards once in a Jets uniform. Bell is one of many cautionary tales about signing running backs to big-money deals. The league has shifted away from paying running backs and toward finding answers in the draft.

The top running backs scheduled to hit free agency on March 17 are Aaron Jones, Chris Carson, Leonard Fournette and Kenyan Drake. There are also a few who played in San Francisco and have familiarity with LaFleur and new head coach Robert Saleh. Jerick McKinnon, Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida all played for the 49ers and could be cheaper than the top-of-the-market backs.

The more likely course of action for the Jets is to try to find a back in the draft. The Jets have not drafted a running back in the top two rounds since taking Lamont Jordan in the second round in 2001. It has been 31 years since the Jets drafted Blair Thomas, the last back they took in the first round. They picked Thomas out of Penn State with the No. 2 overall pick in 1990. No one is suggesting the Jets use the No. 2 overall pick on a back this April. But taking a back with their second first-round pick (No. 23 overall) might make sense. Clemson’s Travis Etienne and Alabama’s Najee Harris are viewed as late first-rounders. 

Jets running back options Travis Etienne NFL Draft 2021
There are running back options for the Jets in NFL free agency, like Aaron Jones (l.), and in the NFL Draft, like Travis Etienne (r.)
Getty Images; Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Whatever Joe Douglas decides, it is clear he needs to finds some answers at running back. The Jets averaged 105.2 yards on the ground in 2020 and that was good compared to 2019 (78.6 ypg) and 2018 (101.4 ypg). LaFleur brings the Shanahan offense east with him so it makes sense to look at the 49ers as the model for what the Jets want to do. The 49ers rode their rushing attack to the Super Bowl in 2019, averaging 144.1 yards per game, the second-best average in the league. Who can forget Raheem Mostert rushing for 220 yards in the NFC Championship game against the Packers?

That was one of 12 times a 49ers running back gained at least 100 yards in the last three seasons. The 49ers have had 35 games with at least 100 yards rushing since 2018, the sixth-most in the league. The Jets, on the other hand, have only topped 100 yards 18 times in 48 games, tied for 30th in the NFL with the Steelers. Only three Jets running backs have rushed for 100 yards in a game since 2018 – Isaiah Crowell twice in 2018 and Ty Johnson last year against the Raiders. 

Douglas’ to-do list is a long one this offseason, but improving the running game should be near the top. 

https://nypost.com/2021/02/28/jets-running-back-options-in-nfl-free-agency-2021-nfl-draft/