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Jets Running Backs Poised to Climb AFC Ranks

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With the 2022 NFL season set to kick off in about two weeks, teams have a final opportunity to complete the units within their rosters. This time last year, some of the groups on the New York Jets’ roster had a positive outlook and others did not have high expectations, and nearly all disappointed in the end. However, one unit – the Jets running backs – was quite the surprise, in a good way. Heading into 2022, this stable promises to be the driver of change for the lowly Jets offense, or at least provide a solid stepping stone as they look to climb in the AFC ranks.

Encouraging 2021 Performance Despite AFC Ranks

Many things went wrong the New York Jets during a disappointing 2021 campaign. Coach Robert Saleh, in his inaugural year in charge, could not save the team from a plethora of humiliating displays and an overall embarrassing output that amounted to a 4-13 record and a last-place finish within the AFC East.

Moreover, the team seemingly failed to deliver on all fronts. Gang Green finished the year 26th in produced offensive yards and dead last in allowed yardage. A deep look at the different units further reveals mighty struggles by the air raid (third-lowest completion percentage and fifth-worst collective passer rating) and the defense against the pass (third-highest allowed yardage per play and completion percentage), as well as the pass-rush and the offensive line.

The Jets running backs might be the one group that gets lost in the mix in AFC ranks. This is not a huge surprise in an ocean of abysmal figures. Yet, this unit does deserve a lot of credit for its deeds last winter, having entered the campaign with low projections and expectations to drag the offense down.

The likes of Michael Carter, then a rookie, and Tevin Coleman, seldom relied on as a heavy-workload starter, were not drivers of positivity in East Rutherford before September 2021. However, the same cannot be said about their production once the season got underway.

The 2021 Jets running backs mostly contained Carter, Coleman, and Ty Johnson, sharing carries, with a noticeable advantage for the former Tar Heel. With all said and done, New York’s rushing weapons proved many wrong, averaging 4.4 yards per run, tied for ninth-best in the league. In comparison, the group had the 10th-worst figure in 2021.

Furthermore, Carter himself posted an average of 4.3 across team-leading 147 carries, while Coleman and Johnson also registered numbers close to or over the 4.0 Y/C threshold. This makes it all the more exciting that all three assets have returned to 1 Jets Drive for 2022 at a low cost to the organization.

However, that encouraging display had its asterisks. Last year, New York had just 380 rushing attempts, the fewest in the NFL. Thus, the team’s decent average is discredited by a small workload/sample that affects how accurate it is for the purposes of future predictions. In other words, the group’s success might not be sustainable if given a heavier workload in 2022. (That is very possible for reasons discussed later in this article.) Clearly, another piece was needed to complete the puzzle as the Jets entered the 2022 NFL offseason.

Moves and Projections in AFC Ranks

Having established that the rushing stable was still a need for New York heading into free agency and the 2022 NFL Draft, the relevant follow-up is to look a how the Jets addressed that issue.

NYJ, having a lot of salary-cap space and the fourth overall pick, in addition to three more selections during the opening two rounds of the draft, only added a running back in the second round of the latter event. That was Iowa State’s Breece Hall. A low-cost option that does not necessarily promise to dominate opposing NFL defenses immediately, Hall is nonetheless an adequate response to the need for more efficiency within the faction.

Over the course of his collegiate career, Breece Hall registered averages difficult to overlook, posting more than 4.8 yards per carry in each of his three seasons in Ames. What is way more important, though, is not just that he did that in a Power 5 Conference but also that he sustained it across a heavy workload. In each year, Hall was no worse than fourth in rush attempts in the Big 12, ending the 2021 season third within the conference and 14th in all of NCAA FBS football.

This case is precisely the opposite of the situation of New York Jets running backs. Here, a large sample (on more than one occasion at that) shows that Breece Hall is capable of sustaining what was already attention-grabbing production.

Of course, that would be more accurate if Hall was to play college football for the rest of his career. As soon as he enters the NFL, his numbers are almost guaranteed to take some type of a hit. However, the Jets are accommodating him with a group of three more running backs to share workload.

Finally, should Breece Hall remain reliable and thus a season-long part of the faction, which, as explained, he promises to do, this would increase everybody else’s efficiency – and likely the unit’s overall productivity. Although a smaller sample means the outcomes are pretty much as predictable as a coin flip, running backs and units have proven to thrive in such circumstances as coaches use their players to their strengths. Much like the 49ers in the first half of 2019, or the Browns in 2020, although groups of four running backs are far less common.

Implications in the AFC Race

The Jets running backs need to improve not just for its own benefit but also to allow the offense overall to be productive. As already mentioned, the Zach Wilson-led air attack was near the bottom of the league in both passer rating and accuracy. It was this unit that turned into a setback, rather than the running game.

Despite some good offseason work by general manager Joe Douglas, who brough in Ohio State’s Garrett Wilson in the first round of the draft, the receiving corps still lacks depth. Yet, the addition of Laken Tomlinson and Duane Brown to the offensive line could provide a serious boost and get the Jets’ OL off the bottom of the rankings in that department.

Of course, the biggest concern is whether or not QB Zach Wilson will be healthy for the entirety of the campaign. Recent events indicate Wilson will be good to go for the opener against the Baltimore Ravens two weeks from Sunday. However, even if health does not remain an issue after that, Wilson’s unconvincing first-year showed that he needs support from the Jets running backs.

Overall, a more balanced offense would make the attacking output much more consistent and efficient and improve their AFC rank. Not every team can sustain a Bucs or Rams level of lopsidedness offensively. Even then, serious receiving depth – something not present on the Jets roster – is needed.

What are your thoughts on the Jets running backs and their place in the AFC ranks? Let us know in the comments below!

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Teodor Tsenov is a writer in the NFL Department of Overtime Heroics. Teodor joined the media in March 2020, previously writing for Franchise Sports UK. Also a second-year International Sport Management student at The Hague University of Applied Sciences in Den Haag, the Netherlands. Originally from Sofia, Bulgaria.