The Argument for Keeping Four RBs
Yes, it’s far too early to start speculating the ins-and-outs of who will or should make the final 53-man roster, but the running back situation deserves a little extra attention. Training camp and preseason performances will ultimately determine how many and which running backs stay (along with a legal issue), but assuming all the backs perform like they’re expected to it would still be wise for the Jets to have four backs stashed on the roster.
ESPN New York’s Rich Cimini reported that Mike Goodson re-joined the team in practice today, this doesn’t necessarily mean Goodson is completely safe from being released, the final outcome of his charges will eventually determine that, but it does appear the Jets think/hope the charges will be minor and plan to try and keep him. Either that or they’re just keeping him around until they can find a way to void his contract, but for the basis of this article we’ll take a leap and assume Goodson stays.
If Goodson stays the running back group going into training camp will consist of Goodson, Chris Ivory, Joe McKnight, Bilal Powell and John Griffin. The four favorites Goodson, Ivory, McKnight and Powell all bring different skill sets that could be maximized by playing to their specific skills in certain situations. Powell and Ivory share some similar traits as does Goodson and McKnight, but they all possess a unique (in this group) skill that is required for this team.
Being a bit presumptuous and projecting the most logical rotation here, but play along.
Ivory would serve as the lead back, a strong, physical and violent runner who is also remarkably quick and agile. There are three knocks of Ivory’s game though (four if you count some worry about him running without the threat of Drew Brees passing behind him), injuries, pass protection and receiving. Ivory has stressed to New York reporters that he’ll prove to everyone he can catch, he just never got enough chances to prove he could with the Saints. Maybe he can, but for now the Jets can’t count on an unknown and neither should we.
Goodson lacks the power/strength and inside running ability of Ivory, but has the speed and agility to beat defenses on the outside and is an excellent receiving option out of the backfield, he can also handle kick return duties. However he’s also not a strong pass protecter and has had his share of injury history as well (and of course the legal issues, even if they keep him he could face a suspension).
You may be thinking that brief description of Goodson (legal issue aside) sounds an awful lot like McKnight and you wouldn’t be wrong for thinking that, but there’s two distinctions to be made between the backs. While Goodson is solid as a kick returner, McKnight has been much more successful in that role (fumbles have been a problem for both), however you could certainly argue McKnight had a better special team system around him. But the best argument for keeping McKnight on the roster is his versatility and the fact that the Jets are rather thin at wide receiver. This isn’t to suggest they’ll line McKnight up on the outside, but they can certainly make use of him as a receiver out of the backfield or in the slot.
If everyone’s healthy they can line up with Hill and Holmes on the outside, Kerley in the slot then motion McKnight out to the other slot or just line him up there from the start with Ivory/Goodson/Powell in the backfield. McKnight has said new offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg has specific packages for all four of the backs and McKnight’s package includes him motioning out of the backfield and lining up in the slot.
McKnight has electric play-making ability, he just needs space to work with and he could serve as a change of pace back and a slot receiver to help shore up the depth issues at receiver as well as share the kick returning duties. As with the others McKnight isn’t the sturdiest of backs, he hasn’t missed a lot of games but he derailed some positive momentum when he hurt his ankle last season, and he holds no value as a pass protector.
There are two trends that you should see developing here, three running backs with semi-concerning injury histories (well, now make that four with Powell though most of his injuries were in college) and three backs who can’t pass protect and just like last year that’s what gives Powell the edge for the third-down role.
Powell is more similar to Ivory than he is Goodson and McKnight, but Ivory does everything Powell does better with the exception of pass blocking. If one of the other three backs step up their game in this area Powell suddenly becomes expendable and the only reason to keep four backs is for depth purposes to protect against injuries, but unless one of them does Powell has to make the roster because in today’s NFL it’s pretty important to have a running back who can pass block.
There is the outside chance that Griffin can find a way to crack the roster (or at least maybe if they decided to only keep three for the active roster they can stash Griffin on the practice squad), Griffin showed flashes in mini-camp last year before suffering an unfortunately timed injury in training camp, but his best shot at making the active roster would be to show he can handle the pass protecting duties as well as fill in when needed carrying the ball.
All of this will sort itself out in camp and preseason and it’s certainly possible that the Jets only keep three backs, but when watching the running back competition unfold it’s worth keeping all these differences and injury concerns in mind when trying to assess the best possible 53-man roster. Four running backs may sound excessive, but with the way this offense is currently constructed and the injury concerns it makes perfect sense.