In continuation with our positional breakdowns of potential NFL Draft prospects for the New York Jets, we turn our attention to a position of great need for a team that struggled mightily to generate any type of offensive excitement in 2012, running back. Today, our draft team provides a breakdown of the top five potential targets that could be selected by the Jets in April’s draft. These initial rankings are certainly subject to change as we progress through the entire pre-draft process, but as it stands now, these players are who we feel would be the best options for New York at running back. Be sure to give our draft team a follow on Twitter, and to check out our previous breakdown of potential quarterback targets for the Jets.
The running back position for the New York Jets in 2012 was, to put it nicely, abysmal. Shonn Greene flashed some quality against inferior defenses, but when put to the test of a contending defensive unit, he revealed himself as having nothing more than the ability of an average secondary option, capable of complementing a strong lead back. Greene will enter free agency when the new league year begins in March, and will likely be looking for a contract that exceeds his actual value to a team. Since the Jets are going to be operating on a relatively tight budget this season, it is more than likely that Greene will be allowed to walk to another team. While he is surely a capable 1B option, Bilal Powell remains under contract with the Jets at a much cheaper cost and is essentially just as effective, if not more so, than Greene in that role. Financially, depending on Powell to fill the 1B role, while letting another team pay Greene is the smartest, most realistic option for Gang Green this season.
So the question remains, where do the Jets turn to fill the void for that coveted 1A back? Earlier this week, we took a look at some potential scenarios that could play out as we move into the coming months. Looking ahead to the 2013 NFL Draft, the class of running backs may not posses a name that jumps off the sheet as the next Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, Arian Foster, or any other premier NFL running back, but this group is deceptively deep, with a very good amount of talent throughout. Running backs in today’s NFL, with the exception of the players aforementioned and a few more, are generally viewed as one of the most disposable pieces of the roster.
However, as we saw this past season, a quality lead back can help an offense that struggles in a variety of places to overachieve. Minnesota had a very subpar passing game, but was able to earn a playoff bid on the back of Adrian Peterson. Marshawn Lynch aided the development of rookie quarterback Russell Wilson by giving the youngster a strong running game to lean on. Doug Martin, Alfred Morris, and a few others has similar effects on their respective offenses. An emergence of a strong running game in New England has made the Patriots offensive attack arguably the greatest we have seen in recent years, while the lack thereof in Green Bay handcuffed a team with an exceptional quarterback. While the league is certainly driven by quality signal callers, the running back position is still very much a vital piece to a successful offense.
That being said, the direction that the Jets decide to go in at the position, personnel wise, remains dependent on the hire at offensive coordinator, as does the majority of the offensive roster. However, there are certainly some names to keep an eye on as of right now that are sure to be appealing to any coordinator, regardless of scheme.
1.) Eddie Lacy, Alabama - 2012 stats: 204 attempts, 1322 yards, 6.5 YPC, 17 TD - Lacy has put together a very impressive career at Alabama, netting nearly 7.0 YPC over his three seasons as a member of the Crimson Tide. Having spent his first two seasons underneath Heisman trophy winner Mark Ingram, and 2012 3rd overall pick Trent Richardson, respectively, Lacy emerged this season as a dominant force leading the Tide to a national championship. At 6’1 220 lbs, Lacy has the size of a prototypical power back, but possesses the top end speed and elusiveness of a dangerous speed back. In short, Lacy is arguably the most well rounded running back in his class. He maintains elite balance, while showing great vision and patience in waiting for his blocks to develop, giving him an excellent advantage. A very strong showcase in the National Championship game has boosted Lacy’s draft status over recent weeks, and an expected impressive showing at the scouting combine should propel him even higher. Depending on how the next few weeks play out, Lacy could be out of the Jets reach, unless, perhaps, New York trades down from the 9th overall selection to select him in the later half of round one, where he would currently hold more value.
2.) Giovani Bernard, North Carolina - 2012 stats: 184 attempts, 1228 yards, 6.7 YPC, 12 TD - Bernard has put together an impressive two seasons at UNC, having averaged over 5 YPC in each of them, including the astounding 6.7 this past year. Bernard is widely regarded as the top back in this class, and for good reason. Bernard has excellent speed and lateral quickness, coupled with fantastic vision and burst. Beyond that, he is a very capable pass blocker, while remaining a viable option as a passing target. He has the ability to take a check down pass for a larger chunk of yards than most backs would, and is certainly not afraid to stick his nose into pass pro. These aspects of his game cannot be valued. A back with the ability to be effective as both a blocker and receiving option in the pass game will keep defenses honest and unsure of any tendencies. Bernard certainly has the body of someone who will be a durable NFL back, displaying tremendous bulk, particularly in his legs. Bernard should perform very well in each of the pre-draft events, and is poised to be one of the first three backs taken this year. He would be a reach for the Jets at the 9th pick, but perhaps a trade down in the first, or a trade back into the bottom half of the first round would allow New York to get their hands on him.
3.) Le’Veon Bell, Michigan State - 2012 stats: 382 attempts, 1793 yards, 4.7 YPC, 12 TD - Bell is a player who may fly under the radar a bit, coming from a conference like the Big Ten, but make no mistake, Bell is a premier name in this year’s crop of running backs. His immense size (6’2″ 244 lbs) combine with fantastic strength, making him a nightmare to bring down in the open field. Conversely, he is deceptively elusive which gives him an edge that most backs at his stature do not posses. These tangibles give Bell a rare skill set, one that could translate tremendously to the NFL. He is one of the rare prospects, like Lacy, that has the ability to run through defenders, or make them miss with his surprising agility. The pre-draft events will be crucial for Bell. While his film shows a highly productive player with great potential, there are certainly questions on his top end speed, primarily concerning whether or not he will be able to break through the second level for a big gain in the NFL. If Bell, a known workhorse in his training regiments, can post a good 40 yard dash, while displaying the elusiveness and agility that his film shows in the combine drills, he may find himself as an early to mid second round pick, among the first few backs taken. He could very well be available when the Jets select in the 2nd round. His performance over the next few weeks will determine whether or not he will be worthy of that selection.
4.) Montee Ball, Wisconsin - 2012 stats: 356 attempts, 1830 yards, 5.1 YPC, 22 TD - Similar to Bell, Ball is a back who may get a bit overlooked due to the school he played his collegiate football for. However, Ball has been immensely productive throughout his career as a Badger, totaling an astounding 77 rushing touchdowns over his four seasons. At 5’11″ 210 lbs, Ball certainly has the size of an NFL lead back, with elite speed and elusiveness separating him from the average player at his position. While Ball doesn’t have elite strength to carry defenders for extra yards, he does have great tenacity as he has shown he is not afraid to initiate contact with a defender, and will always fight for extra yards after contact. He is average at best in the passing game, but his intangibles will allow him to be coached up in the area at the next level. Ball should available anywhere between the 2nd and 3rd rounds, and depending on how the board plays out, could be a great selection for New York. He has the ability to step in as the opening day starter next season, with Powell or a free agent addition serving the role as the 1B back.
5.) Kenjon Barner, Oregon – 2012 stats: 278 attempts, 1767 yards, 6.4 YPC, 21 TD - Barner faces question marks surrounding how he may translate to a pro-style offense, having come from Chip Kelly’s read option system at Oregon, but he very well may be the fastest of all of this year’s backs. Barner is a tremendous big play threat in both the running and passing games, as he has displayed countless times during his tenure at Oregon, where he posted a 6.0+ YPC average in each of his four seasons as a Duck. A dual-sport athlete in college, Barner also excelled on the track team, while maintaining a strong enough training regiment to prepare him for each year’s football season. Coaches and teammates rave about his work ethic on and off the field, and for a team in need of offensive leaders, Barner could fit the bill. While it is unlikely he will be able to be an every down back at his size, he would be an excellent complement to a bigger running back, perhaps a free agent addition (Chris Ivory, anyone?), while growing into a larger role down the road. As it stands now, Barner is likely grading out in the 2nd-4th round range, but his 40 time at the combine could blow scouts away and propel him toward the top of the 2nd round.
Wild Card – Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina – 2012 stats: 143 attempts, 662 yards, 4.6 YPC, 11 TD - Lattimore was widely regarded as the premier back in this year’s class, however a gruesome knee injury ended his 2012 campaign short. Despite potentially being a mid to late round pick, as a result of concerns over how well his knee may heal, Lattimore has decided to enter the 2013 NFL Draft. This is a very intriguing situation. When healthy, Lattimore is head and shoulders above any of his counterparts. He has the prototypical size needed for an elite every down back at the next level, with top end speed far above average. Lattimore is extremely tough, and has a tremendous amount of versatility. He is very elusive for a back with his size, and his vision and patience is second to none. He has the best natural running instincts out of anyone in this class, and has a combination of size, power, agility, and speed that can make him an elite back in the NFL. The knee concerns are very real, however. It is unclear how far along he is with his recovery at this point, but rest assured that NFL scouts will be paying close attention to his medical progress as April draws near. With his stock likely to fall due to concerns over his knee, Lattimore could potentially be the biggest steal of the draft if he gets back to full strength next season. If he is there in the middle rounds, the Jets would be wise to take a flier on him, if he shows promising recovery progress.
3rd or 4th round
6th, 7th, FA
1 – Stepfan Taylor has been a 3 year starter at Stanford while accumulating some impressive stats. As a true sophomore, he had 1,137 yards and 15 touchdowns. His Junior and Senior years he exploded with 1330 yards and 1530 yards, respectively. He averaged 5.2 yards per carry over his junior and senior years while marching in for 23 touchdowns. He shows some versatility out of the backfield while catching passes, along with a good mix of speed and strength, and is definitely capable of being a 3 down back. Taylor has the best chance of being a true workhorse for the Jets next year. Taylor is also good in pass protection, which is clearly a benefit. For value, I think the Running back from Stanford will provide the best results. He is somewhat of a sleeper and can be had in the 3rd, possibly 4th round
2 - If Eddie Lacy is available in the top of the 2nd round, the Jets should draft him.. Lacy is, in my opinion, the best running back available in the draft. He played in the hardest conference and rushed for 1,322 yards, averaged 6.4 a carry and had 17 touchdowns. That is impressive, but he was running behind one of the best, if not the best, offensive line in the country. (That is all well and good because hopefully we can draft Chance Warmack at #9 and find a solid right tackle to shore up the O-line for next year.) Lacy also caught 22 passes for 189 yards and 2 touchdowns this past year. He has good speed and even better strength. If he is available at #39 overall, yes please.
3 - Le’Veon Bell is the same guy in stature as Shonn Greene. But that is where the similarities end. Bell weighs about 10-15 pounds more than Shonn but is much quicker. Not only is he quicker, he is stronger and actually makes people miss. He is quite the anomaly. Another 3rd or 4th rounder that will provide great value.
4 – Giovani Bernard has carried the UNC Tar Heels the last two years. Both years he had at least 1.200 yards and 45 receptions out of the backfield. He averaged 5.24 and 6.7 yards per carry over the past two years, respectively, while having at least 14 total touchdowns each year. Not only being consistently good, he has the speed and ability to break off big runs and make people miss in open space. He can also return punts and did so with success this past year.
5 – Marcus Lattimore. While recovering from another gruesome knee injury, The Jets should consider taking a flier on Lattimore. When he is healthy, he has been one of the best, if not the best running back in the NCAA. He really has it all but just has to stay healthy.
With Shonn Greene and Gang Green likely parting ways this offseason, April’s NFL Draft is the perfect time for the Jets to find a versatile running back with big play speed. Bilal Powell should be back, and after a vastly improved 2012 season he’ll likely return with some anticipation. While he may or may not be feature back material, it’s fairly obvious to anyone watching that he can, at the very least, do what Greene has done in the No. 1 role. But Powell clearly won’t be able to do the job alone, and Joe McKnight hasn’t proved capable of an increased workload thus far, which means the Jets must address the running back situation either in free agency or the Draft.
1 – Giovani Bernard (UNC, 5’10”, 205 lbs): The sophomore RB might be off the board when the Jets get ready to pick in the second round, thanks in large part to his big play ability out of the backfield both as a runner and a receiver. Bernard is a hard runner who keeps his legs moving and consistently gains yards after first contact. The UNC ‘back shows patience at the line of scrimmage, a quick burst through the hole, and devastating moves in open space.
Despite some questions regarding the level of competition in the ACC, racking up over 1900 all-purpose yards (6.7 yards per carry, 10.4 yards per catch) and 19 touchdowns, is hard to ignore. Combine his abilities out of the backfield with great punt return skills and Bernard could be one of the most versatile Jets since Leon Washington.
He’s my No. 1 RB in the 2013 Draft, and it’s my guess that lots of scouts feel the same way. While he’s currently projected as a second round pick, a solid showing at the Combine or individual workouts could easily propel him up draft boards and into the first round.
2 – Eddie Lacy (Alabama, 6’1”, 22 lbs): After devastating the Notre Dame defense to the tune of 140 yards rushing and two touchdowns in the BCS Title Game, Lacy’s name has shot up Draft boards. One of the top running backs in the ’13 Draft, some experts are so enamored they have him projected to go in the first round.
A hard runner who keeps his feet moving and shows some quickness, Lacy is decisive when hitting the hole and flaunts an impressive jump cut and spin move. Not afraid to lower his shoulder into a defender, Lacy also shows promise as a receiver out of the backfield.
Lacy dominated the SEC racking up 1332 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns, along but some question the impact of rushing behind the best offensive line in the nation. Some other concerns include his top end speed and injury concerns.
3 – Andre Ellington (Clemson, 5’9”, 190 lbs): Smaller than some of the other top running backs in the ’13 Draft, Ellington’s most impressive traits are his tremendous balance and footwork, as seen in his ability to break tackles and pick up yards after contact.
While the Clemson senior faces the same ACC questions as Bernard, he also boasts similar versatility as a runner, receiver and kick returner. Ellington shows the acceleration and explosiveness to create big plays, as well as patience running behind blockers, good vision and the ability to make strong cuts.
At only 190 pounds Ellington struggles with blitz pickup, tending to dive at a defenders knees rather than fully committing himself to the block, and has some questions regarding his durability. He’ll likely have to put on size to survive in the NFL, but his natural ability and highlight reel moves certainly make him an attractive option for the Jets after Round 2.
4 – Kenjon Barner (Oregon, 5’11”, 192 lbs): Barner also lacks the ideal size for a running back in the NFL and can sometimes struggle hanging on to the ball, but boasts some of the best big play ability at the position.
While Chip Kelly’s scheme may have enhanced his numbers over the past two seasons, his quick, shifty moves are undeniable and will likely translate in the return game. Certainly a threat as a receiver out of the backfield, Barner is projected to go sometime in the Round 4 or later and should garner lots of interest.
5 – Johnathan Franklin (UCLA, 5’11”, 198 lbs): Franklin is another speedy prospect who capable of breaking a big gain at any time. Projected to go somewhere in the fourth round, the UCLA senior is similar to Barner in that they both share smaller builds, big play ability, and struggles with fumbles.
A patient runner with good vision, Franklin also struggles in pass protection (although showed progress in ’12) and lacks experience as a return man. Franklin emerged as a receiving threat in his senior year, finishing with 33 catches for 323 yards and two touchdowns (his previous season high was 10 catches in 2009).