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Right off the bat, there is no way the NY Jets are going to break the bank on a running back in free agency. As great of players Aaron Jones, Kenyan Drake, and Chris Carson are, none of them are going to be in the Jets price range.
After all, Gang Green learned their lesson through the failed Le’Veon Bell experiment. He never returned to his All-Pro form with the Pittsburgh Steelers, whether it be due to Adam Gase or not.
The bottom line is, do not expect general manager Joe Douglas to deal big bucks to the position.
Currently, the Jets have two running backs under contract for 2021. The first is La’Mical Perine, a fourth-round pick in 2020. As a rookie, Perine posted 295 yards from scrimmage with two touchdowns.
The other is Ty Johnson, who had 353 yards and two touchdowns from scrimmage. The former sixth-round pick by the Detroit Lions in 2019 proved capable of joining Perine as solid committee back options.
Nonetheless, the Jets desperately need a veteran back that can lead the unit. And no, not a veteran in the sense of a Frank Gore.
What the Jets need is a do-it-all back who can fit offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur’s scheme. Luckily, the Jets are going to have plenty of talented running backs to choose from, as the free-agent class is set to be loaded.
That being said, let’s take a look at which running backs make the most sense for the Jets to target in free agency.
Next: 1. Some scheme familiarity
1. The NY Jets could target Tevin Coleman
It was not long ago that Tevin Coleman was a hot commodity when he hit the market in 2019. Drafted in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft by the Atlanta Falcons, Coleman played a major role in their Super Bowl appearance in 2017, forming a top tandem with Devonta Freeman in the backfield.
Coleman wound up signing a two-year deal with the San Francisco 49ers, joining what would end up being a loaded committee backfield. He started 11 of 14 games in 2019, with 724 yards and seven touchdowns from scrimmage.
Then, in 2020, Coleman battled multiple injuries, only starting one of eight games he would play in. He hits the market coming off of an 87-yard scrimmage season, and will only be 28-years-old in 2021.
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Coleman’s price tag is not going to be very high, and as he enters his seventh season, he fits the bill to be a lead committee-back for the Jets. Then again, so do two other former 49ers running backs in Jerick McKinnon and Matt Breida.
Both have spent time with Mike LaFleur in Kyle Shanahan’s offensive scheme, which LaFleur is implementing with the Jets. McKinnon is a smaller back who put up 572 yards from scrimmage with six total touchdowns in his first season since 2017.
Meanwhile, Matt Breida is looking to bounce back from a 254-yard rushing campaign in his first and likely only year with the Miami Dolphins. It is easy to forget that he rushed for 1,437 yards in 27 games between 2018 and 2019 for San Francisco.
Next: 2. The other Green Bay rusher
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2. The NY Jets could target Jamaal Williams
Again, the Jets are not going to break the bank in order to sign Aaron Jones from the Green Bay Packers. As much as his almost 1,500 yards from scrimmage and 11 total touchdowns would help, he will simply be out of the Jets price range.
Instead, the Jets must target Jones’ running mate Jamaal Williams. A fourth-round pick out of BYU in the 2017 NFL Draft, Williams has formed a fantastic duo with Jones over the past few seasons.
Now, it is time for Williams to find a place where he can be the number one guy.
Williams is on the younger side, as he will only be 26-years-old in 2021. He also brings a well-balanced game, averaging at least 496 yards rushing and 240 yards receiving a year.
By no means is Williams an explosive or elusive player with the ball in his hands, rather a smart one who uses his 6-foot-0, 213-pound frame to his advantage. Williams is also a very strong blocker, which remains an underappreciated aspect of the position.
Despite his small sample size, Williams has continued to improve as a runner year in and year out. In fact, Williams had a career-high 76.9 grade from Pro Football Focus in 2020, which ranked 19th among 70 qualifying running backs.
What is the most interesting part of Williams’ free agency outlook is the Aaron Jones/Packers factor. Green Bay could view Williams as a backup plan if they cannot retain Jones for the right price, therefore being even more competition for the Jets.
Next: 3. Low risk, high reward comeback
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3. The NY Jets could target Marlon Mack
Back in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL Draft, the Indianapolis Colts selected South Florida running back Marlon Mack. In his rookie year, Mack split time with none other than Frank Gore, before breaking out in year two.
Mack would emerge as the Colts’ best running back in 2018, then again in 2019, totaling 1,999 rushing yards and 17 rushing touchdowns over 26 games in the span. Mack also would add 185 yards receiving and a touchdown in the passing game.
There is no doubt of Mack’s ability when on the field, as the 6-foot-0 and 210-pound back is among the best from the legendary 2017 class. The only problem is that Mack is coming off of a torn Achilles from Week 1 of 2020.
An Achilles injury in any sport is a serious one and one that any team will look into prior to signing. Especially when considering how much of Mack’s game is built around his athleticism combined with his footwork.
Should Mack be able to return healthy, he could wind up being the biggest steal of free agency. He will only be 25-years-old in 2021 and is a proven starting running back in this league.
Again, it was only a year ago that Mack ran for over 1,000 yards, something no Jets running back has done since Chris Ivory.
To be able to sign a player of Mack’s caliber on the low because he is coming off of a serious injury is a low-risk, high-reward move. This is exactly why it would not be a surprise if Joe Douglas tries to make such a deal happen.
Next: 4. Another former Steelers RB
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4. The NY Jets could target James Conner
Who knows if the Pittsburgh Steelers will let James Conner walk, but if he does, he should be among New York’s top targets. Conner will only be 26-years-old next season and has shown elite ability, having a Pro Bowl under his belt.
In his second season in the pros, Conner put up 1,470 yards from scrimmage with 13 total touchdowns for the Steelers in their first year without Bell. From there, it appeared he would become a star.
What wound up happening is minor injuries have plagued him over the past two seasons. Conner only has 1,185 yards rushing in 23 games since 2019 and earned the worst grade of his career from PFF at 69.4.
Yes, Conner has had a two-year stretch of average at best play, yet everyone knows what he is capable of. The 2017 third-round pick was a star at Pittsburgh and quickly made Steelers fans forget about the off-the-field Bell drama.
At 6-foot-1 and 233 pounds, Conner would offer a powerful runner to lead the Jets backfield with Perine and Johnson. Conner also has had at least 215 yards receiving each year since 2018, displaying his ability as a receiver out of the backfield.
Again, Conner is coming off of a down year, which may wind up being a favor. Conner’s value is lower than it would have been two years ago, therefore, the Jets would not need to write a massive check for him.
Gang Green could go out and get their guy on the low, knowing his Pro Bowl ceiling.
Next: 5. The wild card option
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5. The NY Jets could target Phillip Lindsay
The final man on the list comes in as a bit of a wild card because he is a restricted free agent. The Denver Broncos can easily place a tender on Phillip Lindsay, therefore providing a definitive price tag that will make teams hesitant to match.
Then again, maybe it will be worth it.
Lindsay was the first-ever undrafted free agent offensive player to be named to the Pro Bowl as a rookie. At 5-foot-8 and 190 pounds, nobody looked to draft the Colorado back, leading the Broncos to sign him following the draft.
And it paid off.
As a rookie, Lindsay made eight starts in 15 games, totaling 10 touchdowns to go with 1,278 yards from scrimmage. The shifty back quickly became the face of the Broncos’ backfield, at least until they surprisingly signed Melvin Gordon to a two-year deal last offseason.
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This led to a struggle in Denver’s backfield, as both were not the same players they were a year prior.
Lindsay had the worst year of his career, averaging 4.3 yards per carry on 118 carries, and only had one total touchdown. He also became a non-factor in the passing game, with 28 yards receiving all year.
Lindsay will be 27-years-old in 2021 and will probably like to capitalize on his value now, given he is coming off of a relatively disappointing third season. As the Jets hope to add weapons around whoever is under center next season, Lindsay’s playmaking places him among the top running backs.
That is if he hits the market.
The bottom line is that the Jets need to scour the secondary market for their solution at running back, and this year’s free-agent class is absolutely loaded with options.