NY Jets: 4 ways to target a running back in the 2021 NFL Draft

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The NY Jets have many issues they need to address going into this offseason. One of the many positions they’ll be looking to bolster is at running back.

With just La’Mical Perine or Ty Johnson under contract heading into the offseason, the Jets may be looking to the upcoming draft for the solution to their problem.

And having a total of nine picks in this year’s draft, they’ll have plenty of opportunities to select a young running back out of college.

Recently, many NFL analysts, including Daniel Jeremiah, have predicted that the Jets could use their second first-round pick on a running, specifically either Najee Harris or Travis Etienne.

Despite how tempting it may be, the Jets should not select a running back this early in the 2021 NFL Draft.

This is no respect to either player’s ability — both are exciting talents. Etienne is a versatile back, who certainly would work well as both a runner and a receiver in the NFL, with many viewing him as RB1 going into the draft.

Harris, on the other hand, was probably the best running back in college football this past year, and the Alabama product has tremendous power and speed.

Despite their star-studded resumes, neither are clear-cut top-10 prospects as the likes of Saquon Barkley or Christian McCaffrey were in recent years.

And considering the Jets have so many more pressing issues to solve across their roster, selecting a running back in the first round seems unlikely. Using one of their high-value first-round draft picks on a running back doesn’t make sense.

Here are some options for the Jets if they are looking to select a running back in the upcoming NFL draft.

Next: 1. Hoping one falls to the second round

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1. The NY Jets could target Najee Harris or Travis Etienne in Round 2

Make no mistake though, if either Najee Harris or Travis Etienne is still available in the second round, or unbelievably the third, there may still be an opportunity for the Jets to select either player.

Harris has exceptional power and is well balanced, smart at waiting for gaps to emerge, and he loves to hurdle defenders. At 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, he’s incredibly well-built too and has been touted by many as the next Derrick Henry.

Etienne is a more elusive back and is incredibly difficult for defenders to bring down. Boasting a career 7.2 yards per carry mark, there is no doubt Etienne is an elite running back prospect.

Both players are talented enough to be selected early and both would massively improve the running game for the Jets.

Etienne’s dual-threat ability probably makes him more appealing to the Jets, but considering Harris ran for 1,466 yards and 26 touchdowns in 2020, it’s clear that both have tremendous speed, strength, and vision to succeed.

As mentioned earlier, the issue isn’t with the quality of the running back, it’s that the position isn’t the most pressing issue for the Jets.

Picking between No. 23 and 34 in the draft might not sound like a huge difference, but targets like cornerback Jaycee Horn, a wide receiver like Kadarius Toney, a powerful elite rusher, or an offensive lineman are much more important assets for the Jets to pursue with their early picks.

These players may not be available past the Jets’ second pick, so targeting them early is more of a priority than a top running back.

Moreover, taking a back in the first round but outside of the top-10 picks hasn’t produced stellar performers over the years when compared to backs taken later in the draft.

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Since 2016, five backs have been taken in the first round but outside of the top-10, but only Josh Jacobs, selected 24th overall in 2019, has made the Pro Bowl. Whereas backs taken in the second round since then include the likes of Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon, and Nick Chubb.

While each draft is unique and offers a different group of talent at the position, the Jets still shouldn’t risk using one of their valuable first-round picks this year on a running back if there is considerable talent available to solve other, more urgent, issues.

Obviously, if Harris or Etienne is around in the third round, selecting one then is a no-brainer. That’s incredibly unlikely, but overall, they are much better selections taken in the second round by the Jets than in the first.

Next: 2. Two North Carolina running backs

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2. The NY Jets could target a North Carolina RB on Day 2

Taking a running back in Round 2 could still be a bit of a reach for general manager Joe Douglas considering the needs for the Jets, so it might be the more sensible option for the Jets to look to the third.

And that’s where two running backs from North Carolina could come into play.

Javonte Williams and Michael Carter rushed for a combined 2,385 yards and 28 touchdowns in 2020 and both were named Pro Football Focus first-team All-American at the running back position.

Williams, who many expect to be one of the first running backs selected, is a prospect who broke out this season, rushing for a first down or touchdown on 45.9 percent of his carriers in 2020, the best percentage in college football.

In his final game for North Carolina in December against the Miami Hurricanes, he racked up some seriously impressive numbers, rushing for 236 yards and three touchdowns (Carter also rushed for a whopping 308 yards and two touchdowns in that game).

There is no doubt that Williams could fit into a variety of schemes and while he might not be as quick as other backs in the draft, he’s incredibly agile and could certainly post a threat bouncing off tackles and picking up significant yards after contact.

He may be just 5-foot-10, but with 220 pounds behind him, he’s powerful and explosive enough to excel in the NFL

His fellow UNC rusher, Michael Carter, also had a stellar year, rushing for 1,245 yards and nine touchdowns, as well as two more through the air, in 11 games.

Carter is considerably smaller than Williams and could struggle to take on a high volume of carries in the NFL, but he’s incredibly quick and a difficult player for anyone to tackle in the open field.

Using his smaller frame, he’s got the ability to surge through holes and manipulate open areas both as a runner and a receiver.

Williams is certainly the more revered back by many in draft rankings, but Carter is still an exciting playmaker who will be worth a selection on Day 2.

Both North Carolina prospects have the potential to develop into solid running backs in the NFL and would make for appealing options to take if they’re available in the third.

Next: 3. More options on Day 2

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3. The NY Jets could make Kenny Gainwell a mid-round target

Mike LaFleur will likely bring an offense style molded from his time under Kyle Shanahan to the Jets. And if there’s one thing we know it will utilize, it’s a speedy running back.

Kenny Gainwell of the Memphis Tigers boasts a great range of skills that would be more than useful in the NFL — explosive, lightning speed, and equally as adept as a catcher alongside his running ability.

He would be a perfect fit for LaFleur’s offense, being quick enough to get outside the tackles and being able to make plays in the passing game.

In San Francisco, Shanahan looked for guys like Raheem Mostert to step up, someone who’s not necessarily an elite-back but certainly one of the quicker players in the league.

This is exactly what LaFleur will be looking for with the Jets. Gainwell could become a much more complete back than someone like Mostert considering his consistent receiving ability, and thus would be a perfect scheme fit for the Jets.

Over the years, Memphis has produced a consistently decent set of running backs that most recently include Tony Pollard and Antonio Gibson. Like Gibson for Washington last year, Gainwell could be a gem find for the Jets in 2021.

While his biggest issue is a lack of size, adding another exciting piece to the backfield would definitely help Perine and Johnson with some of the workload on the ground.

The elusive back sat out the 2020 season, which could mean he drops down on many teams’ draft boards into the later rounds. If that’s the case, he’d be an ideal late-round target for the Jets.

Next: 4. Selecting a late-round gem

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4. The NY Jets could target a host of late-round options

There will still be a lot of talent available to the Jets in the later rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft.

If they are looking for someone that they haven’t got on their roster, Rhamondre Stevenson might fit that bill. Standing at 6-foot and around 250 pounds, Stevenson is a huge force and a powerfully built runner, who loves to power through would-be tacklers.

He was the Offensive MVP in the Cotton Bowl recently against the Florida Gators and will forgo his senior year in Oklahoma following a productive 2020 where he averaged more than 110 yards per game and seven touchdowns in total.

He’s also a capable receiver too, having recorded 18 receptions for 211 yards through the air this past season.

Off-field incidents may scare away potential suitors, with a failed drug test disrupting his season in 2019. He might not be what LaFleur and Saleh are looking for, but if the Jets are keen to draft a powerful running back on Day 3 of the draft, Stevenson could be their man.

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Elsewhere, Chuba Hubbard was a name before the 2020 season that many were predicting big things from. And despite showing inconsistency this year, having dropped off in production levels considerably in 2020, he still has the potential to succeed in the NFL.

In 2019, Hubbard ran for over 2,000 yards at an average of 6.4 yards per carry for Oklahoma State, but played just seven games in 2020 with a much lower production rate.

His draft stock has most definitely fallen, and his struggles in pass protection may be an issue for the Jets. But considering his astonishing numbers in 2019, he’ll be someone looking to prove a point to potential suitors in the coming months.

Other players such as Jaret Patterson, Trey Sermon, and Demetric Felton could prove to be good system picks for the Jets if they’re available in the later rounds.

Felton, for example, had a standout week at the Senior Bowl recently and despite not being the most productive of backs used this year, he’s highly athletic with excellent speed and versatility.

His size is probably an issue for teams, having transitioned from wide receiver to running back during college.

But what a unique asset he could become for many franchises, who could easily utilize his receiving ability and his pace as a back. His strong hands and lightning quickness make him a serious threat through the air.

With the right coaching staff behind him, he could excel in the NFL. Felton, like many of the others, would be an excellent scheme fit for the Jets and their new coaching staff.

Next. NY Jets: 5 under-the-radar free agents to target in the 2021 offseason

All in all, there are plenty of options for the Jets to pick up a running back in the upcoming draft without having to use one of their precious first-round picks.