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Player Spotlight: The Jets Backfield

A detailed look at the New York Jets' running back situation for 2015.

The New York Jets are coming off a season in which they were outscored by an average of over a touchdown per game. Their offensive fortunes are tied to Ryan Fitzpatrick or Geno Smith - a pair of quarterbacks who don't exactly inspire confidence. And the best word to describe the Jets’ running back depth chart, at this point, is either 'crowded’, ‘murky’, or ‘redundant’.

Looking past New York’s running backs in your fantasy drafts is forgivable for all of the above reasons, but it would also be short sighted.

  • The Jets are going to field one of the best defenses in the league. As a result, a repeat of last year’s eight losses by seven or more points, is unlikely. Barring catastrophic quarterbacking, the team will find itself in game scripts conducive to running back fantasy production far more often than last year.
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick ranked 14th in cumulative quarterback fantasy scoring while playing under New Jets' Offensive Coordinator Chan Gailey in Buffalo from 2010-2012. He's proven himself as one of the best 32 quarterbacks in the NFL, something we can't say for sure about Smith. If Smith doesn't play a single snap this season, the Jets' are guaranteed to see improved quarterback play in 2015 by default. And if Smith does regain the starting job when he returns from his broken jaw, there's hope Gailey’s spread sets and shotgun formations will create larger throwing windows, and make it easier for him to read defenses. Geno ran a spread offense, almost exclusively from the shotgun, during his time at West Virginia.
  • This isn’t the talent-starved Jets’ offense of recent past. By adding Brandon Marshall and Devin Smith to a receiving corps that already included Eric Decker and tight end Jace Amaro, New York suddenly boasts one of the better on-paper pass-catching units in the league. If the Jets can’t turn their offense around this season, it won’t be due to a lack of quality weapons.

Chris Ivory

Chris Ivory returns for his third season in New York, after decisively leading the Jets’ committee rushing attack with 198 attempts, 821 yards (4.1 YPA), and six touchdowns last year. In standard leagues, Ivory finished as the cumulative RB19, but this is where looking back on year-end stat lines can be misleading.

Fantasy football is a week-to-week game, and Ivory was a difficult running back to rely on last season. He finished 2014 with two weekly Top-12 running back performances, the same number as Alfred Blue and Bobby Rainey. Ivory had only two more Top-24 running back weeks the entire season, meaning he actually performed as a RB2 (or better) in just four out of 16 games.

The culprits behind Ivory’s inconsistency were game flow, lack of involvement as a receiver, and what seemed to be a hard cap on his weekly touches. We’ve established how the Jets’ improvements on both offense and defense should prevent them from falling too far behind in games to run the ball effectively this season. But even if we put stock in reports from OTAs that Ivory was lining up in spread formations as a wide receiver, it’s difficult to imagine him making an impact in the passing game for the first time in his career.

Before catching a career-high 18 passes last season (on 27 targets), Ivory had only been targeted 11 times in 39 previous career games. While there are some positive signs Ivory has been underutilized as a receiver in his career, last season’s 66% catch rate should probably dispel those notions. Even playing under Gailey - whose running back tandems averaged a combined 95.6 targets and 70 receptions per season during his three years as coach of Buffalo - it would be a shock to see Ivory finish the season with more than 25 catches.

If he won’t be catching significantly more passes this season, any statistical step forward will have to come from added rushing attempts, because there’s little room for increased efficiency in Ivory’s game. Ivory forced a missed tackle on 26% of his attempts last season, second to only Marshawn Lynch. His 2.46 yards after contact per attempt remained Top-15 among running backs with at least 150 carries, after he finished 2013 in the Top-3 (3.01).

Ivory’s splits in the nine games he’s received 15 or more carries as a Jet suggest he’s deserving of a heavier workload:

Rush Att/G Rush Yds/G Rush TDs/G Rush Yds/Att FF Pts/G
19.56 94.33 .44 4.86 12.94

But will the Jets’ brain trust comply?

New GM Mike Maccagnan and company inherited Ivory in the final year of his contract. They shouldn’t have the same worries about Ivory getting injured as the previous regime. However, even if Ivory’s touches aren’t monitored by the coaching staff, they will be capped by his inability to play on third downs. In addition to his deficiencies as a receiver, Pro Football Focus rated Ivory 61st out of 62 running backs in pass blocking efficiency last season.

Ivory would need to see about 40 more carries than last season’s 198 to sustain reliable fantasy RB2 production, and it’s tough to envision him getting there while playing strictly in a two-down capacity. But given his position on the depth chart, career 4.7 yards per attempt average, and the improvements the Jets made on both sides of the ball, he should see a repeat of the 200 (or so) carries he saw last year, with the upside for 20-30 more if the Jets play as well as they look on paper.

Bilal Powell

When you consider Ivory’s struggles in pass protection, it becomes easier to understand why the Jets were so quick to hand Bilal Powell a $2 million free agent contract ($750,000 guaranteed). In 2013, Powell played on 59% of the Jets’ offensive snaps, and graded as a Top-20 pass blocker at running back. Last year, he lost his spot on the depth chart to Chris Johnson, but still ranked as a solid pass protector in a limited role.

Powell is a one-speed back with marginal burst, but he’s been serviceable as more than just a pass blocker in each of his last three seasons with the Jets. Since 2012, Powell’s average yards per attempt hasn’t dipped below 4.0. And most importantly for his outlook in Gailey’s offense, he’s an adequate pass catcher, with a 37 reception season (2013) on his résumé.

During Gailey’s time with the Bills, running backs (primarily the tandem of Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller) combined for nearly 20% of the team’s total targets. For context, last season only the Bears, Bengals, Lions, Vikings, Raiders and Saints backfields approached or exceeded a 20% target market share. If Ivory is only good for a maximum of 25 receptions, there’s room in this offense for Powell to catch 40-50 passes, even if he’s nobody's idea of a “space” back.

The Field

Fantasy owners who fondly remember Stevan Ridley as the rugged, downhill runner, who led New England with 1,263 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in 2012, may believe he poses a major threat to Ivory’s workload.

It’s a notion that seems a bit of a stretch. Ridley was struggling to the tune of 3.6 yards per attempt prior to shredding his knee in Week 6 last year. He’ll be 10 months removed from surgery to repair a torn ACL and MCL when the Jets open the regular season. While Ridley is reportedly nearing a return after beginning camp on the PUP list, Bowles still seems skeptical. Ridley remains a candidate to begin the year on injured reserve, and even if he does see action in the first six games, who knows if he’ll be able to regain the deceptive burst that made him so effective in the first place.

This time last year, we were picking Zac Stacy in the third round of fantasy drafts. Now he’s the Jets’ fourth string running back, and will have to earn his roster spot with a strong training camp. It’s hard to pinpoint where it all went wrong for Stacy. He came out of Vanderbilt with an intriguing athletic profile, and was a revelation for the Rams in 2013.

Stacy rushed for 973 yards and seven touchdowns as a rookie, despite carrying the ball just once in the season’s first four games. He also flashed some ability as a receiver, catching 26 passes for 141 yards, despite being saddled with Kellen Clemens as his quarterback. For his career, Stacy sports a solid 76% catch rate, which is better than Arian Foster and Jamaal Charles, to name a few.

In 2013, Pro Football Focus rated Stacy as the sixth most efficient running back in pass protection. When you factor in Stacy’s ability to run downhill, catch the ball out of the backfield, and protect the quarterback, he projects as a good fit in Gailey’s scheme. It makes speculation he'll need Ridley to remain sidelined to even make the Jets' roster, a little surprising. Whether it's warranted or not, the odds are stacked against Stacy. At this point, the best he can hope for is a role spelling Ivory and/or Powell for a few snaps per game early in the season.

Stacy’s former Rams’ teammate Daryl Richardson, a trendy fantasy sleeper heading into the 2013 season, is also on the Jets’ roster. While he’s currently listed third on the team’s depth chart, he’s squarely on the bubble, and will likely find himself back on the practice squad, where he spent all of last season. The Jets could carry four backs on the active roster this year, but if Ridley avoids the PUP list, Richardson almost assuredly won’t be one of them.

Final Thoughts

The Jets’ backfield shouldn't be confused with an all-you-can-eat fantasy buffet this year, but there’s clear value to be mined here.

Chris Ivory usually comes off the board in the eighth or ninth round of drafts, which is the same neighborhood guys like Darren McFadden, Tre Mason, and Ryan Mathews are currently being taken. Footballguys’ David Dodds has Ivory projected for 220 total touches this year, while none of the aforementioned players are projected for more than 140. As it stands today, Chris Ivory is the cheapest source of 200+ touches available in all of fantasy football.

Currently going undrafted, Bilal Powell has sneaky late-round appeal in PPR leagues. As the primary receiving back in a Chan Gailey offense, Powell is capable of approximating the low-end flex production guys like Pierre Thomas and Benny Cunningham gave us last year.

Unless we see a miraculous recovery in training camp, there’s no reason to draft Stevan Ridley, even at his affordable 13th round ADP. If you’re in the market for a running back flier, players like Oakland’s Roy Helu and Carolina’s Cameron Artis-Payne face less hurdles on their path to relevance, and are available just as late.

Like Powell, Zac Stacy is going undrafted in standard 12 team leagues. Unless he's dumped by the Jets and picked up by a running back needy team (Houston?), he won't be worth a speculative late-round pick. But if he sticks on the Jets' roster, and Ivory were to get injured (last year was the first time in his five NFL seasons Ivory played all 16 games), Stacy would make for interesting waiver pick-up. His style mixes well with Chan Gailey's offense, and he's proven capable of posting league-tilting numbers, despite a bad offense, and terrible quarterback play.

Chris Ivory Positives

  • Ivory is the toughest runner in the NFL to tackle this side of Marshawn Lynch.
  • When he’s been given the opportunity to carry the load for the Jets, he’s averaged RB1 fantasy numbers.
  • The starting job is his to lose heading into training camp.

Chris Ivory Negatives

  • Ivory has never eclipsed 200 carries in a season.
  • His deficiencies as a pass blocker and receiver take him off the field on third downs.
  • Last year’s cumulative totals mask the fact he was an inconsistent performer.

Bilal Powell Positives

  • The Jets were curiously fast to sign Powell to a contract when free agency began.
  • He’s making more money than any Jets’ running back not named Chris Ivory.
  • Powell is a strong pass blocker and adequate receiver, making him the favorite for passing down duties, in an offensive scheme that features running backs in the passing game.

Bilal Powell Negatives

  • Powell is a replacement level NFL talent.
  • In 2013, he broke a run of 15+ yards on only 2.84% of his carries, fifth worst of any running back who played at least 50% of his team’s snaps.
  • Zac Stacy blocks well and has been an efficient receiver in his career. He could threaten Powell’s role with a strong camp.

Stevan Ridley Positives

  • Ridley is a proven between-the-tackles work horse, with a Top-15 running back season to his credit - something that can’t be said of any other member of the Jets’ backfield.

Stevan Ridley Negatives

  • Exactly how much he has to offer this season coming off a brutal knee injury is anyone’s guess.

Zac Stacy Positives

  • From Week 5 through Week 17 of 2013, Stacy was the 8th best fantasy running back in the league, despite playing in a lousy offense.
  • He’s only 24 years old.
  • Stacy’s blend of power running and versatility make him a nice fit in Gailey’s scheme.

Zac Stacy Negatives

  • He’s buried on the depth chart.
  • Why did Jeff Fisher sour on him so quickly after his breakout rookie season?
  • Stacy only cost the Jets’ a seventh round pick. He is by no means guaranteed a roster spot.

Chris Ivory Projections

  Games Rushes Rush Yds Rush TDs Rec Rec Yds Rec TDs
Dodds 16 200 840 6 20 142 1
Wood 16 200 880 5 20 140 0
Tremblay 16 211 852 5 19 140 0

Bilal Powell Projections

  Games Rushes Rush Yds Rush TDs Rec Rec Yds Rec TDs
Dodds 15 85 340 3 17 128 0
Wood 16 15 60 0 7 55 1
Tremblay 16 27 109 1 4 33 0

Stevan Ridley Projections

  Games Rushes Rush Yds Rush TDs Rec Rec Yds Rec TDs
Dodds 6 50 205 1 4 29 0
Wood 10 100 430 3 5 25 0
Tremblay 10 126 467 3 20 149

0

Zac Stacy Projections

  Games Rushes Rush Yds Rush TDs Rec Rec Yds Rec TDs
Dodds 13 45 171 1 5 35 0
Wood 16 100 390 4 16 95 1
Tremblay 16 98 377 2 18 143 0

Other Viewpoints


Pro Football Focus' Pat Thorman thinks Ivory will see increased opportunity thanks to the improvements the Jets made on both sides of the ball:

The Jets were losing for 80.1 percent of their fourth quarter snaps a year ago, during which time Ivory only managed to accrue 17.7 percent of his seasonal carry total and 18.4 percent of his rushing yards. While he did rank 18th in carries for the season, he saw the 14th-most during the first half of games, compared to the 29th-most after halftime.

New York’s secondary is night-and-day improved, they crush opposing running games, and Todd Bowles knows how to scheme pressure. Geno Smith now has a “Ryan Fitzpatrick floor” if he doesn’t progress under Chan Gailey. After a four-win 2014, Vegas is predicting 7.5 victories – and, by extension, more Ivory opportunity.

Rotoworld's Nick Mensio agrees that Bilal Powell is a worthy late-round flier:

While there’s competition for the Jets’ “big” back job, Powell appears to have a stranglehold on passing-down duties and may actually be the Jets’ running back to own in fantasy. Both the old and new coaching staffs love his soft hands and pass-pro skills. Powell does nothing great but can do a little bit of everything.