Despite having the sixth-ranked rushing attack last season, the New York Jets made two moves this offseason to bolster their ground game by signing Michael Vick and Chris Johnson. If this were 2009, they'd have the fastest backfield in football, but as it stands, they've added two veterans with something to prove. So how will this all shake out, as they join the already crowded backfield of Chris Ivory, Bilal Powell, Alex Green and incumbent running quarterback Geno Smith? I headed to the game tape to find out.
State of the union
You can control the playback of the GIF below by hovering over it with your mouse cursor.
Although the Jets rushing attack received little fanfare, it was statistically one of the best in the league in 2013. The unit finished sixth in yards (2,158), ninth in yards per carry (4.4) and fifth in attempts (493). Unfortunately, this didn't turn into a load of fantasy success, as Bilal Powell and Chris Ivory finished as the 35th and 37th highest scoring fantasy running backs, respectively. Part of that was their even split in total touches (212 for Powell, 184 for Ivory) but a larger part was the unit's inability to find the end zone as its 12 rushing touchdowns was tied for 18th in the league, and six of those scores came from Geno Smith. Four starters from the offensive line are set to return, and Breno Giacomini has come over from Seattle to replace the departed Austin Howard. As previously stated, Chris Johnson and Michael Vick have joined the fold as well.
Fantasy impact: The addition of Johnson could have the biggest impact on this unit making some noise in fantasy, as his game-breaking speed and ability to catch the ball out of the backfield adds an element that was previously lacking. Johnson hauled in 42 receptions last season, while the entire Jets backfield caught just 47. Johnson won't, however, provide that nose for the end zone on his own, as he hasn't finished with more than six rushing touchdowns since 2010.
Partying like it's 2009
Jets head coach Rex Ryan recently said that his new stable of rushers reminds him of 2009, when his team rushed for a combined 2,273 yards. However, two key things are different between then and now: Ryan now has a more talented backfield as well as a more capable and creative offensive coordinator in Marty Mornhinweg.
Mornhinweg runs a West Coast offense, but tends to rely on the running game a more often than his West Coast counterparts. He prefers to run a zone blocking scheme, with occasional gap scheme looks thrown in. This combination worked very well with Ivory and Powell in 2013, and if CJ2K is as motivated as he says, he could find some open lanes to run through.
Turnonthejets.com reached out to Michael Nolan, a former NFL Films and NBC sports correspondent as well as a die-hard Eagles fan, for his in-depth analysis on how Mornhinweg's offense would fit with the Jets. One of his takeaways was Mornhinweg's affinity for running inside zone plays, where all of the lineman step toward the plays side, often causing linebackers to over-pursue creating great cutback lanes for the running back. In Philadelphia, LeSean McCoy exploited these to great effect, and the Jets backs found success as well, as you can see in the GIF below.
Note how Brandon Spikes (No. 55) of the Patriots gets caught in this very same over-pursuit Nolan was discussing. Ivory and Powell were able to turn these types of runs into big gains for the Jets, but imagine if it was Johnson hitting the hole in either of the above GIFs instead of Ivory? His speed would allow him to turn those plays into even bigger gains.
Mornhinweg also likes to mix in gap schemes to keep the defense on their toes, typically from two-back sets. This type of blocking harkens back to more of a power scheme, with the play-side offensive lineman blocking to the backside, while the backside guard pulls to serve as the lead blocker. The Jets execute this scheme to perfection in the GIF below.
The only problem is that these types of openings were rather rare for the Jets. Not for a lack of blocking ability, as most of their lineman graded out positively in that regard, according to Pro Football Focus. Part of it is by design, as Mornhinweg uses shorter runs to set up bigger plays like these. As a result, his backs had to grind to move the chains last season. Almost 66 percent of Ivory's yards were gained after contact, a number higher than that of Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch and Eddie Lacy. Even Powell, frequently running on third downs and from the shotgun, had to gain roughly 55 percent of his yards after contact. Johnson? Of his 1,077 rushing yards in 2013, only 47 percent came after contact. Many have questioned Johnson's drive, and willingness to take hits in recent years. If he really wants to prove his doubters wrong in 2014, the early indications are he's going to have to work for it in a way he hasn't since his epic 2009 campaign—when he rushed for 2,006 yards.
To run or not to run, that is the quarterback question
Before I sign off, a quick look at the rushing potential of the two speedy signal-callers in Florham Park this season –- Geno Smith and Michael Vick. It's presumed to be a competition between these two heading into training camp, one that fantasy owners will want to watch closely as drafts approach. Despite his up-and-down rookie campaign, Smith was a viable fantasy starter over the last four weeks of the season, averaging just over 20 fantasy points per game during that stretch. Smith averaged about three designed runs per game over the final four weeks, and combined with his scrambles averaged six rushing attempts per game, and 8.26 yards per rush. It's unlikely Ryan and Mornhinweg will want their starting signal-caller taking too much punishment, but with fast, agile quarterbacks the temptation will be there to call the occasional run to keep defenses on their heels. Having a quarterback with the ability to score in the red zone, like in the GIF below, will only add to the headache suffered by defensive coordinators trying to scheme against Vick/Smith, CJ2K, Ivory and Powell.
Fantasy impact: It's a waiting game with the Gang Green field generals, but once Smith or Vick is named the opening day starter, they're definitely worth a flier as a No. 2 quarterback. With a potentially more potent running game, and the addition of Eric Decker and a likely top draft pick out wide, Vick and Smith could provide excellent late round value –- especially if your strategy is to wait on quarterbacks in fantasy drafts.
For a team that finished sixth in the league in rushing in 2013, there are still a lot of questions surrounding the Jets backfield. How will the touches be divvied up with the arrival of Johnson? Will Smith or Vick be the opening day starter? Will Johnson actually play motivated, or disappear when big holes aren't in front of him? I, for one, will be closely watching the Jets training camp and preseason games to see how this all shakes out, but for now I have Johnson as a low-end RB2, while Ivory and Powell have RB3 or flex potential. Both should be rostered, but expectations should be tempered. Ultimately, the success of the entire unit might come down to how the starting QB performs (and holds up) over the course of the season. If Vick can recapture some of his old magic, or Smith can progress in Year 2, the once pedestrian Jets offense could be set to take flight in 2014.