This is the fifth in a series of position-by-position stories on the 2011 NFL Draft bynewyorkjets.com.
It would be a major upset if the Jets address the running back position early or perhaps at all in the 2011 NFL Draft. Last April the Green & White tackled their offensive backfield with half of their four-man class, and both RB Joe McKnight and FB John Conner are expected to be counted on heavily in their second seasons.
McKnight, a fourth-round selection from USC, may take over the primary punt return duties from S Jim Leonhard as the latter hopes to return from his broken tibia.
"I'm excited to see Joe return some balls back there. He's come a million miles," said head coach Rex Ryan at the March owners' meetings in New Orleans. "He's clearly the kind of athlete and runner you want back there."
But McKnight's touches won't be limited to just special teams as he'll probably get more work from coordinator Brian Schottenheimer as well. He wasn't a factor his rookie season, but he flashed in the 38-7 rout of the Bills in the regular-season finale with 32 carries for 158 yards.
"He's earned a bigger role for us. I don't think there's any doubt," Ryan said in the Crescent City. "He wasn't ready to play at the beginning of the season, but he made himself ready to play as the year went on. We saw it finally when we gave him that opportunity against Buffalo. He had a huge game. He has a ton of talent. He's a great receiver and he's excellent with the ball in his hand. His protections have improved."
Shonn Greene, a third-round pick out of Iowa in 2009, was the Jets' primary ballcarrier in the postseason and led the club with 198 yards and a 4.4-yard average. LaDainian Tomlinson set the pace in the regular season with 914 yards on the ground and six rush touchdowns, and he added 52 receptions.
McKnight, said Ryan, "has earned more opportunities. He could play ahead of Shonn and LT in some things. He's earned that. Clearly, we have a 1-2 punch with Shonn Greene as our bellcow and LT. But I think this kid Joe McKnight has earned some reps."
The Jets already have a crowded house at RB. While Jets Nation wonders what would have happened if New York's AFC Representative punched it in with three plays from the Steelers' 2 in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship Game, there is a chance you could see more Greene in short-yardage situations next season.
"It's easy to say we should have run Shonn four times," said Ryan, "and maybe we should have."
A youth movement might occur at FB as well with the 23-year-old Conner ready to assume the mantle from 39-year-old Tony Richardson. T-Rich has been a rock in each of his three seasons with the Green & White, but the 5'11", 245-pound Conner lived up to his nickname of "The Terminator" in his first pro training camp. He became an instant fan favorite due to his thunderous blocking but wasn't rushed along with Richardson holding down the fort.
This 2011 running back class isn't top heavy as only Alabama RB Mark Ingram appears to be a lock for the first round. Ingram's not a burner, hitting a pair of 4.5s in the 40 at 'Bama's pro day. He rushed for 875 yards and 13 TDs last season after sitting out a pair of contests with a knee injury, but the early entry captured the Heisman Trophy in '09 after rushing for 1,658 yards and 17 TDs.
"Great pad level, explodes from contact, a terror on second level," wrote ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper. "40 time not a huge concern."
Virginia Tech's Ryan Williams and Illinois' **Mikel Leshoure * are candidates to be the second RB selected and both could be targeted in the second round.
The 5'9", 212-pound Williams broke out on the college scene his redshirt freshman year, rushing for 1,655 yards and 21 touchdowns and being named ACC Rookie of the Year. A hamstring injury slowed him in 2010 but he battled for 477 yards and nine TDs.
Leshoure was as sure-handed as they come, having never lost a fumble in his collegiate stay. The 6'0", 227-pounder rushed for 1,697 yards and 17 touchdowns last season while averaging 6.0 yards a clip.
"He possesses the frame to take the punishment that comes with being an NFL starter and looks like a guy who can wear down opposing defensive fronts," wrote Wes Bunting of National Football Post. "He isn't ever going to be overly dynamic in the open field or toward the perimeter, but his blend of power, short-area quickness and balance should allow him to mature into a very solid starting NFL back in a short period of time."
It wouldn't be wise to look down on Oklahoma State's Kendall "Spud" Hunter. He might be listed at just 5'7" and 199 pounds, but he runs bigger than that and is electric in the open field. He averaged 6.0 yards per carry and his 4,181 yards and 37 rush TDs both rank fourth in the OSU history books. Hunter also ranked third with 20 career 100-yard rush games and he performed well in the classroom.
Kansas State product Daniel Thomas has been slowed this offseason with hamstring issues. Thomas was forced to skip Senior Bowl Week and then had to reschedule his pro day workout until April 5. A JuCo quarterback at Northwest Mississippi Community College, the 6'0", 230-pounder played two remarkable seasons in the Little Apple and rushed for 2,850 yards and 30 TDs.
Little Jacquizz Rodgers, an ultra-productive runner at Oregon State, rebounded from a tough combine and got his speed down to a 4.47 at the Beavers' pro day. He averaged 109.2 rush yards throughout his illustrious career and is one of only eight players in Pac-10 history with three 1,000-yard rushing seasons. His 3,877 rush yards rank sixth in Pac-10 history and his 46 rush TDs tie for second in conference annals.
"People will always question my height since the prototypical back is bigger," Rodgers said in a GazetteTimes.com article. "But if you run the ball and you have production, it won't matter what size you are. I can be that change-of-pace back. I can get a burst out of the backfield or catch out of the backfield. Whatever round I go, I'm going to make that team proud."
One of the more intriguing RB draft stories is North Carolina's Johnny White. Here's a guy who played cornerback and receiver and actually started 2010 way down the depth chart at running back. But the former special teams performer became the Tar Heels' primary runner, rushed for 720 yards and added 288 yards receiving while averaging 6.5 yards a touch. White won't wow anyone with his speed or agility, but he runs hard and with great balance.
DeMarco Murray (6'0", 214) had a storybook career for Oklahoma. He established Sooners records for all-purpose yards (6,626), touchdowns (64), receiving yards by a running back (1,572), points (384) and kickoff return average (27.6) before leaving the Norman campus.
Connecticut junior Jordan Todman posted a pair of 4.4 40-yard times at the Indy combine after earning Big East Player of the Year honors for a 1,695-yard, 14-TD campaign. That followed a 1,188-yard sophomore season in which Todman had five 100-yard outings.
It's possible you'll see double digits in running backs off the board before Charles Clay likely becomes the first fullback selected. Clay (6'3", 245) is versatile with the Golden Hurricane using him at H-back and tailback. In 53 career games he had 2,544 receiving yards and 911 rushing yards.
Southern Cal FB Stanley Havili not only caught 116 balls for the Men of Troy but he also roomed with Jets QB Mark Sanchez. And Stanford's Owen Marecicis an old-school player who played both middle linebacker and fullback for the Cardinal. He was Stanford's fifth-leading tackler with 51 stops and also had five rush TDs in '10.
Delone Carter, RB, Syracuse; Shaun Chapas, FB, Georgia; Jamie Harper, RB, Clemson; Derrick Locke, RB, Kentucky; Dion Lewis, RB, Pittsburgh; Anthony Sherman, FB, Connecticut; Shane Vereen, RB California.
Friday, March 25 —Defensive Linemen
Tuesday, March 29 —Linebackers
Friday, April 1 —Defensive Backs
Tuesday, April 4 — Offensive Linemen