If the New York Jets decide they need some veteran insurance for running back Breece Hall early in the 2023 season, they’ll certainly have their pick of the litter at the position.
The biggest name on the RB market right now is probably former Minnesota Vikings star Dalvin Cook — a player that a contingent of the fanbase and locker room appear to be very high on. Of course, Cook’s joined by a long list of well-known ball-carriers including Ezekiel Elliott, Kareem Hunt, Leonard Fournette, David Johnson, Kenyan Drake, Giovani Bernard and Mark Ingram.
There are also plenty of lesser role players available at the position, like Dontrell Hilliard, Rex Burkhead, Darrel Williams, Royce Freeman, J.D. McKissic, Justin Jackson, Marlon Mack, Malcolm Brown, Benny Snell Jr. and ex-Jet James Robinson. Out of those secondary options, Hilliard has been connected to Gang Green because of his ties to former Tennessee Titans coaches Todd Downing and Keith Carter, who are both with the Jets in 2023.
At the end of the day, which of these options makes the most sense? If any. That’s what Jets X-Factor analyst Rivka Boord set out to determine on June 29, and after an informative and detailed breakdown, she concluded that Fournette and Elliott best fit what NYJ is looking for — but under one condition: cost.
If Affordable, Leonard Fournette & Ezekiel Elliott Could Outweigh Dalvin Cook for Jets in NFL Free Agency
Similar to her Jets X-Factor partner Michael Nania, Boord believes that Cook’s “best days are behind him” — and she joined Nania in urging general manager Joe Douglas to avoid the Vikings cut in free agency.
“What the Jets need from their back is the ability to help tide the team over until Hall can get back to full speed,” Boord noted initially. “The team drafted [Israel] Abanikanda for his home run ability; that’s not what they’re looking for in a free agent. Rather, it’s the little things that they may or may not have: rushing efficiency, pass-blocking, receiving, and grinding out short yardage.”
She also admitted that while Michael Carter and Zonovan Knight have displayed these traits in small doses, both could absolutely be upgraded on as well. “It’s insurance for those things that the Jets are looking for,” Boord added. “Michael Nania already demonstrated definitively that Cook does not have those things. He’s also rumored to be seeking a $10 million deal. That’s a nonstarter for the Jets.”
So, if not Cook, then who? Boord ran through a shortlist of potential targets that featured Fournette, Elliott, Hunt, Drake and in-house candidates Carter and Knight, providing statistical analysis for each.
As she went along, Hunt was crossed out for a lot of the same reasons as Cook — ineffectiveness behind a top blocking unit, a decline in productivity, poor pass protection and subpar receiving numbers. Drake was also axed as a “hard pass” due to his recent metrics.
Aside from the in-house options, that left Fournette and Elliott, who have proven themselves in the areas that NYJ needs the most help — pass protection, hands and intelligence as a receiver, short-yardage situations, playoff experience. Boord was not 100% sure that either would be better than a mix of Abanikanda, Carter and Knight at this stage of their career, however.
“Is it worthwhile to add an older player who ranked marginally better in one area or another?” She questioned. “If the Jets’ run-blocking is as bad as it was last season, there is no evidence that any of these backs will perform any better. Other than Fournette, all the other backs ran behind above-average run-blocking and produced below-average results, sometimes significantly so.”
Boord finished by saying: “If the Jets could get Elliott or Fournette on a veteran minimum contract, perhaps they’re worth bringing in to compete for a spot. That is the extent that I would go to acquire any of them.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement in adding a veteran RB.
The Athletic’s Zack Rosenblatt Weighs in on Jets Pursuing Dalvin Cook, Leonard Fournette
While it remains to be seen if any of these veterans would accept a minimum deal, Fournette is probably the most likely big-name free agent to do so. For that reason, he could be the Jets’ best bet based on the analysis of Boord and The Athletic’s Zack Rosenblatt, who discussed the pros and cons of signing Cook on June 26.
The NYJ beat reporter weighed a lot of the same factors Nania and Boord mentioned in their write-ups — age, production, health, Hall’s injury, decline in effectiveness and more. His final bullet point was probably the most important, however, and it’s the same condition Boord had for Fournette and Elliott: price tag.
“If the Jets can get Cook to sign in the $4 million to $6 million range for a year to chase a ring with a reduced workload, it’s absolutely worth it,” Rosenblatt voiced. “Beyond that, the Jets should look elsewhere if they want/need another running back.”
He added “another thing to consider” too, stating: “Other decent running backs — Kareem Hunt, Leonard Fournette — are still available for cheaper. Also, the Jets really do believe in Abanikanda’s ability to contribute right away.”