The Jets’ running back situation is uncertain, an open competition for carries between Michael Carter, Tevin Coleman, La’Mical Perine, Ty Johnson, Austin Walter and Josh Adams.
Carter, Gang Green’s fourth round pick out of North Carolina, was dominant in 2020. Carter rushed for 1,245 yards on eight yards per carry, had nine touchdowns and caught 25 passes for 267 yards with two touchdowns. His production would have been higher if he didn’t share the backfield with Javonte Williams, who rushed for 1,140 yards and had 19 touchdowns.
Since 2017, 16 running backs drafted after the first round have rushed for over 700 yards in a single season. But only three who were drafted after the third round have hit that total in Marlon Mack (fourth), Aaron Jones (fifth) and Chris Carson (seventh).
The odds say it’s low that teams find an upper end starter on day three of the draft, but Carter has the talent and experience to overcome those odds.
One of the main reasons is the scheme fit. Under offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, the Jets will run a wide zone run scheme that focuses on the offensive linemen’s horizontal movement.
“I think my change of direction and my stop-start ability, I think it compliments this system well,” Carter told reporters after being drafted. “I’ve been running pretty much wide zone since I was born. So it’s something that really comes naturally to me. We read a lot of it in college, even in high school I did, even in youth football I did. So I’m very familiar with it. I’m just excited to get in the system.”
Head coach Robert Saleh felt the same way.
“Michael’s got tremendous vision, he’s got tremendous speed, burst. He’s got the ability to make people miss,” Saleh said after the draft. “He’s good on third down coming out of the backfield in the passing game, and he’s pretty stout in protection.”
The linemen’s objective in the wide zone is to move laterally by taking a step to the play side to set the edge. This helps them to gain the proper leverage with an opportunity to turn defenders back to the inside, and requires athletic linemen that can move to latch onto linebackers. The Jets feel that their last two first-round linemen, Mehki Becton and Alijah Vera-Tucker, will thrive in those assignments.
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This requires the running backs to have exceptional vision and patience as they wait for the edges to be set. Once the gap opens, it’s on the running back to explode through the hole. Carter has shown elusive ability and has exploited defenses when they’re not disciplined in their gaps.
Here’s an example of it against Syracuse in 2020.
Carter patiently paces himself as the blocks set up on the outside zone run, before he gets vertical and makes a defender miss in the second level for a 20 yard gain.
Here is an example of the 49ers, where LaFleur and Saleh are both coming from, running something similar.
Against the Giants, the 49ers were in 21 Personnel — meaning two running backs and one tight end — in a split back shotgun formation. They ran an outside zone run to the left side with Jerick McKinnon, who followed the hole created by left tackle Trent Williams, tight end Ross Dwelley and fullback Kyle Juszczyk.
Back to Carter. On this play North Carolina ran a counter:
North Carolina uses their guard and tight end as a puller to kick out and reach the play side defenders. It’s a great play call and Carter took advantage of it by using his vision and patience to get to the second level, then shook a couple of defenders on this 45 yard gain.
The 49ers ran something similar.
It didn’t get the same amount of yardage but it shows you the play is in the playbook. And Carter demonstrated he can create explosive outcomes in those situations.
Carter still has to still earn the starting spot, but his ability and fit is why the Jets were ecstatic when they drafted him in the fourth round.