By MICHAEL FAIRLIE //
While it is true that the Jets will have the opportunity to address the halfback position throughout the upcoming draft, it would be wise to have a reliable veteran on the roster prior to that. There is no guarantee, nor indication to this point, that the team will be able to retain Chris Ivory and/or Bilal Powell.
As things currently stand, the Jets are set to go into the 2016 season with Zac Stacy and Dominique Williams as their backfield duo. That is hardly an inspiring running back tandem to go into battle with.
Although Stacy did have an exceptional rookie season in 2013, during which he carried the ball 250 times for 973 yards and 7 TD’s, he has all but disappeared since then. He was buried on the bench for most of the 2014 season with the Rams and almost all of the 2015 season with the Jets. Zac appears as if he is running in a swimming pool as his 4.55 40 on the scouting combine is a distant memory.
Entering the league in 2014 as an undrafted free agent out of Wagner College, Dominique Williams tore it up in his four years at Wagner with 908 carries for 4,435 yards and 42 TD’s. He also added on 65 catches for 654 yards and another 4 TD’s. While those numbers are impressive, you have to consider that he was playing in the Northeast Conference, which is a far cry from the level of competition in the NFL.
Williams is certainly an intriguing project, but it remains to be seen what he will be able to do on the professional level. There is no guarantee that he will even make it out of training camp with the team, and if he does it is likely to be as a member of the practice squad as he continues to develop and adapt to the NFL game.
To go into the draft with such uncertainty at any position, let alone the running back spot, is dangerous to say the least. That is exactly what causes teams to reach for talent in the selection process, which is never a winning strategy in the NFL Draft. You want to fill as many holes as you can beforehand, so that you can choose the best players available that fit your scheme.
Assuming that Ivory and Powell end up on other teams in 2016, who else can the Jets look at in free agency to help fill the void left by their two starting halfbacks? Being that a big part of the reason the team may have trouble retaining those two is because of limited salary cap space, it is not likely that Lamar Miller, Matt Forte, C.J. Anderson or even Alfred Morris will be wearing the green and white this year.
Arian Foster is definitely a tempting choice, but he is likely to command a significant salary and his best days are behind him as he has been the walking wounded for the past three years, only competing in 25 of a possible 48 games. He is also 30 years old with a ton of mileage on his legs.
Next up in the line of free agent HB’s is the 24 year-old Ronnie Hillman, who had a breakout year for the Broncos in 2015, accounting for 863 yards on 207 carries with 7 TD’s. In addition, Hillman had 24 catches for 11 yards, proving that he can at least play a role in the passing game.
After being selected by the Broncos in the third round of the 2012 draft out of San Diego State, Hillman was relegated to a backup role in his first three seasons. In those three years, Ronnie saw action in 32 games, collecting 982 yards on 246 carries with 5 TD’s as well as 43 catches for 320 yards and a TD. He eventually earned more playing time in 2015, after C.J. Anderson struggled mightily early on, and he gave the Broncos’ offense the spark they needed.
During his two seasons at San Diego State, Hillman lit up the Mountain West Conference to the tune of 573 carries for 3,243 yards and 32 TD’s. He also grabbed 33 passes for 338 yards and another 3 TD’s. His 1,532 rushing yards and 17 Td’s were good for first in the conference in 2010, which he followed up with 1,711 yards and 19 TD’s in 2011, also good for tops in the Mountain West Conference.
Hillman is an incredibly quick and agile runner with excellent field vision and the patience to allow his offensive lineman to open up holes for him. He may not have blazing speed, but can get to the edge in no time, and once he hits the second level, Ronnie has the acceleration necessary to take off down the field.
Also a weapon on passing downs, Hillman can make people miss and gain significant yards after the catch in the screen game, although he could still use some work on his pass protection. Not exactly the workhorse type at 5’10 195 pounds, Hillman is best off sharing carries with another back.
The good news is that he will only be turning 25 at the start of the 2016 season. The arrow is still pointing up for the young Hillman, and he has not been subject to excessive wear and tear during his four seasons in the league.
The fact that he is a young back on the rise could make one conclude that he might be due for a significant payday, but his numbers in the playoffs during the Broncos’ Super Bowl run may work to drive his price down a bit.
Totaling only 54 yards on 32 carries in the postseason, teams will be hesitant to shower him with money, which could work to the Jets’ advantage. At the same time, they have to hope that those numbers were a product of defenses loading up against the run due to the fact that Peyton Manning could no longer beat them with his arm.
If the Jets cannot convince Ivory or Powell to stick around, Hillman would be quite an interesting option to team up with a halfback they choose in the draft. They can also hope for a resurgence from Zac Stacy this year, but that is not something the team can count on judging by his play in limited action this past season.
At the very least, Hillman would be an upgrade over what they have right now. He would provide the Jets with a young back who has the potential to bring his game to the next level if he continues the improvement he has shown the last couple of years.