The Jets have a really good foundation to build upon this offseason. They're not just one piece away but they are closer to being only a couple of pieces away than being in need of a complete overhaul. But one of those needed pieces has to be a running back because Zac Stacy and the newly signed kick return specialist Dri Archer are the only running backs the Jets have under contract for the 2016 season.
Chris Ivory, Bilal Powell and Stevan Ridley are all unrestricted free agents and while Mike Maccagnan will drop the usual GM line about "we would like to have everyone back" we all know not all of these guys will be returning and most likely it will only be one, if any, of these guys that dons the Green and White next year.
Of course the Jets would love to have Ivory return, when he's completely healthy he is a constant force that will drive defenses crazy with his mixture of power and shifty quickness. He has also improved as a receiver and has the ability to wear down an entire defense. The only problem is the things that make him great as a runner also make him unreliable for an entire season. His style of running is an absolute joy to watch and can bruise the bodies and egos of defenders but it can also bruise and hamper his ability to be at his best.
What makes him so effective is the punishment he delivers and the power that he runs with but after enough carries that powerful punishments starts to bounce back on him. What might be most frustrating about Ivory is that it doesn't tend to be major injuries that will definitely cause him to miss a few games but injuries just nagging enough to make him ineffective and the only way to know if he'll be ineffective or be able to power through it is to run him out there and watch him be ineffective and by then it's often to late.
While it seems unlikely that Ivory returns to the Jets next year we shouldn't completely rule it out. There are a couple of other factors that come into play here such as, what will the market for him be like elsewhere? Is someone going to give him a four-year deal at $5 million plus per year? Or will other teams have the same concerns as the Jets and balk at giving him any more than a two-year offer?
Also how much money will the Jets have to spend this offseason? They still have to spend the large majority of their cap space to hit the cap floor but how much available cap space will they have by the time Ivory is ready to sign his next contract? How much will Ryan Fitzpatrick's contract be for? Will the Jets re-sign Muhammad Wilkerson and/or Damon Harrison? How much money will the Jets free up by renegotiating contracts like D'Brickashaw Ferguson or straight up cutting like they could with Antonio Cromartie, Jeremy Kerley or Breno Giacomini?
All of this matters because if the Jets re-sign Fitzpatrick, Wilkerson and Harrison they likely won't want to spend even medium money on a running back, but if they don't sign all three or only re-sign Fitzpatrick and they create a bunch more cap room with cuts and restructuring then they could afford to dump an extra million or three on a running back.
All of this will come into play when the time comes but for now I'll stick to saying it's unlikely Ivory will be back next year. Same goes for Ridley but for different reasons, maybe the Jets give him another shot on a cheap deal hoping he will have a bounce back year now that he's fully recovered from his ACL injury but they could find a younger back with potential for just as cheap.
Powell makes the most sense to bring back, but it wouldn't be to give him the lead back role or anything. Powell won't cost them much money, is an excellent pass blocker and second running back. He is a good receiver and an efficient runner, he sees the hole and he hits the hole. The Jets offense was at it's best last season when Powell was healthy and no one will ever be able convince me that the Jets would have lost that Week 17 game in Buffalo if Powell was healthy.
So, expect Powell to return and Ivory and Ridley to go elsewhere. That still leaves the Jets with a need for a lead back because Stacy and Archer are not that. Will they look for that in free agency? Doubtful because while there are some excellent backs available the Jets don't have the flexibility in their cap space to address their other needs and pay big money to a running back.
Matt Forte would certainly make the Jets offense better but someone's going to give him a lot more money than the Jets will be able/want to. Same goes for Doug Martin and Lamar Miller. If the money was reasonable I'd probably choose Miller from this bunch because he has the least amount of miles on him seeing as how hesitant the Dolphins were to use him but any of them would certainly improve the running attack. But while Martin and Miller won't see Forte type money all of them figure to get more than Ivory will get. If the Jets had more cap room, or if they didn't have other areas they need to allocate their available money to, then sure go ahead and sign on of these guys but it's more likely Ivory returns for less money than we all expect him to get than for the Jets to spend enough to get one of those three backs.
So if the Jets don't sign one of those four potential lead backs that leaves the free agency cupboard pretty empty as far as lead backs go. Names like James Starks, Alfred Morris, Chris Johnson and Ronnie Hillman won't get anyone excited as a lead back which means the best/most likely scenario is to acquire a back in the draft.
If you've looked at any recent mock drafts you've likely seen people mocking Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott to the Jets in the first, it's certainly possible depending on how the first 19 picks go but I'm going to guess there will be a player with a higher grade than Elliot on the Jets board when they make their first-round pick. Derrick Henry could be an option in the second, if available, but the guy I like best as a fit for the Jets (note: I haven't started breaking down tape yet and am only going off of what I saw watching games on TV) is Utah running back Devontae Booker.
So, right now I'm thinking Powell returns and stays in his same role, Ivory most likely won't be back but I certainly wouldn't completely rule it out, the most likely replacement for Ivory as a lead back will probably come through the draft, whether that ends up being Elliot, Henry, Booker or someone else we will have to wait and see.
Chris Nimbley is the Editor-in-Chief of JetsInsider.com/NYJScout.com. He can be reached on Twitter (@cnimbley), or via email (email@example.com)