Yes, it’s a passing league.
Yes, the Jets are about to draft a quarterback — all signs point to BYU’s Zach Wilson —with the No. 2 overall pick.
Yes, they are starved for big-time play at the quarterback position and are counting on Wilson to become the next Joe Namath.
But if Joe Douglas wants to fix his offense in a more reliable way, he has got to give Wilson a viable running game to add a sense of balance that simply hasn’t been there for the last decade. Ever since the final days of Rex Ryan’s "Ground ‘n Pound" offense that leaned heavily on the rushing attack, it has been one mediocre season after the next for Jets running backs.
Not even a $52 million investment in Le’Veon Bell solved the Jets’ problems in the running game; if anything, the wasted money on a player who was clearly past his prime underscored the weakness after Bell bombed in New York.
We have a two-word solution for the Jets’ general manager as he prepares for this week’s draft: Travis Etienne.
Douglas is in an enviable spot with five selections in the top 86, including two first-rounders (No. 2 and No. 23) and a second-round choice (No. 34). And if the third-year general manager comes away with Wilson and the best running back in this year’s draft, then the Jets’ offense can be a much more functional unit than in recent years.
Etienne’s credentials are impeccable. He averaged 7.2 yards per carry at Clemson, had a combined 3,272 yards and 43 touchdowns rushing in 2018-19 and rushed for 914 yards and 14 touchdowns in a 12-game 2020 season shortened by COVID-19. But he’s not just a talented runner. He’s a gifted pass catcher who had a combined 85 receptions for 1,020 yards and six touchdowns over his final two seasons.
There couldn’t be a more perfect fit for offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur’s West Coast offense. No matter that the Jets signed Tevin Coleman in the offseason; he’s a complementary back who has thrived in Kyle Shanahan’s offense, but he’s not the kind of all-around talent like Etienne.
He grew up watching Cam Newton dazzle on offense at Auburn — "basically, he was a running back at Auburn," Etienne says — and then became a fine runner himself. To the point where he must now be viewed as a player who can help any offense. Particularly one like the Jets, which will now revolve around a rookie quarterback who will benefit from a reliable running game.
Here’s what you get with Etienne:
"I’m a guy you don’t have to worry about," he said. "You get a consistent guy, a great guy who’s going to work hard on and off the field, not going to create any trouble for the team."
At 5-10, 205 pounds, he has prototype size. With a 4.41 time in the 40-yard dash, he has speed, too. And with reliable hands, he presents a rare combination of running and catching ability that will benefit any offense. Especially the Jets.
But Douglas can’t afford to wait long for him and might have competition from the Bills in selecting Etienne.
"Yes, the Bills have contacted me," he said. "If I ended up in Buffalo, I’ll be very grateful, very honored. It’s a great team, great quarterback [Josh Allen], a great system."
But he’s not discounting any possibilities, including the Jets.
"Wherever I get drafted," he said, "I’m going to be grateful. I’m going to just give it all to my team."
Etienne has taken the lessons imparted to him by Clemson coach Dabo Sweeney and will use them in this next part of his journey.
"Just never take anything for granted," Etienne said of Sweeney’s main message. "Each year, you have to start over. You’re not entitled to anything. Anything you get, you have to earn. Just the work ethic that he instilled in us will last a lifetime."
Combine that work ethic with a skill set that fits so well with the Jets’ new offense, and you’ve got the makings of a solid backfield for half a dozen years or more.
"I’m able to do it all," he said. "I’m able to be out there three downs. Being able to impact the team on each and every down is different, and it makes me worthy of the first round."
Flourishing as a pass catcher at Clemson will serve him well at the next level.
"I probably had 16 targets my whole career in high school," Etienne said. "Coming [to Clemson], it was really different. Had to change my whole game."
If you need any help imagining how he might look in the NFL, just consider this: His game has been likened to that of Alvin Kamara of the Saints and Dalvin Cook of the Vikings.
"I feel like both of those guys are very dynamic guys," Etienne said. "They’re able to change the game, running the ball and catching the ball. Yes, I feel like it’s fair to compare me to those guys."
Time to go out and get him, Joe.
The Jets haven't had a dynamic season from a running back since Thomas Jones rushed for 1,480 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2009.
Here's a look at the team's leading rushers over the past 11 seasons:
Year/runner/rushing yards/rushing touchdowns
2020: Frank Gore 653-2
2019: Le'Veon Bell 789-3
2018: Isaiah Crowell 685-6
2017: Bilal Powell 772-5
2016: Matt Forte 813-7
2015: Chris Ivory 1,070-7
2014: Chris Ivory 821-6
2013: Chris Ivory 833-3
2012: Shonn Greene 1,063-8
2011: Shonn Greene 1,054-6
2010: LaDainian Tomlinson 914-6