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Michael Carter Brings Breakout Star Potential to New York Jets Backfield

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystMay 31, 2021

New York Jets fourth-round draft pick Michael Carter works out during NFL football rookie camp, Friday, May 7, 2021, in Florham Park, N.J. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)
Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

All eyes will be on Zach Wilson after the New York Jets made the quarterback the second overall pick in April's draft, but another rookie in the team's backfield could steal some of the spotlight. 

The Jets chose Michael Carter 105 picks after Wilson, yet the rookie running back is already working with the first team and has a chance to start alongside his classmate. 

The Athletic's Connor Hughes reported that Carter rotated with veterans Tevin Coleman and Ty Johnson during OTAs as the coaching staff looks for its lead back. 

"Carter, the rookie, is sneaky twitchy. You can tell he's the most elusive of the group," Hughes added after seeing the rookie take his first reps at the professional level. "The key for him will be determining when to dance and when not to. Sometimes he needs to be decisive."

The final point shouldn't come as a surprise as the young player gets acclimated to his new surroundings. Once he gains his footing, the other backs on the roster will likely find themselves behind Carter on the depth chart with the potential for a breakout rookie season despite being a mid-round selection. 

The fourth-round pick is an ideal fit in the Jets' new offensive scheme, displays tremendous vision and his cutting ability ranked among the best in this year's draft class.

Although, Carter had been overlooked to a degree during the evaluation process despite top production at a Power Five program. Over the last two seasons, the first- and third-team All-ACC honoree at North Carolina rushed for 2,248 yards while sharing the backfield with fellow draftee Javonte Williams. The Denver Broncos drafted Williams two full rounds higher than Carter despite the latter producing at a greater level. 

Najee Harris and Travis Etienne heard their names called in the first round. Harris is a prototypical workhorse back with the size (6'1", 232 pounds) and ability to become the focal point of the Pittsburgh Steelers offense. Etienne is different in that the Jacksonville Jaguars view him as an offensive weapon that will be used in a variety of manners. 

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Like Harris, Williams is a bigger back compared to Carter with a better athletic profile. The San Francisco 49ers chose Trey Sermon in the third round after he flashed immense potential at both Oklahoma and Ohio State. 

Really, the stacking of those ball-carriers came down to preference because they're all capable of becoming lead backs with their respective squads. Looking through a very specific lens of the best pure runner in the class, Carter can make a strong argument despite having some perceived limitations. 

The idea of a mid- to late-round running back turning into a top threat isn't anything new. The New Orleans Saints' Alvin Kamara, Chicago Bears' David Montgomery, Cleveland Browns' Kareem Hunt, Green Bay Packers' Aaron Jones, New England Patriots' Damien Harris, Washington Football Team's Antonio Gibson and Seattle Seahawks' Chris Carson all came off the board between the third and seventh rounds. Others like the Jacksonville Jaguars' James Robinson, Houston Texans' Phillip Lindsay and San Francisco 49ers' Raheem Mostert weren't even drafted. 

Because quality production can be found later in the process, some view the position as devalued. At the same time, the evaluation of certain individuals should be brought into question as to why they fell where they did. 

In Carter's case, size, or lack thereof, became an issue. He's 5'8" and 201 pounds. For some, those measurements automatically mean he can't be a feature back. Comparatively, Carter is similar in build to Jones, Mostert, the Buffalo Bills' Devin Singletary and Kansas City Chiefs' Clyde Edwards-Helaire. While they're on the smaller end of the spectrum, each is more than capable of being RB1. 

Ben McKeown/Associated Press

Prototypical size and speed aren't everything. Vision, footwork, decisiveness, explosiveness and elusivity are far better indicators of who will exceed expectations as an NFL running back. For Carter, he has all of the traits necessary, especially in Mike LaFleur's new scheme. 

From a traditional standpoint, Carter ranked fourth last season with 1,245 rushing yards and first among collegiate backs with 100 or more carries with an average of 8.0 yards per carry. Those are solid numbers unto themselves, but they only tell part of the story. 

Carter led major college football over the past two seasons with 29 carries of 20 or more yards, per Pro Football Focus. He also tied for fourth with 32 runs with 10 or more yards after initial contact

The back may not present true top-end speed with a 4.50-second 40-yard dash, but his short-area burst combined with the excellent vision to exploit cutback lanes and contact balance through arm tackles allowed him to create chunk play after chunk play. His change-of-direction quickness is a big reason why.

According to Mockdraftable's Marcus Armstrong, Carter finished among the 97th percentile in the short shuttle and 85th percentile in the three-cone drill. He can stop and start more quickly than any runner in the class. 

"Michael's got tremendous vision, he's got tremendous speed, burst. He's got the ability to make people miss," Jets head coach Robert Saleh told reporters 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."

Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

The runner's skill set is extremely important. Saleh and LaFleur, who previously served on the San Francisco 49ers coaching staff, bring Kyle Shanahan's vaunted outside zone to New Jersey. Carter is a cutback runner with a strong feel for zone-blocking schemes. 

"I think my change of direction and my stop-start ability, I think it compliments this system well," Carter said. "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."

The running back is a natural fit, which should ultimately make his transition far easier while providing ample opportunity to excel early in his career. 

From the Jets' perspective, Coleman would be the safe choice to start. After all, the Atlanta Falcons originally chose Coleman in the third round of the 2015 draft for the singular purpose of playing in Shanahan's scheme. But the 28-year-old veteran has never eclipsed 800 rushing yards in a season. Carter presents so much more potential in the run game to take some pressure off Wilson and lean on the team's massive offensive line. 

"Back at SC, in Graham Harrell's offense, we ran a lot of outside zone," Alijah Vera-Tucker, whom the Jets drafted with this year's 14th overall draft pick, told reporters. "On top of that, for how big I am, I'm just an athletic guy who can get to a specific angle point with a defensive lineman and cut him off. I can do what I need to do and get my block and just create holes for the running backs."

A left side of Vera-Tucker and Mehki Becton should be a dominant pairing. Thus, the Jets running game could quickly turn into a strength, especially with the right pieces in place.

An effective run game will take pressure off of Wilson. In turn, Carter has the potential to emerge as a star like other unheralded backs before him. 

     

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.

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