Zach Wilson's rookie year hinges on Jets' ability to run the ball

Rookie Michael Carter, the former Tar Heels standout who is 5-foot-8 and 201 pounds, will be counted on to elevate the Jets' recently anemic rushing attack. Kathy Willens

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- If the New York Jets want to get the best out of rookie Zach Wilson, if they want to put an end to the vexing quarterback drought that has plagued the franchise for decades, they must learn to do this one thing exceptionally well:

Run. The. Ball.

They were really bad at it during the Sam Darnold era, ranking 30th in rushing offense over three years -- which probably explains a lot of things. Now they have a new coaching staff and a new scheme with a history of success, but big questions remain because the current cast of running backs lacks a true star.

And a true starter, for that matter.

Some perspective: If you combine the rushing yardage from the career years of the Jets' four veteran backs -- Tevin Coleman (800 yards), Josh Adams (511), Ty Johnson (273) and La'Mical Perine (232) -- the total would be 1,816. That's 200-plus yards fewer than Tennessee Titans star Derrick Henry's 2,027-yard performance in the 2020 NFL season.

For the Jets, the star is the system, an outside zone scheme known for turning pedestrian players into 1,000-yard rushers. It started nearly 30 years ago with coach Mike Shanahan, who taught it to his assistants, who taught it to their assistants. One of them was Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, who grew up in the coaching business under Shanahan's son, current San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan.

The scheme is like a secret family recipe, passed down through the generations, finally arriving in New Jersey.

"Best scheme in the world," said Jets coach Robert Saleh, who also worked under Kyle.

The Jets don't have to be world beaters, but they have to run the ball effectively to take pressure off Wilson, keeping him out of third-and-long and allowing him to utilize the play-action element in the offense. One of the reasons why they drafted him No. 2 overall was because of his ability to excel in play-action situations.

Now all they have to do is get better blocking up front and scheme up ways to get production out of their no-name backfield, which includes fourth-round pick Michael Carter, who might be the best of the bunch.

"I do think they all could be productive backs in this system," LaFleur said.

The plan is to use the "committee" approach, which is how the 49ers made it to the Super Bowl in the 2019 season. They finished second in total rushing, but had no backs who cracked the 800-yard mark -- Raheem Mostert (772), Matt Breida (623) and Coleman (544).

The league is trending away from the one-man show.

"There are a few guys," Saleh said. "Derrick Henry still does it; there's a few of those. If you have one, you have one. You never want to force the issue. You want to share the load, and it gives those guys a chance to have longevity in their career."

The scheme requires patient backs who can run east-west until they see a crease and ... vroom! It's one cut and go. Coleman has an early edge because he's familiar with the system and has the most straightaway speed, based on data from NFL Next Gen Stats.

"When he gets the ball in his hand and makes that one cut," Saleh said, "it's like he's shot out of a cannon."

Coleman, 28, didn't generate much interest on the free-agent market (he signed for one year, $1.1 million), which says what the league thinks about him. Perine (5-foot-11, 216 pounds) is "a big, powerful back who can get downhill in a hurry," Saleh said. Quite frankly, Perine, a 2020 fourth-round pick, didn't show any special qualities as a rookie. Some opposing scouts wonder if the scheme change will stunt his development.

The most intriguing player is Carter (5-foot-8, 201), who runs bigger than his size and brings more quickness than the others. He ran for 1,245 yards and an 8.0 average last season at North Carolina, which suggests there's potential in those thunderous thighs.

"Every back has a unique trait," Saleh said of the Jets' depth chart. "Finding roles for them is going to be fun."

"They come in so many shapes and sizes," said LaFleur, suggesting there's no prototype of a player for the scheme.

Jets general manager Joe Douglas didn't have many great options in the offseason. The free-agent market was weak, and he wasn't about to pay big bucks after the Le'Veon Bell disaster by the previous regime. In the draft, he could have picked Najee Harris or Travis Etienne, but he preferred to use his second first-round pick on guard Alijah Vera-Tucker. Two other running backs were chosen before he selected Carter near the top of the fourth round.

There was no fault in Douglas' strategy, but it leaves them with question marks. Quite frankly, the Jets haven't been a formidable running team since 2009-10, when they controlled the trenches and protected their young quarterback, Mark Sanchez.

They need to get back to that mentality with Wilson.