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Zonovan Knight
NFL

What Should Zonovan Knight’s Role Be Going Forward?

  • Justin Melo
  • December 7, 2022
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New York Jets rookie running back Zonovan Knight has been a revelation. A first-year undrafted free agent out of NC State, Knight has compiled 159 rushing yards via 29 carries across the Jets’ last two contests. He’s averaging an explosive 5.5 yards per carry. A dual-threat back, Knight has added 62 receiving yards on eight receptions to his offensive totals. The Jets must find a way to keep Knight involved despite the impending return of fellow running back Michael Carter.

That onus now falls on Jets head coach Robert Saleh. Knight burst onto the scene midway through the Jets’ dominant Week 12 victory over the Chicago Bears after Carter suffered an ankle injury during the third quarter. He carried that momentum over to Week 13 by leading the Jets in rushing for the second consecutive contest. Carter missed New York’s Week 13 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, paving the way for Knight to command the Jets’ backfield. He did just that. But Carter is nearing a return from his aforementioned ankle injury and the Jets’ depth chart will become muddied once he does. 

Saleh has offered encouraging words regarding Knight’s role regardless of Carter’s status.

“Zonovan Knight isn’t going anywhere,” Saleh recently said.

The Jets are capable of splitting the workload between Knight and Carter in a similar manner to what their strategy was when lead ball-carrier Breece Hall was healthy. Knight should continue earning early-down duties with Carter serving as the team’s pass-catching and change-of-pace back, particularly on third-and-obvious passing situations.

Knight’s eight receptions indicate he’s improving his pass-catching abilities, but Carter is a far more advanced and technical receiving threat. Knight remains a work in progress in pass protection and as a general route-runner. Carter should supplant him on passing downs when healthy.

Knight is no stranger to heavier workloads, however. He joined the Jets as a UDFA after leading North Carolina State in rushing throughout his three campaigns with the Wolfpack. Knight can continue being productive at the pro level via early-down usage despite his inexperience.

Knight deserves all of the hype he’s currently receiving. Knight is averaging 3.72 yards after contact per attempt, via Pro Football Focus. He’s forced 10 missed tackles and has already accounted for two explosive (10-plus yards) runs despite limited opportunities, including a 48-yard gain against the Vikings. Knight has earned PFF’s highest elusiveness rating (151.0) over the past two weeks.

He also happens to be an excellent fit for offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur’s zone-based rushing scheme. Knight’s tape study throughout the pre-draft process highlighted a running back that was best suited to land in an offense that features zone-based concepts. It’s a relatively similar system to what Knight executed at NC State at such a high level. Knight has run zone-based looks on 16 of his 29 carries with the Jets, per PFF. It’s helped Knight acclimate to the Jets’ offense in an efficient manner.

Knight’s latest performances have left James Robinson in the dust. The Jets acquired Robinson from the Jacksonville Jaguars at the trade deadline following the news of Hall’s season-ending injury. But Robinson hasn’t met expectations and Knight has firmly surpassed him in the Jets’ pecking order. Robinson is averaging 3.4 yards per carry with the Jets and received just two carries against the Vikings after being a healthy scratch against the Bears. Knight will continue receiving the nod over Robinson.

The 7-5 Jets are currently postseason bound. They’re hanging onto the conference’s seventh and final playoff spot. The New England Patriots (6-6) and Los Angeles Chargers (6-6) are attempting to nip at their heels. The Jets will require some big performances from unlikely sources if they’re to achieve their goals. Zonovan Knight can help them do just that.

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Justin Melo