Entering his third NFL season, running back and special teams extraordinaire Joe McKnight has only started to scratch the surface. Falling behind hall-of-fame bound running back LaDainian Tomlinson and power back Shonn Greene on the depth chart, McKnight’s talents were overshadowed the past two seasons. The former USC Trojan made the most of his limited playing time, excelling as a punt and kick returner, while showing spurts of explosiveness out of the backfield.
As a rookie, McKnight did not fall in the good graces of the coaching staff when he showed up for rookie minicamp out of shape and subsequently vomited on the practice field during drills. To make matters worse, McKnight demonstrated a propensity for fumbling during preseason action, making the front office question its decision to take him in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL draft.
Last season special teams coach Mike Westhoff took advantage of McKnight’s elusiveness in the open field giving him the nod as the Jets feature return man to fill the void left by wide receiver Brad Smith. In the 2011 regular season opener against the Dallas Cowboys, McKnight blocked a punt in the fourth quarter sparking New York to a 27-24 comeback victory on the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001. McKnight’s next signature moment as a Jet came during a Week Four loss to the Baltimore Ravens during which he returned a kickoff 107 yards for a touchdown. That spectacular return marked the first touchdown of his pro career and the longest play in franchise history.
McKnight had officially arrived and was named to the 2011 Pro Bowl as a kick returner.
Entering training camp, McKnight will be counted on as Gang Green’s primary kick returner and the Jets have considered using him as an emergency cornerback in certain packages. For whatever the reason may be, the Jets are reluctant to increase McKnight’s workload at his natural position of running back. With Tim Tebow, Terrance Ganaway and Greene headlining New York’s ground-and-pound, McKnight doesn’t figure into Sparano’s rushing game, but could emerge as a possible receiving option.
With Tomlinson announcing his retirement, McKnight represents the only true pass-catching halfback on the Jets depth chart. Sparano has not publicly stated how he plans to utilize McKnight, but with Ganaway and Greene lacking the receiving skills out of the backfield, the Jets offensive coordinator may turn to Gang Green’s third-year running back for answers.
So much uncertainty surrounds McKnight’s role within the Jets restructured offense and whether he will be a key contributor in Sparano’s system. If one thing is for certain, McKnight will be the team’s deep return man and look to build on an All-Pro year from a season ago.