It's not quite official, but Thomas Jones is going from the Jets -- if he is not already gone. I have to disagree with Bent at JetsBlog.com -- Jones actually will be quite easy to replace.
Remember, the Jets aren't replacing what Jones has been, but rather what he will be after 2,280 career carries, the 24th most in NFL history.
To figure out what Jones is likely to do going forward (wherever he ends up), let's see how the other backs ahead of him on the career rushing attempts list did from that 2,280-carry mark going forward. We'll only look at the full seasons after that point, which means we have to see the yards per rushing attempt of backs about a full season ahead of Jones. Let's then draw the line at Jamal Lewis' 2,542 carries (20th most ever) and work our way up the leader board from there.
First consider the reality of Jones' 2009 season. He averaged 4.2 yards per carry, but just 3.8 after October. And, to put that 4.2 in context, note the combination of Shonn Greene and Leon Washington averaged 4.9 yards on 180 carries. We won't mention the playoffs, where Greene just trounced Jones and was clearly the team's dominant runner.
And let me stipulate that Jones is in great shape. But Eddie George was in great shape, too. All these running backs still looked the part of NFL studs long after the numbers said otherwise. The Ferrari still looks great when there's no gas in the tank, but you can't ride it anywhere.
So, in the 10,741 carries for our top 10 rushers after they reached Jones' current attempts level, they had 42,595 yards -- 3.97 yard per carry. These are the greatest runners in the history of the sport, guys who collectively averaged over 4.5 yards per rush in the seasons prior to their 2,300th carry.
Expect a half-yard decline for Jones from his career level going forward, or about 3.5 yards per carry. This is sub-replacement value. You can do better than that off the street, I guarantee. In a perfect-world environment like the Jets had last year, Jones might have another year or two of 4.0 or so. But who cares when -- as was the case last season -- all the other backs are averaging almost a full yard per attempt more.
Going forward, the Jets need Leon Washington to return to full heath after his terrible leg injury last year. Some are saying that Jones and Greene are complementary backs, but they are far too similar. Neither adds much of anything in the passing game. Both are power backs. Greene, of course, is also explosive. So he's thunder and lightning.
It's not explosion or even a perimeter runner that the Jets need in a complement to Greene, but someone who can make plays in the passing game. Pre-injury, Washington was perfect for this role. Of course, Washington was -- and the Jets hope still is -- explosive running from scrimmage, too. While it's imperative that the Jets are certain of Washington's status for 2010 before the draft, I don't know if that's medically possible.
Jones' situation has no bearing on this however, as he is not that third-down guy regardless Washington's health. With the current CBA rules, the Jets do not have to worry about losing Washington to free agency. But they can't sign a free agent unless they lose one and only dollar for dollar (given that they reached the conference championship game).
This is a very deep year for running backs. Consider that Greene was a third-round pick and Washington was obtained as compensation in the fourth round for Herman Edwards. There are always draft bargains at the position, the easiest one in the NFL to scout.
It would be unfortunate for the Jets to spend another draft pick on a back, especially given that they currently have no third-, fourth- or fifth-round pick. But if they do, it will have nothing to do with losing Jones and everything to do with Washington's leg.