FLORHAM PARK — When the New York Jets drafted Israel Abanikanda in the fifth round of the 2023 NFL Draft, the belief was that the Pitt product would have to wait a while for his number to be called on a contending team.
After falling to 4-8 last week in a 13-8 contest with the Atlanta Falcons, it was another game that saw the rocket rookie runner fail to get into the game for a touch or offensive snap. In fact, since being called up to the active roster in Week 12, Abanikanda has failed to get on the field in every game except one – his first against the Buffalo Bills.
Despite the frustration that could come from not seeing the field for a team failing to run basic concepts on offense, Abanikanda told AMNew York this week that he was more focused on just learning the game in his first year.
“I wouldn’t say it’s frustrating,” Abanikanda explained. “I’m just happy to be in the position I am. I’m still learning and taking everything as a learning experience.”
So why isn’t a young rookie like the Pittsburgh University product getting playtime in a lost season?
To the coaches, there’s a lot in his game that needs to be taught and improved on first.
“He’s worked really hard,” offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett stated Thursday. “When he’s out there, all the different things we see, the different pressures, the different fronts, especially on third down, that it’s not easy. It’s not an easy task. As some might think, you just got one guy, and it changes quite a bit. Those guys are twisting and running all over the place. All those guys are doing a good job picking up that slack and Izzy’s one that he knows that he’s got a long way to go there.”
Pass blocking for running backs is an extremely complex part of the position. When a back misses a protection assignment in the passing game, the results are usually disastrous for the entire play.
That’s something Abanikanda was more than willing to explain.
“To be honest, I put it on my top improvement list. Keep trying to hit it every day, everything I do, I keep trying to improve.”
Part of the learning experiences that come from rookie runners is having to pick up exotic blitz looks that most NFL defenses possess. The tougher defenses know how to confuse blockers with twists and stunts that confuse even the top offensive lines in football.
It’s not just Abanikanda who has seemingly struggled with that though this season for the Jets. Seven-year veteran Dalvin Cook has struggled mightily in pass protection this year and over the last few seasons. Entering the 2023 season, Cook was second among running backs in pressures given up with 26 – not exactly a reason to be overly confident in anyone buying more time for whoever the quarterback is.
So if Cook is just as bad as a pass protector, what is stopping the Jets from using Abanikanda in typical rushing downs instead? Why can’t New York just utilize the rookie’s running capabilities instead of putting him in clear passing downs?
The honest answer (not the best one) is that the Jets are trying to win and to do that, they have to rely on the veterans on the roster to move the ball downfield. The obvious problem with that thought process though is that the more the Jets lose (and they have lost five in a row) the fewer teams should be using veterans that they could expect to have back next season.
With Breece Hall in his first full year coming off ACL surgery, there’s no reason to use him late in December. The more they do, the less it makes sense.
In reality, the next few weeks should be a golden opportunity for the Jets to use Abanikanda as much as possible. He’s got a good burst, and solid power to be trusted in most aspects of the NFL game. For a group that has scored just three touchdowns in their last five games, any sort of spark should be explored.
The Jets were comfortable looking for that spark by changing quarterbacks. They should be ok with going to their rookie runner at this point in the season as well.