The Jets seem to lose another wide receiver to injury with each day of training camp, but their best receiver in recent practices has not been wearing a receiver’s number, but No. 26.
Jets coach Adam Gase has emphasized throwing the ball to Le’Veon Bell in recent days, a possible foreshadowing of what he has planned for this season.
“I feel like we can find better ways to get him the ball to help him create more explosive plays,” Gase said Tuesday. “We can get him in space better than what we did last year. I think that there was a lot of good that came out of what he did in the receiving game last year. But I don’t think we ever really gave him enough space to work, because that’s his game.”
Not much worked correctly with Bell in 2019, his first season with the Jets. A weak offensive line, adjusting to Gase’s system and coming back from a year off all led to one of Bell’s worst seasons as a pro. In the passing game, he caught 66 passes for 461 yards and a touchdown. Those are solid numbers, but Bell can do more. He had 85 catches for the Steelers in 2017.
Most of Bell’s catches last year came out of the backfield. He lined up wide just 41 times and in the slot 28 times, according to Pro Football Focus. If Gase can design ways to line up Bell wide more, the Jets could have a weapon that will offset what they are missing at wide receiver.
“If he gets space to work, he’s going to make a guy miss,” Gase said. “Or if a DB is trying to tackle him, he’s hard to bring down against the secondary guys. So, if we can keep finding different ways to mix it up, whether we’re formation, free releasing, putting him in empty, coming off of play action. I think we just got to really use the whole gamut and find as many different ways to get him to ball in space as possible.”
The addition of Frank Gore might actually help Bell in this regard. Gase trusts Gore more than any of the backup running backs from a year ago. There is potential for the Jets to have Gore in the backfield and Bell split out wide to create some interesting matchups.
Over the last two practices, Bell has been a frequent target of Sam Darnold.
“We’re trying to do a couple of things that maybe we haven’t done before or he hasn’t done before or some things that really they weren’t in the early parts of the install and we’ve got really kind of pretty deep and gotten those guys involved,” Gase said.
Gase has gotten running backs involved in the passing game before. Knowshown Moreno had 60 receptions for the 2013 Broncos with Gase as the offensive coordinator. Matt Forte had 44 catches with the Bears in 2015 when Gase was the coordinator. Kenyan Drake had 53 receptions in 2018 with the Dolphins when Gase was the head coach.
The Jets had three healthy running backs on Tuesday — Bell, Gore and Josh Adams. That also played a role in the emphasis on the passing game, but Gase sounds optimistic about what Bell can do.
“I feel good about when these guys get in the passing game,” Gase said, “and I think he’s really, he can see his route tree really expanded and we keep trying new stuff and if he likes something, hey, we make sure that we run that again and if it doesn’t like something, we’ll throw that thing away.”