BGA: Scouting Chris Ivory

Bent , TheJetsBlog.com

With the offseason well underway, the Jets have continued to sign some guys that Jets fans might not know too much about. I’ll be taking a closer look at each of the new signings and trying to assess what they can bring to the table for the Jets in 2013. Today, I take a look at running back Chris Ivory.

Click the BGA link at the top of the page to look back at some of the scouting work I’ve done on some of the other signings the Jets have made since the end of the season.

Ivory is a big back, standing 6-0 and tipping the scales at 222 pounds. He was an undrafted small school prospect out of Tiffin, but made an immediate impact with the Saints, rushing for over 700 yards and five touchdowns. However, he found it difficult to get many opportunities over the past few seasons and was traded to the Jets for a fourth round pick in this year’s draft. Ivory signed a three-year extension with the Jets, worth $6m, although that could rise to as much as $10m if he meets certain performance targets.

After the jump, I’ll be reviewing his career so far and looking in detail at what he could provide the Jets with this year and going forward.

Who is Chris Ivory?

Ivory started off at Washington State, where he rushed for 534 yards and four touchdowns in 22 games, at an average of 5.9 yards per carry. Injuries and coaching changes left him further down the depth chart than he would have liked and he was eventually kicked off the team for violating team rules. After transferring to Division II Tiffin, he was averaging 5.7 yards per carry over his first five games until suffering a season ending knee injury. After he ran a 4.48 at his Pro Day, adding a 36-inch vertical and a 119-inch broad jump, Ivory was undrafted, but signed with the Saints as an undrafted free agent.

Ivory had a breakout game in week six of his rookie year, as injuries allowed him to get an opportunity and he gained 158 yards. He led the team in rushing, but suffered a foot injury in the final game of the regular season and missed the playoffs. The same injury caused Ivory to be placed on the PUP list when the Saints camp opened in 2011 and he remained there until midseason, although there was a suggestion that he could have returned much sooner and the Saints (having just drafted Mark Ingram in the first round) were using the PUP list to preserve a roster spot. When he returned to the lineup, he again played well, averaging 4.7 yards per carry and highlighting his season with a 127-yard, one touchdown effort against the Panthers. In 2012, he again found it difficult to get many opportunities, averaging over five yards per carry, but only carrying the ball 40 times in six games. Ivory has always been productive when given an opportunity, but has seen his playing time reduce in each of the past two seasons.

Let’s look at Ivory’s numbers, then review what he brings to the table.

The Numbers

Three seasons
24 games
Eight starts
256 carries, 1,307 yards, eight touchdowns (5.1 ypc)
Three catches, 32 yards
67% catch rate (including preseason games)
Four career fumbles (none since 2010)
58 broken tackles, including one as a receiver
No penalties committed
Eight 20+ yard runs
Two 40+ yard runs
No pressure surrendered in 26 pass block snaps

I’m going to take a slightly different approach this time and look in detail at his performance in a variety of different categories:

Usage - Ivory basically always lined up as a tailback, directly behind the quarterback. The only times he didn’t were in the victory formation and once where he motioned out wide in his rookie season. When he was in the game, the Saints ran the ball approximately two-thirds of the time. When they did throw with him in the game, he stayed in to block just under a quarter of the time.

Running Ability – I don’t really need to go into much detail about Ivory’s running style as most Jets fans will by now have seen the highlights. Ivory’s running style is impressive to watch and his numbers for breaking tackles and yards after contact are among the best in the NFL. He displays vision and burst, can turn the corner and run away from defensive backs and doesn’t hesitate. He often displayed this on stretch/zone style running plays which are expected to become a staple of Marty Mornhinweg’s offense.

I’ll let you judge for yourself – here’s a good highlight reel from 2010 and here’s another from 2012. For completeness, go here to see his touchdown from 2011.

The consensus seems to be that Ivory can run the ball extremely effectively, but there is concern over his ability to do other things that will be required of him in the Jets offense, so I’m going to focus in more detail on some of these.

Pass Protection – It’s good to note that Ivory hasn’t surrendered any pressure, but the fact he’s only stayed in to block 26 times in three years could give rise to concern that the number is so low because they don’t trust him to do it. It’s not a scheme thing, because the Saints do leave their backs in to block pretty regularly. However, in terms of the percentage of time spent staying in to block, he’s not that far behind some of their other backs, so I don’t think that’s a situation they actively avoided – although perhaps if they had more confidence in him, his overall playing time would have increased.

Based on the evidence from the film, it’s difficult to fault him in pass protection. There was one play where he had to pick up an outside rush and he didn’t get over in time, but he still was able to get enough of his man to force him wide so Brees was still able to get off the throw without being pressured and there was one other play where he was double teaming with the left tackle and the defensive end split them, although he tripped as he did so and again was unable to put pressure on Brees. Other than that, he was pretty flawless. Granted, some of these pass protection assignments were straightforward – double teaming on a tackle’s man or getting wide to force a pass rusher back inside where a tackle could pick him up. There were a handful of individual blitz pickups though, including one where he read the cornerback coming off the edge and got across in plenty of time to allow Brees to make a first down throw to that man’s side. In such situations, he never blocked the wrong guy and he wasn’t driven off his spot as backs often are in that situation. He also showed a decent ability to make a cut-block on the edge following a fake handoff, something the Saints often did, including several times in the red zone for touchdowns. Here’s one example.

Receiving Threat - One of the main concerns about Ivory joining the Jets is that he only has three career catches and running backs in West Coast style schemes like the one the Jets are expected to run often need to be good pass catchers. Ivory does have another three catches in preseason games and did have 22 catches in college (including 13 at WSU in 2007), so while there isn’t much to be going on, he does have some experience catching the ball. By way of a comparison, Shonn Greene caught just 11 passes in college and struggled at first in the NFL to make an impact as a pass catcher.

When Ivory does catch the ball, he’s so good in space that he does represent a decent threat. Five of his six catches in the professional ranks went for at least nine yards, including the spectacular 76-yard touchdown you’ll have seen if you watched the 2010 highlight reel linked to above. All of them were on swing passes to the flat, apart from one where he caught a dump-off underneath and broke two tackles to gain 15.

His low numbers are mainly just a product of them just not throwing to him. Watching footage of those plays on which he ran a route, some saw the quarterback make a quick throw before he’d even looked back for the ball, some saw him tracked into the flat by a defender and some simply saw Brees take a downfield option instead – including this one, which probably would have been a 50-yard gain had the ball been checked down to Ivory in the left flat.

Hands - Ivory doesn’t have any dropped catches in the NFL – in fact there have only been three passes thrown to him (including preseason) that weren’t caught. One of those three was essentially a throw-away as the quarterback was about to be sacked and threw it at Ivory’s feet. Another was a horrible Brees pass that was almost intercepted by DT Jurrell Casey dropping into the flat. The last one was a costly error by Ivory, although this was more of a technical issue than a sign that he has bad hands. Brees was looking to throw downfield, but instead checked down to Ivory who turned the wrong way to look at the ball and then had to try and snag the ball behind him one-handed. It ended up being tipped into the air and intercepted, as you can see here.

That’s really the only example of poor technique as a receiver based on Ivory’s professional career to date and would hopefully be something that can be fixed. Pass catching is apparently a weakness of his, because the announcers were talking about some of his struggles in practice, but the fact that Ivory has done his job in an area where he isn’t naturally talented is perhaps a good sign of the kind of dedication he has.

Fumbles – Fumbles started off as a concern for Ivory, as they often do for NFL rookies, when he had three in four weeks early in his career. However, he only had one more in his rookie season and since then has handled the ball 167 times in the NFL without a fumble. He did fumble once in preseason in 2012 – his only preseason fumble – although that was on kind of a freak play as he was stumbling and reaching for extra yardage and got his bell rung. Of his four fumbles as a rookie, three came as he was hit at the line of scrimmage and only one of these was recovered by the defense. His fourth came on another freak play as he ran for 13 yards, but was then upended at the end of the run and the ball slipped out of his hands in mid-air. Looking at some of the 2012 highlights, he does seem to be protecting the ball well.

Short Yardage – You’d expect Ivory, given his strength, vision and tackle-breaking abilities to be excellent in short yardage. Looking at plays where Ivory ran the ball on 3rd or 4th and less than three, or inside the two yard line, his success rate for 2010 was 69% and for 2011 was just 59%. By comparison, when I scouted Lex Hilliard, I calculated his success rate in short yardage situations as 80%. However, based on stats from Football Outsiders, the NFL average success rate on short yardage plays this year was 63% so maybe Ivory didn’t fare too badly. The Saints success rate was 68% in 2010 and 65% in 2011, so he fits in reasonably well with that.

Interestingly, he didn’t get any short yardage carries at all in 2012.

Special Teams – Ivory doesn’t seem to have made any special teams contributions so far in his career, although he did do some kick returning while in college.

Instincts – As noted, Ivory has good vision and makes good reads in the running game, not just in terms of hitting the right gap, but also down the field. He also seemed to make the right choices in his limited opportunities as a pass protector.

Attitude – Ivory plays hard, runs with a purpose and is known to be a hard worker. I didn’t see any examples of him getting into it with teammates or opponents. It’s a good sign that he has never been flagged for a penalty, although I admit to being concerned that he might fall foul of the new rules which outlaw runners using the crown of their helmet as a weapon. Having looked back at some of the highlights though, when Ivory lowers his head, he still tends to lead with the shoulder pad, so hopefully should be compliant with the new rules, unless they are applied incorrectly.

Injuries – This is definitely a concern, although Ivory’s injury problems may have been somewhat overblown. Although he’s only played in 24 games in three seasons, plenty of the games he missed were simply because he was inactive due to the Saints’ log-jam at the running back position and it’s feasible to suggest that he could have played in some of those games where he was listed as out with an injury – especially those where he was on the PUP list.

In 2012, he was actually healthy all year, until having some issues with a hamstring problem that caused him to miss three games down the stretch, although he was only actually listed as “out” once. Once returning from the PUP list in 2011, he was healthy the rest of the way, only appearing on the injury list once, as questionable with another hamstring issue in week 10. Finally, in 2010, he was actually on the injury list for most of the season with a variety of ailments. However, after missing the first two games with a knee injury, he was listed as probable every week until week 15, so he was available for most of the year.

He did also have a few minor issues at WSU and saw his senior year at Tiffin cut short because of a knee injury, so it will be important for him to stay on the field and make the most of his opportunity to break out.

Conclusions

It’s obvious that Ivory has a lot of talent and although some people have suggested he might not be a good fit for a West Coast offense due to his lack of contributions in the passing game, I actually see him as a particularly good fit for what they use the backs for in Marty Mornhinweg’s offense. Ivory is excellent in space and can win one on one matchups with speed or with power and those are the types of situations this offense aims to create for him.

If Ivory can improve his contributions as a pass catcher and blocker, then he could become a three-down back in this system, but the Jets have a couple of other options they can throw out there at the running back position, so that’s not necessarily essential. It would help his effectiveness though, if he can become a little less one-dimensional.

For the Jets to get good value for the fourth round pick they gave up for Ivory, he’ll need to remain healthy. However, if he can do that, I have a lot of confidence in his ability to produce at a high level.

We’ll be looking at Stephen Peterman next…

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