Sleeper Cell

Is Zonovan Knight a worthwhile waiver pickup for these last six weeks?

by Rivers McCown
Updated On: November 29, 2022, 1:50 pm ET

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Reality has mocked the idea of a Zonovan Knight breakout game as a fantasy narrative exiting Week 12. He led the Jets with 14 carries, but six of those happened in the last two drives of the game, with the Jets up 21 points and trying to eat clock. Michael Carter exited with a sprained ankle that appeared could possibly open up some runway for the other Jets backs, but Robert Saleh revealed on Monday that Carter was dealing with a low-ankle sprain that wasn't expected to cost him too much time. Moreover, I was bullied -- dare I say attacked -- by certain colleagues for asking for a Zonovan Knight picture for the top of this article. 

Here's what I find solace in: Knight was already making a move in this backfield before Carter was hurt. James Robinson was a healthy scratch because the Jets enjoyed Knight's running style: 

Not to draw too fine of a comparison, but remember how everyone liked Trey Sermon? Highly-drafted runner with the 49ers -- hey guess who happened to land in New York as HC/OC -- but he didn't get snaps and ultimately didn't stay on the roster because he was too cerebral. The 49ers drafted Elijah Mitchell well behind Sermon, and until they traded for Christian McCaffrey, Mitchell was their No. 1 back. When I hear what Robert Saleh says about Robinson, it kind of reminds me of how the 49ers laid out the scene for Mitchell passing Sermon on the depth chart. Saleh said after the game on Sunday that they felt they had "left a lot of meat on the bone lately" in the running game. Knight is here to reclaim some of it. 

And it's important to note that even before Carter got hurt, the Jets were giving Knight some touches. They were curious. He got two touches on the first drive of the game, including a goal-to-go carry. He had five touches to Carter's eight in the first half. The closing numbers padded some of his role, perhaps, but it genuinely looked like the Jets wanted to see if he could seize a real role. Nothing we saw in Week 12 should tell us he can't claim it. 

The runs and the opportunity

White can be a contributor in the passing game. He returned kicks, and his first NFL touch looked like this:

Good dedication to carrying out the fake. Catches the ball and is able to zoom in traffic -- CBS' broadcaster said that C.J. Uzomah got a good block on this play, and while he may have technically been in the way of the defender, Knight had to scoot past him because Uzomah's block wasn't perfect. This was, I thought, White's best run of the game:

This is the kind of downhill player I think the Jets are wanting to see in their run game. Knight shrugs off contact from a pursuing defensive tackle, presses his hole to try to get the defenders baited to the outside, then turns back inside. He has some fight in him at the end of the play, as well, after the spin doesn't quite get him around the safety. I don't think Knight was as consistently downhill as the Jets wanted on every play, but their blocking did leave something to be desired.

Opportunity wise, I want you to think about what you know about this Jets offense and remember that Mike White is going to keep teams from just destroying their passing game. The Jets are committed to the run, as the 49ers are. They're 12th in rushing DVOA at -1.2%, and have gone over 135 rushing yards in five of their last seven games. They're not a particularly great run blocking team, but I think the Wilson benching can be a tide that raises all boats for this offense. It can get defenses out of the box and make them respect the passing lanes more, it can create a situation where they have to respect the talent this team has at its wideout position by finally getting Elijah Moore and Garrett Wilson as involved as they should be. The White Album version of this offense is not going to make you forget about Tom Brady, but it's going to make defenses have to respect the pass. 

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And I think that happens to line up very nicely for Wilson. I'm not saying he's going to be the fabled "league winner on the waiver wire," but sometimes opportunity just clicks for these lowly-drafted or undrafted players with real talent. It happens in fantasy football. Did you think Amon-Ra St. Brown was going to fade away or be a fluke because he was a fourth-round pick in a bad offense last season? One of the hardest changes I've had to make after evaluating my own transaction decisions in leagues over the past few years has gone something like this: I've been biased against lower-round and undrafted picks, and I've been biased against players that broke out on teams I generally perceive as "sad." I finally broke that last season by making a real bid on St. Brown, and ... I still didn't use him enough. I still didn't believe quite as much as I should have! Priors, they are tricky to deal with.

So maybe Carter comes back after this week and Knight is only a FLEX play with a split of the backfield. By the way -- quick aside -- what has Carter ever done that would make us feel like he can't lose a job? The Jets did just trade up to draft a back to replace him.

Maybe Knight's role gets absorbed by Ty Johnson -- I kind of doubt it based on the early splits this game, but Johnson looked good. Maybe White has peaked and Knight will not be in as good of an offense as I'm forecasting. But I like that there are multiple ways I can win a claim on Knight. He showed some talent. He looks to be getting an opportunity in a good offense. He has receiving talent and rushing talent. Much like when I recommended Kenneth Walker after the Rashaad Penny injury (please don't tell me I'm patting myself on the back for this because I felt it was pretty easy), I think there are enough pathways here that make Knight fantasy viable that he's catching my eye this week. 

I also think there's enough sleeping on him that you might be able to get in on this cheap. If Carter misses time this week, Knight could be playable right away. What if he shows enough that he's got the job when Carter is ready to come back? I don't think anyone is this Jets field is good enough to transcend a committee, but I think Knight showed enough in game one to prove that he could lead that committee.

Rivers McCown

Rivers McCown has been writing about football since 2009, most notably at Football Outsiders and covering the Texans for The Athletic. He most recently wrote that thing you just read. He hails from Houston, TX, and has not been traded to Arizona for magic beans yet. You can say nice things about him on Twitter @riversmccown, and you can yell at him on Twitter @RotoPat.