FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) - Bilal Powell is ready to make a run at the New York Jets’ suddenly crowded backfield.
After focusing on defense with their first two picks, the Jets took the Louisville running back in the fourth round of the NFL draft Saturday. Powell joins LaDainian Tomlinson, Shonn Greene, Joe McKnight _ last year’s fourth-round pick _ and fullback John Conner, the team’s fifth-rounder a year ago in the Jets’ solid running game.
“I just want to come in and compete,” Powell said moments after being drafted. “I just want to get under those guys and learn the system and compete everyday.”
It’s uncertain when that will be, though, given the NFL’s uncertain labor situation with an on-again, off-again and now on-again lockout.
The Jets traded up eight spots in the fifth round, swapping places with the Philadelphia Eagles and taking TCU wide receiver Jeremy Kerley. They also sent a sixth-round selection to Philadelphia for the Eagles’ seventh-round pick in the deal.
The 5-foot-11, 205-pound Powell ran for 1,405 yards and 11 touchdowns and caught 18 passes for 158 yards and three more scores in his senior season, his first as a starter for the Cardinals. He took on a more prominent role in the offense last season under new coach Charlie Strong, who replaced Steve Kragthorpe.
“My role changed and they gave me a different opportunity to play,” Powell said.
Powell didn’t run at the NFL combine because of a pulled right hamstring that he said is still healing, but the Jets apparently felt confident he’ll be fine once football starts up again. An excited coach Rex Ryan, general manager Mike Tannenbaum and several other team officials were shown congratulating each other in the team’s draft room on NFL Network after the pick.
It was a curious selection if only because the Jets already have a few versatile pass-catching threats in the backfield in both Tomlinson, who’ll be 32 but wants to come back, and McKnight, who is expected to play a bigger role this season.
“Just being able to catch the ball out of the backfield,” Powell said of his strengths, “and being able to run inside and outside, and also contribute on special teams.”
He also has an intriguing back story. According to a report by ESPN.com last September, Bilal ran with gangs in high school and was hospitalized after being stabbed following his sophomore year. He credits religion for helping him turn his life around.
“I had a troubled (childhood),” he said. “I kind of rebelled a little bit, but ended up being saved going into my senior year. It changed a lot of things for me.”
The Jets addressed their defense early in the draft, taking Temple defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson in the first round and Hampton nose tackle Kenrick Ellis in the third. Powell met with the team during the last several weeks, and left them with a favorable impression.
“I kind of figured they had a good interest in me, especially after the visit,” he said.
Powell was a two-way star at Lake Gibson High School in Lakeland, Fla., as he starred at tailback and cornerback. Louisville actually recruited him as a defensive back, and Powell turned down scholarship offers from Michigan State and Southern Mississippi to join the Cardinals.
After three mostly unspectacular seasons during which he started just five times, Powell blossomed as a senior and fell just 25 yards shy of the school’s single-season rushing mark, set by Howard Stevens in 1971. He ran for over 100 yards seven times, and his two 200-yard performances set Louisville’s single-season mark and tied Stevens’ career record.
Kerley, the 153rd pick, caught 56 passes from Andy Dalton at TCU for 575 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, and also is a special teams standout. He won the Mountain West Conference’s special teams player of the year award his last two seasons.
Wide receivers Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards and Brad Smith are scheduled to become free agents, and Kerley could help replace the versatile Smith is the Jets can’t re-sign him.
“I’m definitely a special teams guy,” Kerley said. “I know what makes me, and my special teams ability is what makes me the player that I am.”
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