I feel bad for the modern running back. They scratch, claw, and pound their way forward for years on end to keep their respective offenses on schedule in every game. Yet once they are allowed to use those skills in a professional environment, NFL teams and media alike both write them off as expendable cogs in the machine. How is that fair? Why is it okay for the players who are most responsible for the success or failure of an offense – behind only the quarterback and left tackle, that is – to be discarded and treated like replaceable parts?
Would the Cowboys have stood a chance at maintaining their suffocating, ball control offense without DeMarco Murray toting the rock nearly 400 times? Would the Steelers have even made the postseason without Le’Veon Bell turning two yard losses into massive gains? Could the Seahawks have won the Super Bowl last year without Marshawn Lynch? Could the Broncos have survived Peyton Manning’s late season slump without C.J. Anderson stepping up out of nowhere? How bad would the Texans or Chiefs offenses have been without Arian Foster and Jamaal Charles? How screwed would the Bengals be if Jeremy Hill was not there to fill in for Giovani Bernard after his hip injury?
Whether or not the league recognizes it yet, running backs are just as important in today’s pass-happy NFL as they were in the 70s and 80s. Regardless of what round they are drafted in, having a thoroughbred in the backfield who can slog out tough yards inside, break off big chunk plays outside, protect the quarterback on passing downs, or even catch those passes himself is an advantage that the best teams in the NFL routinely have. If and when Bill O’Brien gets his ball club into that category of competitors, it will likely be on the back of his ground game. Perhaps for that reason more than any other, Houston should be looking to add talent to their backfield early in the 2015 NFL Draft.
Arian Foster is undoubtedly still one of the league’s most dangerous offensive weapons, but at this point in his career, the cracks in his armor are starting to widen. Year after year, Foster has endured bumps, bruises, and the occasional season-ending injury. Ben Tate was a good enough runner to fill the void whenever Foster inevitably went down in seasons past, but that strong secondary option no longer exists on the roster. I was personally a big fan of Alfred Blue’s work ethic and special teams contributions during his rookie season, but his athletic limitations will always hold him back from being that true war horse that every run-heavy offense relies on. If Foster were to go down again, my confidence in Blue to keep the run game afloat at the same level would be shaky at best.
Enter this year’s running back class. Perhaps no other position group in the entire 2015 NFL Draft is as deep from top to bottom. There are monsters worthy of high first round picks, like Melvin Gordon and Tevin Coleman, an insanely talented yet injury-prone beast in Todd Gurley, and a mind-boggingly deep group of "day two" prospects who could all easily be future Pro Bowlers like Mike Davis, T.J. Yeldon, Duke Johnson, Ameer Abdullah, and Jay Ajayi. From short yardage battering rams to perimeter weapons, this running back crew has something for everyone, including the Texans.
Let us pose a scenario and pretend that the following mock draft actually takes place:
1) TB – Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State
2) TEN – Shane Ray, EDGE, Missouri
3) JAX – Leonard Williams, 5-Tech, USC
4) OAK – Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama
5) WAS – T.J. Clemmings, OT, Pittsburgh
6) NYJ – Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon
7) CHI – Dante Fowler, EDGE, Florida
8) ATL – Randy Gregory, EDGE, Nebraska
9) NYG – Cedric Ogbuehi, OG/OT, Texas A&M
10) STL – Andrus Peat, OT, Stanford
11) MIN – DeVante Parker, WR, Louisville
12) CLE – Eddie Goldman, 5-Tech, Florida State
13) NO – Vic Beasley, EDGE, Clemson
14) MIA – Brandon Scherff, OG/OT, Iowa
15) SF – Jaelen Strong, WR, Arizona State
16) HOU - …
Now let’s assume that Kareem Jackson and Derek Newton have both been re-signed, while Johnathan Joseph is let go as a cap casualty. Jackson is a stud cornerback, and one could argue that there are already four young, developing corners on the roster in A.J. Bouye, Andre Hal, Darryl Morris, and Jumal Rolle who all have a good chance of being solid contributors. Would the Texans really draft yet another cornerback early and have him sit sixth on the depth chart behind four other young defensive backs? Probably not. I would also wager that a backup right tackle behind Newton would not be a high first round priority either.
With the names that are already off the board and the holes still left on the roster, there are just a few options available that both match the talent level required to justify the pick while also filling a big need on the team – Melvin Gordon, Tevin Coleman, and Eric Kendricks (ILB, UCLA). Kendricks would be an intriguing option as an undersized tackle machine that can also bring pressure on blitzes and cover well in space in zone-heavy schemes. Gordon or Coleman, as mentioned above, would both ideally be seen as the heir apparent to Foster as well as complementary backs to eat into Foster’s carry count and preserve his legs.
With Gordon comes an unreal blend of quickness, speed, power, and vision that can gash defenses on any given play for a big gain. Coleman has no shortage of speed himself, and though he does not have quite as much quickness in small spaces as Gordon, his pass protection and receiving skills are among the best in this class. Both of these backs are three-down warriors of the highest caliber, and either one could easily be justified as the sixteenth overall pick in their own ways.
Again, the preceding scenario is just one of many that could happen on draft day, but this situation is more plausible than some Texans fans may realize. It is becoming more apparent with each passing season that Arian Foster’s brilliance will not last forever, so Bill O’Brien would do well to have a backup plan sooner rather than later. After all, the only thing better than having an elite running back on the roster is having two elite running backs on the roster.