It’s that time of year again. The regular season just a few agonising weeks away. In the meantime, we have training camp to whet our appetite for football news.
Every year, there is a battle for roster spots at every position. This year, the competition is the strongest it has been in a long time, with Bill O’Brien’s long-term vision slowly coming together.
In this series of posts, we’ll have a look at the competition at running back heading in to camp and how the depth chart might shape up heading into week one of the regular season.
Despite losing the best running back we’ll ever have in Arian Foster, the running back situation is Houston is looking great. Lamar Miller will be our new Foster. Despite the difference in skill-sets, Miller comes in as our number one back and will take a majority of the carries, much like Foster did when he was healthy. Miller is young and has relatively few miles on his legs heading into the 2016 season after being underutilised in Miami. However, I expect Bill O’Brien will be more than happy to hand him the ball more than twenty times a game. This Texans' defense knows all too well how good Miller can be after they got embarrassed in Week 7, as Lamar racked up 236 total yards on just 17 touches. He’s quick, agile and without doubt a playmaker. Lamar Miller is a huge upgrade over last season and is a lock for the roster.
Another guy that I think is a lock for the 2016 roster is Tyler Ervin. He’s not a lock for the roster just because he was a fourth round pick this year – although it certainly does help – but because he fits a role better than anyone else on this roster could. He’s a 4.3 guy who can catch the ball really well, he will be useful running outside the tackles, and he can return the ball. There’s no one else on the offense, apart from maybe Braxton Miller, who has that versatility. However, I still expect Ervin to be used sparingly. O'Brien has shown that he tends to start rookies at the bottom of the depth chart until they have shown they deserve otherwise. Ervin will get a handful of carries per game, but with the threat he provides in the receiving game, he may get a fair few snaps on passing downs.
After that, it becomes really difficult to guess who makes the roster.
The first thing to consider is: How many running backs are we going to carry this year? The past couple of seasons, O’Brien has decided to carry four running backs. This season, there is a good case for only needing three.
Without a feature back last year, we needed four backs to rotate to keep fresh and hope that, as a unit, they could perform as well as any star individual could. It also allowed O’Brien to use his backs' differing skill-sets to take advantage of what he was seeing during the game to maximise their output. However, with Miller taking over twenty carries a game and Ervin being a speedy receiving back to come in for eight to twelve plays a game, do we really need another two running backs for those limited remaining snaps?
Another point to consider is the fact that O’Brien talked a lot about Braxton Miller’s versatility on offense. It is entirely possible that we could see Braxton head into the backfield for a couple of snaps a game, even if only as the fourth man up at the position. With the fourth running back likely to only get a couple of snaps a game, why use a spot on a designated running back when Braxton could do the same job without the use of an extra roster spot? Miller showed explosiveness when he ran the ball at quarterback at Ohio State, so I imagine Bill will be trying to get the ball in his hands at any extra opportunity.
So the question is, who gets the other spot(s)? Let’s take a look at the contenders. In the interest of keeping this post below 3,000 words, I'm breaking each candidate up into his own post.
The Prime Candidate:
Say what you want about Blue, but he is reliable. Alfred has just two fumbles on his 382 touches over the past two years, only one of which was recovered by the opposing team. You can rely on him to pick up a couple yards and not turn the ball over in the process.
Blue has also stepped into that feature back role on a handful of occasions and performed really well--Cleveland in 2014 when got 36 carries for 156 yards, Tampa in 2015 where he managed 31 carries for 139 yards, at Indianapolis last year where he got 20 carries for 107 yards, and Jacksonville where he managed 102 yards off 21 carries. In fact, on the five occasions where Blue has had more than 20 carries, only once has he finished with below 4.0 yards per carry.
However, when Blue only gets those 10 or so carries a game, he struggles. Badly. Blue had six games where he finished with below two yards per carry last season. That simply isn’t good enough. He will have to make the most of the limited carries he does get if he wants to keep his place on this roster.
Blue does have an upside in that he contributes on special teams. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that blocked punt TD in his first NFL game, mostly because I don’t think I’ll see another for a long time. If he continues to show that effort on special teams, that will only help his cause.
If there was a running back to define "jack of all trades, master of none," Alfred Blue is it. He comes up average in nearly every attribute, but that’s what makes him good. Hence, I've made him my favourite to make the roster for the regular season.
I'll look at the next candidate to make the team at running back tomorrow.