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2020 NFL Free Agency: Racing To Rebuild The Running Back Corps

Houston’s offensive backfield should be a strength in 2020.

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The Texans currently only have Duke Johnson Jr. set as a starting caliber running back in their “new & improved” offense (re: Tim Kelly will now call the plays, not Bill O’Brien). Last year’s star tailback Carlos Hyde, was not included in the crop of veterans Houston has recently re-signed / extended. The 2018 star, Lamar Miller, hasn’t been mentioned in months.

Hyde had a career year in 2020, racking up 1070 yards on 245 attempts for a 4.4 yard per carry average and 6 touchdowns. But, as the season wore on, his numbers began to decline. Factors from the injuries across the offensive line, to Hyde’s age, to opposing defenses figuring out how to shut him down all contributed to the drop off in production toward the end of the season. But, in the end, Hyde was the most productive back in the Billy-Ball A-Gap running attack Houston has ever seen.

While bringing Hyde back seems to make sense for both sides, there are other players out there Houston can tire-kick before they make their final decision.

Guys like Melvin Gordon, Derrick Henry, Kenyan Drake and others top a list of many starting caliber running backs Houston could bring in to help out Deshaun Watson ... and Tim Kelly.

On the list, Henry and Gordon are obviously the ones who grab the most attention.

While many expect Henry to stay in Nashville, others aren’t so sure he wants to continue playing for the Titans. Should Henry decide to pack up his locker and hang his shingle in another town, the Texans should make every effort to ensure that town is Houston.

A bulldozing style back in the mold of Earl Campbell, Henry might be the one, and only, tailback in the NFL right now who seems built entirely to thrive in a smash-mouth, up-the-gut, running attack. The type employed by the Texans throughout O’Brien’s tenure.

The 26-year old, 247 lbs, 6’ 3” Henry would certainly keep defenses honest and open up all sorts of play-action possibilities for Deshaun Watson and the receiving corps.

Last season, on 303 carries, Henry gobbled up 1540 yards at a 5.1 yard per carry clip, scoring 16 touchdowns along the way. Say what you want about Ryan Tannehill’s resurgence in Tennessee, but his year would have looked a lot different without Henry.

The chance to weaken a division rival is just icing on the A-gap cake.

Another intriguing option is San Diego’s Melvin Gordon. While Gordon sat out part of last season in a contract dispute, which didn’t go well for him, he’s fresher than Henry right now. Gordon has also been linked to Houston multiple times via the media rumor mill.

A more dynamic back than Henry, Gordon would fall more into the Arian Foster than Earl Campbell mold. During his best year, 2017, Gordon racked up 1105 yards, 8 touchdowns and a 3.9 yard per carry average. His yard per carry average jumped to 5.1 in 2018, however.

Aside from bringing in Henry or Gordon, the Texans could also look to the NFL draft for a Hyde/Miller replacement. While there aren’t any Earl Campbell sized backs in the top 20, there are several smaller guys who can squirt through holes and make things happen.

Unfortunately, this year’s draft is full of running backs who can gain ground on the outside, but Bill O’Brien’s offense seldom tests the edges of opposing defenses on the ground (unless it’s Watson escaping a busted pocket), or else Lamar Miller would have even more 90+ yard touchdowns.

Many of the soon-to-be rookies also have solid pass catching skills, but Houston didn’t really take advantage of Duke Johnson Jr in that department last season, so it would seem that’s not a skill set O’Brien covets much - and certainly not enough to have two guys like that in the backfield.

One college prospect to keep your eye on is Boston College’s A.J. Dillon. The 6’0” 247 lbs tailback comes from O’Brien’s neck of the woods, where BOB’s friends and family surely raved about Dillon’s productivity. His 4.53 40-yard dash wasn’t the fastest, but for a man of his size, it’s good enough to take ground on those 1st and 10 A-gap runs that will certainly continue in 2020, as long as the offensive line can open holes for him.

Walter Football

3/7/20: Dillon really helped himself at the combine with an excellent 40-yard dash time for a back as large as him. Team sources said Dillon really helped himself in Indianapolis. Dillon averaged 5.3 yards per carry in 2019 for 1,685 yards with 14 touchdowns. He also made 13 catches for 195 yards and a touchdown. Dillon is a potential rotational power back for the NFL.

With Houston’s “height-weight-length-strength” mantra from the 2019 draft still ringing in our ears, there really aren’t too many running back prospects in this year’s draft that seem like home runs, unlike the wide receiver crop. Having Dillon in the backfield could be exciting, and chances are with the “Boston College alumni” on his resume, it’s assured he’ll be a “BOB guy”.

With that in mind, Houston should do everything they can to

  1. Wrest Henry away from the Titans
  2. Draft A.J. Dillon

and if not, consider resigning Hyde or Miller to a team friendly deal while continuing to develop younger guys like Buddy Howell or kicking the tires on some of the other impending free agent running backs.

What do you think? Have a tailback target you hope to see in battle red this year? Have an idea to improve the running back room that involves something other than signing a free agent or drafting a rookie? Break down your strategy and let us have it.