The Houston Texans’ run game hit the injury repot and hasn’t returned since Arian Foster was cut on March 3, 2016. While Lamar Miller brought some flashes of hope and Carlos Hyde almost got there, the hole Foster left is still empty. David Johnson, Duke Johnson Jr., Buddie Howell, Scottie Phillips, and occasional role players like C.J. Prosise were brought in to fill that hole, but no one did collectively or individually. Obviously, none of them are Arian Foster; Foster is the benchmark. That doesn’t mean one guy needs to be Foster-level, as he was a very special player. What it does mean is combined this group needs to generate Foster level production.
As a team, the Texans generated 1,466 rushing yards in 2020. For reference, Foster’s best year saw him gain 1,616 rushing yards and his second best year saw 1,424 yards. Those numbers are just Foster. Not Foster, plus a change-up back, plus Deshaun Watson (who contributed 444 rushing yards to last year’s total).
We’ve already discussed how David Johnson needs to get off the books. His 691 yards on the ground last season landed him as - appropriately - 23rd best in the league (23 being Arian Foster’s jersey number). Essentially, if left on the roster, Houston will pay David Johnson $17,366.13 per yard if he has a similar year in 2021. That’s some expensive real estate. You could buy new Hondas for your whole family with two carries from Johnson and have plenty of cash left over.
Next up: Duke Johnson.
Duke generated even less rushing offense than David (no relation), gaining a meager 235 yards on the ground. While David averaged a respectable 4.7 yards per carry, Duke only gained 3.1. You could make a case to keep David at a lower cap number, but Duke doesn’t merit a roster spot at this point. With a litany of guys out there who could perform at that level, odds are it’s best to erase the whiteboard and start over.
As for Howell, Phillips and Prosise, none shattered the internet with amazing runs when given opportunities to do so. For the sake of this exercise, let’s clear them out as well. Removing the five running backs puts Houston at a plus cap number of $12,517,500 according to Spotrac. With the Johnson brothers (no relation) and Scottie Philips the only three on the books for 2021 at this moment, replacing those three for far less than $12.5 mil shouldn’t be hard.
2021 NFL Free Agent Running Backs
Houston could kick the tires on a guy like Chris Carson. He’s a “lunch pail” hard working sort of back who might still thrive behind a questionable offensive line. However, Pro Football Focus has him projected to land a deal somewhere in the range of $9 mil/year, too rich for the rebuilding Texans.
Mike Davis is another hard working back who the Texans could have just south of $5 mil/year, if not less should Nick Caserio have more cap wizardry up his sleeve than Jack Easterby and Bill O’Brien (which won’t be hard since those two guys had about zero). Davis has done well running and catching passes out of the Panthers’ backfield, which would provide Deshaun Watson with the same outlet Johnson & Johnson offer for far less money.
Le’Veon Bell. This one is a reach, as Bell is hardly the sort of ‘Boy Scout’ player the Texans look for in free agency. However, Bell could quickly make defenses sit up and pay attention to the Houston run game, giving Deshaun Watson even more opportunity to work his magic behind the line. Bell would potentially carry a similar price tag to Davis and lean more into the pure running back than pass catcher style, but he can still work wonders with safety valve plays, screens, and other running back passes.
2021 NFL Rookie Running Backs
While this will never happen, drafting Travis Etienne and re-pairing him with Deshaun Watson would instantly ignite offensive fireworks. Unfortunately for Houston, Etienne (pronounced E-T-N) is the #1 ranked running back in the 2021 NFL Draft and will most likely go late in the first round - long before Houston’s first pick at the top of the third round.
Along with Etienne, guys like Alabama’s Najee Harris, North Carolina’s Javonte Williams, and Georgia’s Zamir White should all have NFL homes prior to the third round.
What works in Houston’s’ favor, however, is the current nature of the NFL as a passing league - a situation that has top flight running backs slipping down draft boards as teams go after passing game contributors and defenders well-suited to thwart that part of the offensive scheme.
While that doesn’t mean Houston will get a shot at Etienne or Harris, they might get lucky and see Williams or Memphis tailback Kenny Gainwell fall to them at the top of the third round. Gainwell is an intriguing prospect; he showed tremendous potential in 2019 before tragically losing four family members to the COVID-19 pandemicm which led to him sitting out the entire 2020 season.
In 2019, Gainwell (what a great name for a running back!) generated 1,459 yards at an incredible 6.3 yards per carry and 51 catches for 610 yards, producing 16 touchdowns. Now, playing for Memphis means you might not face the caliber of defense Etienne and Harris ran against, but LaDianian Tomlinson came out of TCU, DeAngelo Williams also came from Memphis, and Marshall Faulk came from San Diego State, which means productive backs can come from small schools.
Running Backs to Fill The Depth Chart
The league will see a lot of running backs switch teams in 2021. Nick Caserio can aid that transience by signing a few change of pace guys and backups. Players like T.J. Yeldon, Cordarelle Patterson, Adrian Peterson, Leonard Fournette, and Frank Gore might all have some juice left in the tank and bring some wily veteran knowledge to the young running backs. Beyond that, there’s a laundry list of players who might find themselves playing in the shadow of Jack Easterby when NFL Kickoff 2021 rolls around.
No matter how you slice it, Houston should clean house in the running back room and bring in a combination of free agents and draft picks. If they start all over with a run game that takes pressure off Deshaun Watson and makes defenses sweat having to face the Houston ground game once more, 2021 should see an improved Houston offense.
A solid run game is also a great defense, as it burns the clock, keeps the Texans’ defenders resting on the bench, and keeps the opposing offense off the field. Investing in running backs should get some focus this offseason. Combining Mike Davis and Kenny Gainwell would make a great new incarnation of the old “thunder and lightning” attack, too.
Who is your favorite target when it comes to a new Houston Texans running back?