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The Value of Things: Gaming the Running Backs

Is it the chicken or the egg?

Houston Texans v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Every sport is fascinating, so it would be wrong to say football is the only fascinating sport. However, it does present challenges that the others do not. For instance, when you look at the worst running attack in the NFL you would normally immediately start pointing fingers at the running backs. Others would immediately point fingers at the offensive line. Yet, in Houston you might not point your fingers at either of those two. Below are the team ranks in rushing yards and rushing yards per attempt in the Bill O’Brien era.

2014: 2161 (5th), 3.9 (22nd)

2015: 1731 (15th). 3.7 (28th)

2016: 1859 (8th). 4.1 (18th)

2017: 1842 (14th), 4.1 (16th)

2018: 2021 (8th), 4.3 (19th)

2019: 2009 (9th), 4.6 (10th)

2020: 1466 (31st), 4.3 (18th)

2021: 1422 (32nd), 3.4 (32nd)

My parents told me and my sister a long time ago that if everyone seems to be against you then the problem is not with them. The Texans finished in the top half of the league in yards per attempt one time since 2014. That’s one in eight seasons. They finished in the top half in rushing yards four of the eight years. So, they were clearly committed to the run. It just wasn’t very efficient.

The running backs room changed throughout the period. There was Arian Foster, then Lamar Miller, then Carlos Hyde, and then whatever garbage they were throwing out the last couple of seasons. Offensive lines changed throughout those eight years. There was one constant in that time and it was Bill O’Brien and top five offensive play caller Tim Kelly. So, it is fair to ask what any of the numbers mean for running backs, offensive lineman, or any other group on the offensive side of the ball.

However, we will do our due diligence and take a look at the snap counts, PFF scores, running scores, receiving scores, and pass blocking scores for the running backs from last season and then compare them with who is coming back. Maybe will we will learn something one way or another.

2021 Running Back Room

Mark Ingram: 400 snaps, 67.6 PFF, 61.9 Run, 76.2 Receive, 85.2 Block

Rex Burkhead: 378 snaps, 65.4 PFF, 60.6 Run, 75.7 Receive, 45.3 Block

David Johnson: 317 snaps, 60.4 PFF, 56.3 Run, 70.6 Receive, 34.4 Block

Royce Freeman: 218 snaps, 58.0 PFF, 63.4 Run, 49.3 Receive, 58.9 Block

Philip Lindsay: 159 snaps, 53.9 PFF, 56.6 Run, 50.7 Receive, 36.5 Block

This is the whole reason why the value of things came up. Look just at the scores and you wouldn’t think there was anything wrong. 60 is normally average in PFF and all of these guys are around 60. No problem right? Well, none of them were significantly above average either. It was a room full of average running backs behind a line that wasn’t good at run blocking and a system that never produced efficient results.

The problem wasn’t the fact that they were average. Not every position group can be brilliant. The problem was they were the highest paid running back group in the NFL. Furthermore. Ingram and Lindsay finished elsewhere and their numbers probably improved once they left here.

2022 Running Back Room

Rex Burkhead: 378 snaps, 65.4 PFF, 60.6 Run, 75.7 Receive, 45.3 Block

Royce Freeman: 218 snaps, 58.0 PFF, 63.4 Run, 49.3 Receive, 58.9 Block

Dogun Ogunbrake: 191 snaps, 45.2 PFF, 54.3 Run, 43.4 Receive, 17.8 Block

Marlon Mack: 58 snaps, 56.4 PFF, 55.6 Run, 57.8 Receive, 82.2 Block

Dameon Pierce: N/A

I’ve never quite understood why teams make signings like Ogunbrake. I suppose it doesn’t hurt anything, but given the relative frequency that undrafted free agents contribute something in the running back room, I’d probably just sign a guy or two there and see what happens.

Mack is a decent enough gamble. He scored between 65 and 70 PFF scores when he was a regular running back with the Colts. He is coming off of an Achilles injury, so who knows if he has anything left. Burkhead is a decent enough guy to have in the room and looks like he’d be a good back to use on third downs.

The key to this whole thing will be Pierce. If Pierce has upside then he will transform this from a mediocre running back room into a really good one. If he doesn’t then it will be the same that we’ve seen the past two years if not more so. The upshot is that at least Caserio isn’t wagering considerable money on this being a good unit. At least that money can be spent elsewhere.

What’s missing

We started this section with the defensive linemen, but we can include all position groups in this category. This is the one spot where we can honestly say we don’t know what’s missing. You can never have too many running backs and yet you can’t go hog wild and spend too many high draft picks there. Occasionally, you see someone special near the top of the draft, but most of the time you are better off waiting.

If Pierce can be a feature back then you have what you need. If he can’t then you add that to the list for the 2023 draft. In terms of depth you can look at guys like Burkhead and Mack, but it will likely be an area that you will want to upgrade in free agency or the draft. All in all it will probably be a day three priority in the 2023 draft. All of this hinges on Pierce. If they hit with him then 2022 will be a success on offense.