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The Value of Things: Ranking the RBs of the AFC South

Can the Texans get out of the cellar?

NFL Combine Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

There are two expressions that come to mind when you think of the collective running games in the AFC South the past few seasons. When I used to play in MGA events (Men’s Golfers Association) they would label one golfer or team as DAL (dead ass last). It was a moniker of shame everyone wanted to avoid at all costs.

The other is an expression my father taught me that his father often used when describing last place teams. He would say they were so far in the cellar that someone would have to pipe light down to them. Obviously, there are any number of euphemisms that could describe the Texans running game and none of them are good. Admittedly, grading running backs is really leaving out two-thirds of the picture. You’d also have to talk about the offensive line and the offensive play caller. Thankfully, top five play caller Tim Kelly is gone and some of the offensive line will be new as well.

Indianapolis Colts— 2,540 yards (2nd), 5.1 YPA (1st)

Tennessee Titans— 2,404 yards (5th), 4.4 YPA (11th)

Jacksonville Jaguars— 1,755 yards (22nd), 4.5 (10th)

Houston Texans— 1,422 yards (DAL), 3.4 (DAL)

It’s not so much that the Texans are last in the division. They are so far gone you have to pipe the light down to them. To borrow another expression, they are the strongest team in the division because they are holding everyone else up above them. So, we know the overall results, but we also know that running back rooms change constantly and much of the Texans running back room will be different this season.

Tennessee Titans

They were the second best rushing team in the division, but they were first place over the course of the season. Plus, their star tailback missed virtually half of the season on injured reserve and he still almost gained 1,000 yards. So much of running attacks are what teams can parcel together with multiple backs, So, we will look at the top three guys on the depth chart, look at their PFF numbers along with their yards and yards per carry. An asterisk will denote the stats for college players.

Derrick Henry—- 937 yards. 10 TD, 4.3 YPA, 77.3 PFF

Dontrelle Hilliard— 350 yards, 2 TD, 6.3 YPA, 59.9 PFF

Hassan Haskins*— 1,327 yards, 20 TD, 4.9 YPA, N/A

The Titans and Colts have had the league’s leading rusher in each of the past three seasons. That was Henry twice and Taylor once. Who is the best between those two? Again, those things are hard to parcel out, but the Titans did struggle to piece things together when Henry was gone. Haskins comes in handy there as he was the bell cow at Michigan last year. At least he looks like he could carry the load. He was around the same time as Pearce in the draft, so people will naturally directly compare them.

Indianapolis Colts

Taylor is obviously the darling of the league, but no one is quite sure how many seasons these guys can go on like this. The key for the Colts this season will be developing secondary backs around him. They signed a familiar face to be their third back. We will have to see how that works out.

Zachary Taylor— 1811 yards, 18 TD, 5.5 YPA, 87.0 PFF

Nyheim Hines— 276 yards, 2 TD, 4.9 YPA, 72.1 PFF

Philip Lindsay— 249 yards, 1 TD, 2.8 YPA, 53.9 PFF

So, was Lindsay washed up or was something else at work? In the two seasons prior to coming to Houston he managed a collective 1,513 yards with 4.4 yards per carry. No one was carving out a bust in Canton for him, but that’s virtually league average. That’s also not bad at all for the third back on the roster. That 4.4 yards per carry turned into 2.6 in Houston. Something tells me he gets a lot closer to his career average than what he did in Houston.

Jacksonville Jaguars

They are the wild card of this particular division. Urban Meyer was terrible for their running game. James Robinson was somehow better than his rookie season, but worse in terms of total yards. That was all a function of lack of opportunity. Plus, first round pick Travis Etienne spent the entire season on injured reserve. So will Doug Pederson unlock the secrets to the Jaguars running game?

Travis Etienne*— 914 yards/14 TD/5.4 YPA, N/A

James Robinson— 767 yards/8 TD/4.7 YPA, 67.4 PFF

Ryquell Armstead— 80 yards/0 TD/5.3 YPA, 58.7 PFF

On paper this looks pretty damn good. It looks even better when you look at Etienne’s first two collegian seasons. He gained over 3,000 combined yards with over 30 touchdowns. Plus, he had more than six yards per carry. That’s damn good in any conference much less a power five conference. Robinson did gain more than 1,000 yards in his rookie season before Meyer effectively put the boot on him. If both of those backs are healthy they could be a top ten rushing attack.

Houston Texans

The good news is that only one of the three backs are back. Lindsay is gone. Johnson is gone. They were nice guys, but horribly ineffective. Kelly is gone too. I’m not sure what possessed Spencer Tillman to say he was a top five play caller. No one with a running game this bad could even be called a top 50 play caller. Fortunately, they will improve. They can’t not improve. It would somehow go against the laws of physics.

Rex Burkhead— 427 yards/3 TD/3.5 YPA, 65.4 PFF

Marlon Mack— 101 yard/0 TD/3.6 YPA, 56.4 PFF

Dameon Pierce*— 574 yards/13 TD/5.7 YPA, N/A

How exactly does one compare a part-time back in college with a full-time back? You could say he shouldn’t be compared to those 1,000 yard rushers because he couldn’t even break the lineup on his own team. You could say he has more tread on his tires, so he might be more effective than those guys. Before he touches a ball in a real game he is a virtual Rorschach test. So, I go down the middle on that one.

Burkhead has been a third string running back for his whole career. He is a good fit out of the backfield on passing situations and is a decent change of pace back. The fact that he led the team in rushing is an indictment of the team and not him. Meanwhile, Mack has gained 1000 yards in the past, but so had David Johnson, Philip Lindsay, and Mark Ingram. The question is what he has left after a ruptured Achilles.

Ranking the Running Back Rooms

This is brutally hard. You could say that Taylor and Henry hold the key to this whole division, but I think their underlings might have more to say. The chances of those two making it through all 34 games healthy is probably slim to none. So, which team has the better secondary backs? I think Haskins is slightly better than Hines and Lindsay. Of course, anything can happen and slightly better is not definitely better.

That leaves the Jaguars and Texans. The numbers would indicate the Jaguars are a lot closer to the Colts and Titans than they are to the Texans in rushing. Getting Etienne back only solidifies that. Plus, they get the same benefit as the Texans with a new play caller. The Texans will bring up the basement yet again, but here is hoping Pierce can give them something resembling a respectable running back.