As shaky as the quarterback play is likely to be in the AFC South, the running back matchups might be the premier matchups in the entire NFL. Both Jonathan Taylor and Derrick Henry have led the league in rushing and put together absolutely dominant seasons. Travis Etienne emerged last season as a consistent threat in Jacksonville. Dameon Pierce might be the fourth best back in the division and he’s pretty damn good.
Of course, fantasy projections tell you a lot of things, but they don’t tell you everything. Most teams employ at least three backs that get the ball over the course of a season. So, we will compare the lead backs and the combination of backs for each team. Let’s see where the Houston Texans stack up in the AFC South.
Before we get started we should take a look at where each team stood last season. We do this for a couple of reasons. First, we always have more data on the past than in projection form and we like to compare where the teams are versus where they are projected to be. Not every team will improve in every category.
Titans: 410 attempts, 1,813 yards, 4.42 YPA, 13 TD, 85 targets, 70 catches, 680 yards, 4 TD, 82.4 catch%, 8.00 YPT
Jaguars: 359 attempts, 1,701 yards, 4.74 YPA, 11 TD, 82 targets, 64 catches, 488 yards, 2 TD, 78.0 catch%, 5.95 YPT
Colts: 382 attempts, 1,605 yards, 4.20 YPA, 7 TD, 123 targets, 99 catches, 600 yards, 1 TD, 80.5 catch%, 4.88 YPT
Texans: 330 attempts, 1,260 yards, 3.82 YPA. 5 TD, 132 targets, 98 catches, 525 yards, 2 TD, 74.2 catch%. 3.98 YPT
These numbers indicate two different problems. In terms of volume, the Texans did far less than everyone else, but it was the inefficiency that really killed them. Averaging less than four yards per target was indescribably bad. We could call it an indictment on Davis Mills, Pep Hamilton, or the running backs themselves, but it is difficult to pinpoint where one ends and the other begins.
The Jaguars are the class of the AFC South. When you find yourself picking in the top five (including number one overall in back to back seasons) routinely then you are bound to accrue some talent. The Jaguars have done that and they are ready to take the next step into playoff contender. We start with the numbers for Travis Etienne and then move on to the stable of backs.
PFF: 205 carries, 952 yards, 6 TD, 46 targets, 38 catches, 287 yards, 1 TD
CBS: 206 carries, 1,010 yards, 5 TD, 39 targets, 31 catches, 277 yards, 0 TD
ESPN: 226 carries, 1,031 yards, 6 TD, 49 targets, 40 catches, 325 yards, 2 TD
Composite: 212 carries, 998 yards, 4.71 YPA, 6 TD, 45 targets, 36 catches, 321 yards, 1 TD, 80.0 catch%, 7.13 YPT
As any good fantasy performer would tell you, it is the combination of these numbers that shows how dangerous a running back is. Etienne might be a little better in the passing game than the other running backs in the division. 1393 yards from scrimmage is not going to get him into Canton unless he does that for a solid decade, but it’s the impressive volume at which he does things that matters.
PFF: 328 carries, 1,480 yards, 10 TD, 80 targets, 66 catches, 491 yards, 2 TD
CBS: 381 carries, 1,801 yards, 10 TD, 87 targets, 71 catches, 575 yards, 2 TD
ESPN: 352 carries, 1,557 yards, 10 TD, 79 targets, 64 catches, 492 yards, 3 TD
Composite: 354 carries, 1,613 yards, 10 TD, 4.55 YPA, 82 targets, 67 catches, 519 yards, 2 TD, 81.7 catch%, 6.33 YPT
We include both the top back and the totals for two reasons. First, I am not a fantasy expert by any stretch, but it does provide a little bit of a fantasy preview for the season. More importantly though, it gives us a clearer picture of what happens when a team goes to backups. For instance, when Dameon Pierce was not on the field, the running game and passing game was completely ineffective. What happens if the starter goes down? The efficiency data (yards per carry, catch percentage, and yards per target) tells us what might happen.
Everyone knows the score here. Derrick Henry had his streak of games of 200 or more rushing yards against the Texans snap last season. It wasn’t because the Texans stopped him. Inexplicably, the Titans took their foot off the gas and allowed the Texans to escape with a victory.
PFF: 324 carries, 1,380 yards, 12 TD, 50 targets, 42 catches, 304 yards, 1 TD
CBS: 287 carries, 1,236 yards, 8 TD, 36 targets, 28 catches, 308 yards, 0 TD
ESPN: 309 carries, 1,334 yards, 8 TD, 40 targets, 33 catches, 289 yards, 1 TD
Composite: 307 carries, 1,317 yards, 4.29 YPA, 9 TD, 42 targets, 34 catches, 300 yards, 1 TD, 81.0 catch%, 7.14 YPT
Again, there is a difference between real football and fantasy football. Henry is a top five or six fantasy back. He is the single most important player in the division. If he is healthy and on top of his game then the Titans can ride him to victory. If he goes down for some reason then the Titans offense completely changes for the worse.
PFF: 458 carries, 1,959 yards, 17 TD, 101 targets, 86 catches, 633 yards, 3 TD,
CBS: 448 carries, 1,897 yards, 12 TD, 66 targets, 55 catches, 510 yards, 1 TD
ESPN: 408 carries, 1,751 yards, 11 TD, 78 targets, 65 catches, 523 yards, 2 TD
Composite: 438 carries, 1,867 yards, 4.26 YPA, 13 TD, 82 targets, 69 catches, 555 yards, 2 TD, 84.1 catch%, 6.77 YPT
Again, there is a difference between volume and efficiency. The Titans will have more yards from scrimmage from their backs than any team in the division, but their backs touch it a lot more often. That could change some with DeAndre Hopkins available to them on critical third downs, but this team is still destined to be running back heavy. The good news for them is that their backups might be better than we think.
Seeing what happened to the Colts without Jonathan Taylor demonstrates the paradox of the running back position. On the one hand, you can find them anywhere in and out of the draft and you don’t have to spend a lot of money. On the other hand, when you have a dominant one and that guy gets hurt your season can go down the tubes. It’s why every good team employs at least two if not three talented backs.
PFF: 270 carries, 1,247 yards, 11 TD, 53 targets, 45 catches, 295 yards, 2 TD
CBS: 275 carries, 1,280 yards, 7 TD, 41 targets, 30 catches, 187 yards, 0 TD
ESPN: 298 carries, 1,363 yards, 8 TD, 45 targets, 36 catches, 281 yards, 1 TD
Composite: 281 carries, 1,297 yards, 4.62 YPA, 9 TD, 46 targets, 37 catches, 254 yards, 1 TD, 80.4 catch%, 5.52 YPT
If Taylor and Henry are both injury free then they could finish first and second in the entire NFL in rushing yards. You will notice two things about Taylor and the Colts. First, they aren’t quite as good in the passing game out of the backfield, and there is a bigger gap between Taylor and his backups than on the other teams in the division.
PFF: 361 carries, 1,626 yards, 14 TD, 95 targets, 79 catches, 553 yards, 4 TD
CBS: 478 carries, 1,970 yards, 11 TD, 94 targets, 77 catches, 518 yards, 2 TD
ESPN: 373 carries, 1,685 yards, 10 TD, 79 targets, 65 catches, 486 yards, 2 TD
Composite: 404 carries, 1760 yards, 4.36 YPA, 12 TD, 89 targets, 74 catches, 519 yards, 3 TD, 83.1 catch%, 5.83
Of course, one cannot mention the Colts offense as a whole without including the rushing dynamic for Anthony Richardson. There are no statues in the division, but Richardson is the only one that will be a consistent running threat. Add 500 or more yards to their rushing totals as a team and you can see the Colts offense is far different than anything they’ve thrown out before.
If the Houston offense is anything like the Kyle Shanahan offense then they will find creative ways to get yards on the ground and out of the backfield in the passing game. Unfortunately, projection systems have a hard time calculating that kind of improvement based on scheme. However, some of that is coming through when we look at the difference between Pierce and the overall projections.
PFF: 228 carries, 964 yards, 7 TD, 42 targets, 34 catches, 255 yards, 2 TD
CBS: 270 carries, 1,129 yards, 6 TD, 40 targets, 31 catches, 170 yards, 0 TD
ESPN: 224 carries, 957 yards, 6 TD, 46 targets, 37 catches, 271 yards, 1 YD
Composite: 241 carries, 1,017 yards, 4.22 YPA, 6 TD, 43 targets, 34 catches, 232 yards, 1 TD, 79.1 catch%, 5.40 YPT
We have to remember two things here. First, all of the other lead backs in the division were taken in the second round or higher. Pierce was selected in the fourth round. Secondly, it is a team game, so what the backs do in combination is the key. The efficiency at which they do it is also a key.
PFF: 348 carries, 1,489 yards, 11 TD, 120 targets, 98 catches, 715 yards, 5 TD
CBS: 416 carries, 1,656 yards, 9 TD, 79 targets, 60 catches, 346 yards, 1 TD
ESPN: 367 carries, 1,646 yards, 10 TD, 95 targets, 76 catches, 568 yards, 2 TD
Composite: 377 carries, 1,597 yards, 4.24 YPA, 10 TD, 98 targets, 78 catches, 543 yards, 3 TD, 79.6 catch%, 5.54 YPT
Two things are very important here. First, the yards per rushing attempt, catch percentage, and yards per target either remained the same or got better when the other backs were added to Pierce. There is no way that happens with last year’s backs. Secondly, while the Texans still might be fourth, they are within striking distance of the other teams in the division.
Running Back Rankings
The good news is that the Shanahan system calls for backs to be weapons all over the field. Hopefully, the Texans have enough talent to close the gap with the other teams in the division. This time around we are looking at total yards from scrimmage, total yards per touch, and total touchdowns.
Tennessee Titans: 507 touches, 2,422 total yards, 4.78 yards per touch, 15 total TDs
Indianapolis Colts: 478 touches, 2,279 total yards, 4.77 yards per touch, 15 total TDs
Houston Texans: 455 touches, 2,140 total yards, 4.70 yards per touch, 13 total TDs
Jacksonville Jaguars: 421 touches, 2,132 total yards, 5.06 yards per touch, 12 total TDs