Houston Texans: Full Position Breakdown and Depth-Chart Analysis at Running Back

Brian McDonald@@sackedbybmacContributor IJune 9, 2014

Houston Texans: Full Position Breakdown and Depth-Chart Analysis at Running Back

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    The running back position was a nightmare for the Houston Texans last season.

    Arian Foster has been one of the best backs in the entire league since 2010, but he was only healthy enough to make seven starts last season. Foster averaged over 1,400 yards each season between 2010 and 2012 but rushed for only 542 yards last year.

    With Foster out, his longtime backup Ben Tate stepped in, but he had to fight through his own injuries throughout most of last season. Tate broke four ribs during the Texans' Week 8 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs but somehow managed to play through the pain until re-injuring the ribs in mid-December.

    Between 2010 and 2012 with Foster and Tate on the roster, the Texans ranked seventh, second and eighth in rushing yards gained, but their rank dropped all the way to 20th last season with both players battling injuries.

    Without a quarterback on the roster capable of carrying the team, in my opinion, the team is likely to lean heavily on the running game. On top of carrying the ball, with several young offensive lineman likely to start, they'll be counted on as pass protectors as well.

    The position has been devalued with no player selected during the first round of the draft over the last two years, but for the Texans to have the success they hope for this season, they'll need the running back group to be one of the best units on the roster.

    Over the next several slides, I'll breakdown how I think the depth chart stacks up in reverse order.

Dennis Johnson

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    Dennis Johnson won't be able to make the roster as a running back alone. I don't think the Texans will keep more than three running backs on their roster—not including the practice squad—so Johnson will have to prove his worth as a kick or punt returner as well.

    Johnson got an opportunity to return kicks late last season once Wade Phillips took over and averaged just over 25 yards per kick return—roughly one yard less than the average of starter Keshawn Martin.

    Coach Bill O'Brien has called the return position "wide open" so Johnson will have his opportunity.

    Dennis Johnson averaged over five yards per carry during his time at Arkansas, but his average was a measly 3.7 yards per carry over 49 carries during his rookie season last year.

    Luckily, for Johnson, he has one of the best backs in the league alongside him on the roster to learn from.

    Dennis Johnson says Arian Foster has been teaching the other backs the important of patience and eye location during blocking. #Texans

    — James Palmer (@JPalmerCSN) June 4, 2014

    Johnson has obvious talent but it hasn't translated so far during this brief time in the league. In their 2013 draft evaluation of Johnson, NFL.com compared him to Michael Turner.

    Low center of gravity back with thick upper body and tree trunks for legs. Possesses vision and quick feet to elude defenders on top of him near the line, slalom through creases inside, and set up defenders with a juke ten yards away. Will lower pads for contact and keep his feet churning, capable of trucking tackles going low. Solid receiver out of the backfield, has flexibility to turn for throws and soft hands to snatch high passes. Able to run through poor tackle attempts by defensive backs after the catch. Decisive runner on kickoff returns, uses foot quickness to explode through lanes.

    Johnson has the size, speed and vision to play the position but had difficulty holding on to the ball during the preseason last year, which saw him cut before he was eventually re-signed after the injury bug hit the Texans running back corps.

    To make the roster and earn playing time, he'll have to prove to the coaching staff that he will not only hang on to the ball but also prove capable as a pass blocker and kick returner.

Andre Brown

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    The Texans signed Andre Brown to just a one-year deal for good reason; he can't stay on the field.

    Since being drafted in 2009, Brown has played in only 22 games out of a possible total of 80. Brown only received four carries total over the 2009, 2010 and 2011 seasons but averaged 5.3 yards per carry during limited action in 2012.

    If Andre Brown can stay healthy, he's capable of producing at a high level, but he carries around a huge question mark.

    Patrick Starr from State of the Texans liked what he saw from Brown during the Texans veteran minicamp last month.

    Running Back Andre Brown is a strong runner and showed he has some explosion on the field. He adds some speed out of the backfield that the Texans have not had in previous years. If he can stay healthy he will be a good complement of Arian Foster during the season. Brown can ask contribute with the return game when needed.

    The Texans are hoping their low cost investment in Brown works out like a similar decision to sign a veteran several years ago. Justin Forsett was signed to be the Texans' third back for the 2012 season and came through with an average of 5.9 yards per carry.

    Andre Brown is probably the favorite to be the Texans' second running back to start the season—though coach Bill O'Brien hasn't officially announced their depth chart—but I don't think he'll finish the season in that role. In my opinion, the combination of his injury issues and a talented rookie behind him will slide the former New York Giant into the third running back spot before the season is over.

    He basically didn't play at all over his first three years in the league and averaged a pitiful 3.5 yards per carry last season. The only positive we have to go on with Brown was his 5.3 yards per carry average over only 73 carries in 2012.

    Andre Brown could be a nice cheap option as a reserve or he could produce next to nothing. I hope it's the former, but it may be wise to curb your expectations.

Alfred Blue

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    Alfred Blue will have a better pro career than he did a college career.

    Injuries and other talented backs on the LSU roster both played a role in Blue seeing limited action during his college career. This inactivity could also be viewed as a plus, however, because it means his tank is still full.

    #Texans rookie RB Alfred Blue had only 209 carries at LSU. Averaged pretty much 6 yards a carry while there.

    — James Palmer (@JPalmerCSN) May 17, 2014

    The Texans potentially got a huge steal with the selection of Blue in the sixth round, who Nolan Nawrocki of NFL.com said has second-round talent.

    A physically gifted runner who would have been the No. 1 back at most schools given his combination of size, speed, power and competitiveness. Is a second-round talent on talent alone, but injuries and a stacked stable of LSU runners limited Blue’s opportunity to shine. Scheme-versatile runner who is a prime candidate to elevate his stock prior to the draft and be a far more productive pro than college player if he proves he can stay healthy.

    #Texans' O'Brien joked he's not ready to send Alfred Blue to the Pro Bowl yet but the RB has definitely impressed early on. #NFL

    — Brian T. Smith (@ChronBrianSmith) May 28, 2014

    Blue's combination of size, speed and vision has led some like Patrick Starr of State of the Texans to compare him to Arian Foster.

    Rookie running back Alfred Blue is one to watch. He can do a little bit of it all and looks very comparable skill wise to what Foster can do. We are not saying they are currently on the same level but they are from the same mold as a player. One who can one cut and get up field and catch the football with ease.

    The former LSU back has also impressed onlookers with his ability as a receiver.

    He showed today the part of his game that did not get enough credit, his pass catching ability. Blue showed he can lineup in the backfield, motion out and lineup in the slot or wide and be a true receiving threat. He has soft hands and caught the ball with ease with his big catch radius.

    I think Alfred Blue will end the season as second running back for the Texans.

    However, as a late-round rookie who received around one full season of carries during college, Blue will obviously have to overcome a larger learning curve than the other running backs on the roster. Once he starts to feel comfortable and things begin to click, expect Blue to start receiving most of the backup snaps.

    Factoring in Arian Foster's age, health concerns and tread off the tire after several years of heavy use, it would benefit the Texans to limit his carries as much as possible. I believe in a running back-by-committee strategy in most situations so how quickly Alfred Blue is able to gain the coach's trust and earn carries will be very important.

    As I wrote in an article for State of the Texans back in April, the misuse and overuse of running backs can cost them years off their career and likely already shortened the shelf life of Arian Foster. Limiting carries doesn't mean you have to take the ball away from Foster during the fourth quarter of a close game or on the goal line. It just means the team should be smarter about giving Foster unnecessary carries in situations where the game isn't on the line.

    If the team wants to run a draw on 3rd and 15 or if they're either ahead or behind by three scores late in the fourth quarter, they should give those carries to the backup—a concept the Texans failed to grasp under Gary Kubiak.

    That's where Alfred Blue comes in. The Texans need him to produce close to the level of what Ben Tate did in 2011 in order to justify taking Foster off the field. The temptation with a back as talented as Foster is always to lean on him heavily, but they have to resist that urge.

    If Alfred Blue plays as well during the season as he has very early on during OTAs, the coaching staff should have no problem easing the load off of Foster and giving extra carries to their rookie back.

Arian Foster

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    How much does Arian Foster have left in the tank? How that question is answered will go a long way in determining how successful the Houston Texans will be this season.

    Foster will be 28 years old when the season starts, and the Texans' all-time leading rusher is coming off a season that ended with back surgery.

    From Tania Ganguli of ESPN, Foster's teammate and fellow Pro Bowl player Duane Brown thinks he still has plenty left in the tank and is still capable of doing things very few other backs can do.

    I know what kind of running back Arian is. He's a very special talent. He has a lot of tools that you can't coach. His elusiveness, his vision, his ability to catch out of the backfield. When he's healthy, I think he's definitely the best back in the league and I think he's on track to show that this year.

    #Texans' Duane Brown said Arian Foster is making people miss in OTAs. Running very sharp and motivated for season, increased role in offense

    — Brian T. Smith (@ChronBrianSmith) June 5, 2014

    Foster has always been a great runner, but after topping 600 receiving yards in both 2010 and 2011, he didn't get a chance to show off his skills as a receiver in 2012 and 2013, recording only 400 receiving yards in those two seasons combined.

    Coach Bill O'Brien has said Foster will be asked to show off his under-utilized skill in the Texans' new offense.

    O'Brien mentioned that Arian Foster can fill what Danny Woodhead did for the Patriots. #Texans

    — PDS (@PatDStat) June 3, 2014

    From Dave Zangaro of CSN Houston, Coach O'Brien talks about Foster's ability as a receiver and his role in their new offense.

    In the past, we’ve had guys like Kevin Faulk, Danny Woodhead in this offense that have filled those types of roles and now it looks like definitely Arian will be able to do that and more. 

    He’s got really good hand-eye coordination. He’s got good hands. He’s an instinctive player so he has a good idea about how to get open. And he enjoys being involved in the passing game, both on the protection basis and then routes. He’s had a good OTA period for us.

    So what we do is when we have a back that is a three-down back as Arian is, a guy that can play on first, second and third down, then you’re finding ways to incorporate him into the passing game and the running game and it really works out well for your offense.

    Injuries can happen at any time, but Arian Foster looks like he's fully recovered from the injury that ended his 2013 season. He may never again produce at the level he did in 2010, but I don't think he'll be asked to play that same role.

    Even at his age and with his injury history, Foster is still the most talented runner on the Texans roster. His versatility as a receiver gives him extra value in the new offense, and he's without a doubt their starter.

    Expect a big season from Arian Foster.