How does each AFC South team look at running back, and what still needs to be done?
Houston: Led by Arian Foster, Houston is a run-first team, and just about everything the Texans do on offense stems from their rushing attack. Foster is a great fit for the Texans’ scheme and is a high-quality receiver as well. He is still among the best backs in the NFL, but he carried the ball 351 times last season and has 1,115 touches over the past three years, including 159 receptions. The Texans are in a very interesting situation with Foster’s backup, Ben Tate. Tate has been highly productive when given the chance and is a free agent after this season. He has a career average of 5.1 yards per carry and is only 24. Should Houston take a great deal of the strain off Foster, or pound Foster into the ground and lock up Tate? Cierre Wood and especially Ray Graham are two interesting undrafted free agents who could step into a backup role in 2014. Watch these two intently this preseason.
Indianapolis: Vick Ballard is a no-nonsense runner who was more than serviceable in his rookie season. He never will be considered one the best players at his position, but he gets the job done, especially considering how dangerous Indianapolis’ passing attack should become. Donald Brown will back up Ballard but continues to underwhelm. Brown struggles to stay on the field, doesn’t offer enough as a receiver and lacks big-play ability as a runner. The Colts used a fourth-round pick in 2011 on Delone Carter, who also has been underwhelming. He has good size and some power but is slow-footed and offers little in the passing game, which won’t do in this offense. Which brings us to one of my favorite picks in this year’s draft, Kerwynn Williams. Indianapolis’ seventh-round pick isn’t real big, but he is extremely fast and an exceptional receiver. I was blown away that he lasted so long in the draft. I am not exaggerating when I say I see Darren Sproles in Williams. Think Andrew Luck & Co. would put a Sproles clone to good use in this passing attack?
Jacksonville: After being quite durable for his exceptional career, Maurice Jones-Drew appeared in just six games in 2012. He is 28 years old, has withstood a lot of punishment and is coming off a major injury. And of course, with Jacksonville’s anemic passing attack, the Jaguars’ opponents will be keying on shutting down Jones-Drew first and foremost in 2013. At his best, Jones-Drew is an exceptional all-around player and among the best backs in the league, but I have my doubts if we will see him be the same difference-maker again. The Jaguars added Justin Forsett to be Jones-Drew’s immediate backup and drafted former University of Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, who they have listed as a running back. Forsett has had some good moments in this league but is a spot player only. What Robinson will bring to the table is anyone’s guess, but he has extreme gimmick potential and could excel as a runner, receiver or return man. But moving from quarterback to running back is not easy. He runs very high by running back standards and I doubt he can withstand a great amount of punishment in a traditional running back role, although Robinson is anything but traditional.
Tennessee: The Titans added Shonn Greene to back up starter Chris Johnson. Greene gets what is blocked, but little more. One thing he does bring to the table that Tennessee has lacked of late is excellent short-yardage production. He also could help keep Johnson fresh. But overall, the Titans spent way too much on Greene ($10 million over three years). Johnson will turn 28 in September. He started last season remarkably slow but picked it up dramatically later in the year. Johnson probably will never again approach 2,000 rushing yards in a season, but he has eclipsed 1,000 in all five of his seasons and finished the 2012 season with an impressive 4.5-yard average. Johnson has missed only one start in his career and averages 46 catches per season to go along with his rare open-field abilities. The third-string back is Jalen Parmele. Few are familiar with Parmele, but he does everything well and is a great guy to have on the roster for many reasons.