“I feel like I’m on a new team,” Johnson said during training camp. “... I feel like I'm the one who got traded or got picked up on a new team, but I'm embracing it as much as I can.”
It’s easy to see why Johnson feels that way with a look at the Texans’ running backs, suddenly a veteran group after general manager Nick Caserio added Phillip Lindsay (from the Broncos), Mark Ingram II (Ravens) and Rex Burkhead (Patriots) to the room during the offseason.
“We have a bunch of great veterans in that room right now, great leaders, and we're pushing each other,” Lindsay said. “And it's great to be able to learn from them. Everybody's different in that room, and they have done a lot throughout their career.”
Last season, the Texans ranked last in the NFL in Football Outsiders’ rushing DVOA, led by Johnson’s 691 rushing yards and six touchdowns on 147 carries in 12 games. Houston ranked 21st in yards after contact per rush (1.52) and 12th in third-down rush conversion percentage (57%). Caserio restructured Johnson’s contract, cutting his cap hit but doubling his guaranteed money.
The offense will look different this season for another reason. In 2020, the Texans ran a designed run 29.4% of the time. According to ESPN Stats & Information, which has been tracking designed runs since 2006, that’s the second-lowest percentage by a team in a single season in that span. That will have to change this season as the team presumably transitions from Deshaun Watson to Tyrod Taylor at quarterback.
Without Watson, who threw for a league-high 4,823 yards and set a career high with 33 touchdowns last season while the Texans were constantly trailing, it’s hard to imagine Houston relying on its passing game in the same way.
In this reworked room, Lindsay is expected to take the majority of carries for the Texans, according to a team source. David Johnson will play a third-down role similar to what Duke Johnson did for Houston last season. The Texans released Duke Johnson in February. Burkhead will contribute on special teams and could take the place of Buddy Howell, who has spent the past three seasons in Houston.
Lindsay said he came into training camp with a “big chip" on his shoulder, something the Texans hope to take advantage of this season. Lindsay, who was selected to the Pro Bowl in his rookie season in 2018, ran for more than 1,000 yards in both 2018 and '19. But even after his success, the Broncos signed Melvin Gordon III to a two-year contract. Gordon led Denver in carries, rushing yards and rushing touchdowns in 2021.
After the 2020 season, the Broncos tendered Lindsay, who rushed for 502 yards and a touchdown in 11 games while dealing with injuries, at the lowest level. Denver then signed running back Mike Boone in free agency, and Lindsay and the organization "mutually agreed" to part ways.
“I feel like I'm always being disrespected, you know,” said Lindsay, who was undrafted out of Colorado. “And for me, I'm going to go out there and I'm going to show it. In my head, I'm the baddest dude there is, period.”
The Texans added Ingram before the start of free agency and before they knew Lindsay would be available. Ingram ran for 299 yards and two touchdowns on 72 carries in 11 games last season for the Ravens while dealing with an ankle injury that he said healed “about midseason.”
Based on the openings on the roster and money committed, it looked like Ingram could be the odd man out. But coach David Culley has praised Ingram during camp, calling him “an extension of me” on the practice field. Ingram spent the past two seasons in Baltimore with Culley, so he may have a vocal supporter when it comes to making decisions on the 53-man roster.
“They all have a unique skill set, and they all bring really good experience, and they all bring good leadership,” offensive coordinator Tim Kelly said. “... They all have a huge chip on their shoulder for one reason or another, and they're all phenomenal pros that come in and practice the right way.
“... They all come from different backgrounds, and they all bring a wealth of experience, and they're good football players. They're doing a great job. Danny [Barrett, RB coach] has been working with them, again, teaching them the ins and outs of the offense, and they've all picked it up rather seamlessly.”