Houston Texans: Breaking down running back battle

Houston Texans, Duke Johnson (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
Houston Texans, Duke Johnson (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images) /

The Houston Texans have a talented group of running backs for the upcoming 2020 NFL season.

This Houston Texans running back group for the 2020 season could be one of the better ones they fielded since Bill O’Brien took over as head coach in 2014. The Texans have struggled to find an identity in the running game despite depending heavily on that facet of their offense. Their last big game-changer at running back was in Arian Foster, but he was realistically on his way to a smaller lighter workload after sustaining multiple injuries towards the end of his career. Foster’s Achilles injury in his second season with O’Brien combined with the money he was owed unfortunately made him expendable for the Texans.

Houston attempted finding a solution at running back after releasing Foster in Lamar Miller and Carlos Hyde, but both were good to average running backs in the offense. It’s interesting to fathom of an alternate universe where Hyde accepted contract extension that the Houston Texans offered him instead of turning it down to test the waters in free agency. Hyde remains without a team, and the Texans quickly moved on by trading All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals for former All-Pro running back David Johnson and draft compensation.

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Despite the Texans seemingly making a foolish trade by trading a wide receiver for a running back, Houston may have caught lightning in a bottle with the acquisition of Johnson. Texans could have waited out for the options of signing Todd Gurley or Melvin Gordon, but hindsight is 2020, and there was no guarantee the Texans would be front runners to sign either player. Most running backs out there are nowhere near the caliber of receivers that Johnson is out of the backfield or lining out in the slot.

The film indicates that Johnson still has some pep in his step as a runner, and still has two more seasons before he turns 30. Coincidentally, Johnson has two more years under contract, and Houston has the flexibility to move on him from after this season if the marriage doesn’t work.

However, Johnson was in an awkward spot once Bruce Arians left the Cardinals, and Kliff Kingsbury came in as the new head coach. Johnson was an afterthought in 2019 as he dealt with injuries and didn’t have the same vote of confidence as he did with the previous head coach. Johnson offers the best of both worlds as a runner and receiver on paper if he’s healthy, but it will be interesting to see if he can do well in a change of scenery.

Now to move on to the other options on the depth chart, Duke Johnson is the type of running back that can be the perfect complement to any running back. He is the ideal Robin to any Batman. Duke can do everything David can do on a smaller scale. Johnson finished last season with 410 rushing yards on 4.9 yards per carry and 410 receiving yards on 9.3 yards per reception.

He also finished with two rushing touchdowns and three touchdown receptions. Duke’s addition paid off for the offense despite the Texans paying a premium for Johnson by surrendering a third-round pick to the Cleveland Browns. Houston has a versatile duo at running back with David and Duke sharing the backfield with quarterback Deshaun Watson.

The interesting dynamic for the Houston Texans will be who can be their third and fourth running back. Houston has Gregory Howell, Karan Higdon, and Scottie Phillips as the other options on the roster. Howell is the favorite from the three to make the roster as a player that can contribute on special teams. Taiwan Jones was pegged as the other favorite to make the roster after agreeing to a one year deal with Houston, but that notion quickly went out the window when he decided to switch course to return to the Buffalo Bills.

Higdon seems like the ideal candidate to earn the potential fourth spot on the depth chart, but he would have to be able to carve out a niche on special teams also. Higdon was one of those projected backs to be selected in the 2019 draft, but a knee surgery after his final year in Michigan pushed him down draft boards as he signed with Houston as an undrafted free agent.

He saw limited action in his rookie season as he finished with 36 carries for 103 yards through four preseason games. Higdon was one of the players waived when rosters were trimmed to 53 players, but his upside earned him a spot on the Texans practice squad. Higdon is entering his second year with the Texans and a year removed from surgery. Those factors should not be ignored if Phillips challenges him for the final spot on the depth chart.

Speaking of Phillips, he is also an interesting player to keep an eye on after arriving as a JUCO product to Ole Miss. Phillips became a breakout player with the Ole Miss Rebels in his junior season as he finished with 153 carries for 928 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns through 11 games. He also showed he could be a receiver as he had ten receptions for 105 yards and two touchdown receptions.

Phillips had somewhat of a down year in his senior season finishing with 125 rushes for 542 yards, five rushing touchdowns, and eight receptions for 55 yards and only one touchdown reception through nine games.

However, Phillips made enough noise in his time in Mississippi to earn an invitation to the NFLPA Bowl game, where he played with his future Texan teammate on offense in quarterback Nick Tiano.

Next. Evaluating Texans' quarterback group outside of Deshaun Watson. dark

Phillips will have a steep hill to climb if the NFL decides to go on as scheduled for the preseason, but he has the talent to earn a spot on the Houston Texans’ practice squad if he is unable to put himself in contention for the final spot on the depth chart.