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Keeping up with the Running Backs in Houston

The Texans have always looked for value when it comes the running back position. Arian Foster was an undrafted free agent (UDFA), Alfred Blue was a 6th round pick, and Carlos Hyde was brought in late in free agency last year. When they picked Ben Tate in the 2nd round in 2010, that was probably the most the Texans have committed to a single running back until this season. David Johnson is carrying a $11 million cap hit this season, but can be released with almost no dead cap after the season. He is making the 3rd most among running backs around the league. While the contract he carries is not team-friendly, he still slots himself in as the Texans feature back. If he can recover any of the ability he showed during the 2016 season, he should be a very valuable piece for the next two years. Behind David, we have a familiar face in Duke Johnson. Duke played well as a pass catching back last season and has been a solid piece for the offense for a full season.

Duke Johnson is a pure pass catching back, who does not run between the tackles often. David will be used as a dual-threat option in both the pass and run game. This leaves the Texans with a need for a pure runner. Someone that can carry the ball and get reliable yards and take the pressure off of David in the run game. The Texans did not draft or sign a running back this offseason, however two undrafted free agents from previous seasons as well as an undrafted signings this year have left the Texans with an intriguing group of young guys that can fill the void. I predict the depth chart will go something like this

  1. David Johnson                                                                  FB: Conner Gillaspe
  2. Duke Johnson
  3. Karan Higdon (2019 UDFA)
  4. Scottie Phillips (2020 UDFA)
  5. Buddy Howell (2018 UDFA)

The backend of this depth chart is very hard to predict and it will be interesting to see who the team decides to keep on the roster. Buddy Howell was superb on special teams for the Texans last season. He also had an excellent preseason, putting up 84 yards in one game. If he has that type of preseason again, it would not be hard to see him moving up on the depth chart. Regardless of his ability as a runner, the team may opt to keep him around for his special teams prowess alone, which they always seem to value. Karan Higdon and Scottie Phillips are the two exciting prospects. Higdon spent all of last season on the practice squad but is eager to win some carries in the preseason this year. As a University of Michigan student, I got to see a lot of Higdon in person. He is an excellent runner between the tackles and can make people miss effectively. He has NFL level vision and is a solid depth option. The issue is that he is not versatile at all. He can not run good routes or catch the ball at an effective rate. He is only good for one thing and that is downhill running.

Enter, Scottie Phillips. The Texans signed Scottie Phillips after the draft this year. After watching Scottie’s film its easy to see why the Texans liked him. He is a one-cut back. A “one-cut back” is when a player likes to make a cut at the line of scrimmage and then burst through it. This is effective because if the hole is congested in a short yardage situation, Scottie would often just force his way through and gain the yards necessary to convert. Another key element of Scottie’s game is his patience. He is really good at waiting for pulling guards and allowing the blocking to develop before doing his cut and accelerating through the wide open hole into the secondary. Another running back who was a one-cut back that Texans fans should recognize is Arian Foster. While I am not saying Scottie Phillips is Foster, they have similar traits. Phillips’  key strengths lie in his acceleration, vision, and agility. His weaknesses’ however lie in his long speed and versatility. While Phillips has great acceleration, his sprint speed is not that fast and he is often caught from behind on plays that he could be taking to the endzone. Additionally, he is not involved much in the passing game at Ole Miss. He does have sneaky elusiveness as well, however, and is able to make corners and linebackers miss easily.

If there were full rookie camps and mini-camps like a normal offseason , then Phillips may have ended up with the 3rd spot on the depth chart from the get-go. That is not the case, however, and there is a steep learning curve in the pros. On top of that, Karan Higdon already knows the playbook from last year. I do think Scottie is the more talented player and he should get the job by midseason if there are carries to go around. However, it is also difficult to see the Texans being able to take 5 running backs onto the final 53 man roster as well as a fullback. They may have to push Scottie to the practice squad or make a decision on Howell. It will all depend on how they perform in the preseason.








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