The AFC South. Home of a future Hall of Famer and exotic smash mouth. And the latter now only serves to remind people of that late 90s band. “Shudders.” If you still count yourself as a fan, the good news is that they are likely playing a 2 PM show at a casino near you. Hooray, right? One thing the AFC South is set to be the home of this off-season is running back changes at the starting position.
Sweeping changes are redefining this division. Mike Vrabel and Matt LaFleur have replaced Mike Mularkey and his offense. So long, exotic smash mouth. The Indianapolis Colts won’t re-sign Frank Gore. Farewell, future Hall of Famer. And two teams should kick their starting running backs to the curb. Auf Wiedersehen, current depth charts. Running back changes will be hitting the AFC South this off-season.
NFL Running Back Changes for 2018 – AFC South Edition
The Houston Texans 2017 season was characterized by a few things. Injuries, rookie production, and flat-out disappointment. You can probably guess which of those categories Lamar Miller and his season fell into. Going into the season, Miller’s contract made him the fourth highest paid player at his position. The $6.5 million man finished the year 16th in rushing yards (888), 18th in receiving yards (327), and 41st in yards per touch (4.4). Those Texans sure got their money’s worth, right?
Miller is currently the top option on the depth chart right now. Although, there is no guarantee that will last. It’s possible that the Texans put Miller into a timeshare with D’Onta Foreman. Moving Miller into a timeshare could make sense from an efficiency perspective. His last two seasons with the Miami Dolphins proved to be better (when comparing yards per touch) than his two seasons with the Texans. While Miller could pair well with Foreman, Miller would be an expensive ($6.75 million) timeshare back.
Miller’s contract and last year’s production give the Texans good reason to move on. And if the team designates Miller as a post-June 1st cut, they would save $5.75 million this year, and $6.25 million next year. In short, it makes a lot of sense for the Texans to move on from Miller’s contract.
If the team moves on from Miller, it would mean that Foreman would step up as the key starter. After suffering an Achilles injury last season, Foreman is expected to be ready for the start of the 2018 season. Foreman, in his limited time, showed that he had breakaway ability, which could be deadly when paired with a healthy Deshaun Watson.
The state of the Texans running back depth is in flux. Alfred Blue, Andre Ellington, and Jordan Todman are unrestricted free agents. This leaves Tyler Ervin and Troymaine Pope as the only other running backs on their roster right now. That roster, of course, could get even thinner if the team decides to move on from Miller. In short, expect the team to be active in either the draft, free agency, or both.
Miller’s contract makes him a likely candidate for the ax this off-season, which would promote Foreman up the depth chart. However, the Texans would still be active in adding to the position, which is potential competition for Foreman. Add in Foreman’s recovery and his theoretical spot on top of the depth chart is hardly a lock at this point.
After the Andrew Luck injury, the Colts had little reason to hope. The one thing they could count on, however, was Gore. Which is a little ironic when you consider that analysts labeled Gore as “injury prone” coming out of college. Gore, in his typical workman style, fought for tough yards throughout the season. And while his efficiency numbers weren’t the greatest (48th in yards per touch), Gore was able to put up productive totals in what might be his last season.
As mentioned before, the Colts have already expressed that they will not re-sign Gore. The next man up on their depth chart is Marlon Mack. Mack had a productive rookie season where he flashed an above average juke rate (28.1%) and yards per touch (5.1). Dynasty owners are likely hoping that the Colts don’t add much to the running back position this off-season. While that’s a possibility, it’s more likely the Colts invest a draft pick (or two) at the position. Mack doesn’t have the Body Mass Index (37th percentile) of a typical running back, and he was effective in the satellite role, which means the team could choose to keep him there.
So if the starter isn’t Mack next year, then who is it? The short answer is that it will be whoever the Colts acquire in the NFL Draft. The fact that the Colts roster is in the process of rebuilding makes the Colts an unlikely player in the running back free agent market.
Outside of Mack, the Colts have Robert Turbin, Josh Ferguson, Matt Jones, and George Winn. Turbin leads the pack with a $1.12 million salary, which also puts a target on his back. The Colts could cut him and carry over zero dollars of dead money.
Ferguson was the subject of preseason hype in 2016, but he has only 16 NFL carries to his name. The presence of Mack also makes Ferguson’s skill set a little redundant for the team.
Matt Jones, the former Washington Redskin, only had five carries last season. When you combine his fumbling history and the fact that he is in the last year of his deal, you get a player who will struggle to move up the depth chart on a rebuilding team.
Winn is more of a special teams player and won’t factor much in the Colts backfield carries next season.
The Colts have a number of needs to fill this off-season, and running back is definitely one of them. Expect the team to use one of its early picks on the position during the NFL Draft.
The Jacksonville Jaguars did their best to put former turnover lord, Blake Bortles, in a position that made him more efficient last season. They focused heavily on investing in their defense. And they drafted Leonard Fournette early in the first round. The plan worked. The Jaguars cut down on their turnovers, and they were able to rely on their stellar defense to put the team in positive game scrip situations. In fact, the team was fourth in the league in game script. After the success of last season, the formula should remain the same: rely more on the run game, cut down on turnovers, and play great defense. If they are able to do that, then maybe, just maybe, the Jaguars can take it to the limit again.
Two words: Leonard Fournette. That’s it.
The depth for the Jaguars has already changed this off-season. The team decided to release Chris Ivory, which makes T.J. Yeldon (who is in the last year of his contract) the primary backup to Fournette. Yeldon was active for 10 regular season games, and he shined in the backup role. He posted a career high in yards per carry (5.2) and in yards per touch (6.0).
Corey Grant was able to post career highs in both of those categories as well last year. But the thing that people probably remember Grant for the most this past season was his ability to gash the New England Patriots in the playoff game. Grant is a restricted free agent this off-season, but the ability Grant flashed on offense combined with his special teams ability makes it quite likely that he will be back with the Jaguars this next season.
The Jaguars won’t be looking for a new starter, and their depth is pretty solid. If the Jaguars feel like they don’t have a reasonable chance of re-signing Yeldon to a reasonable contract next year, they could use a day three draft pick on the position.
One of the situations that frustrated fantasy football owners a lot last year was how the Tennessee Titans handled DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry. Every time the fantasy community garnered just enough hope that the week would belong to Henry, Murray would magically become healthy enough to play. The only time everyone was able to watch an unfettered Henry was in week 17 when the game really didn’t matter. Well, it mattered to some fantasy leagues who hold their championship that week because they’re masochists. If you’re trapped in a league like that, just know that it does get better. It really does.
Murray will count $6.5 million against the cap this year if nothing changes. Of course, the Titans could choose to cut Murray, which would save them the entire $6.5 million. The Titans could also work with Murray to restructure his contract, which would annoy anyone who has Henry on their dynasty team.
If the team moves on from Murray, this will be the Henry show. The same guy who compares to the legendary Zangief. The same guy who had the 17th most created yards despite seeing the 25th most carries. Obviously, the arrow is pointing up for Henry and his value, but since he’s not the receiver that Murray is, the Titans will need to add a complementary back.
David Fluellen and Khalfani Muhammad fill out the rest of the running back depth chart. Fluellen is more of an early-down thumper. While Muhammad is a speed back who can help out on special teams. Neither profiles to be the replacement for Murray’s receiving abilities.
The Titans will likely have to look towards free agency or the NFL Draft to replace those receiving skills. In free agency, Charles Sims and Shane Vereen would be viable options. In the draft, players like Jaylen Samuels, Nyheim Hines, and Ito Smith could draw some interest from the Titans.
ESPN’s Cameron Wolfe expects the Titans to move on from Murray. That move will fully unleash the terror that is Henry upon the NFL. Expect Henry to skyrocket up fantasy football draft boards this summer, and also expect the Titans to find a complementary back for Henry.