Houston Texans: Running Backs, part 1

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Outside of the coveted QB position, the biggest hole in the offense is a quality starting running back. Arian Foster has been our quality starter for the past several years, having his break-out season in 2010. However, he’s had a lot of breaks in between, with a history of injury that rivals his accomplishments on the field.  He’s also past the age of prime productivity for a RB, if you consider the graph below showing the life of a RB in the NFL.

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Running backs are tough, physical players. They have a small window to prove themselves and stay on top. Decline typically starts setting in around 27 years of age, and then a pretty rough decline hits. Foster has been plagued with some pretty nasty injuries, keeping him off the field at least 2/3 of the past 3 years. This previous season he’s been a little slow to recover from injury, taking almost 3 of the 4 games he played before suffering a season-ending achilles tear to start getting back into prime shape. In essence, we’ve seen the best of his career and thankfully, it’s been on our field.

Does Foster still have something left in the tank? Probably. I’d expect him to play somewhere. However, at his price tag, we’d have to expect him to be the leader of the RB corps, and he’s not in that position anymore. If he can be talked into a salary cut, I could see keeping him in his final year of the contract, but it’s hard to see that playing out for what the Texans would need to free up in the cap in order to bring in a leader from the free agency. It’s a rough business, the NFL, and sometimes a team has to make business decisions. This year I predict they will make a tough one, in releasing Foster.

This brings us to what’s left on the roster, and what moves need to be made to strengthen that position going into the 2016 season. Texans don’t play spread, so RB is an important position. Alfred Blue has improved his game in the past season, although it took practically the entire season to hit that stride. If Blue can hit the ground running next season, he’ll be a pretty key player. He’s not the leader of the pack, though. Chris Polk is a free agent that the Texans should let go. He made some good plays, but the consistency isn’t there. He’s not coming back to play at the level of his breakout year in Philadelphia.

Jonathan Grimes is the next RB free agent. He’s a slight step up from Polk, and a decent plug in. The Texans should bring Grimes back to the fold, if Foster’s out – and Foster is pretty much out. If the offense didn’t rely so much on a powerful RB presence on the field, Grimes could be expendable. But, the Texans offense relies fully on a powerful RB presence. Improvements over Grimes as a back-up wouldn’t be worth the effort to negotiate in the free agency. The Texans will be doing that with Foster’s release. Overall, as mentioned above, 2 moves need to be made over last year’s roster: Foster and Polk.

This still leaves the Texans with some good depth at the position, with Akeem Hunt coming off a pretty decent rookie season, and Kenny Hilliard, who spent his rookie season on the practice squad and has been signed to a futures/reserved contract for the 2016 season. That doesn’t mean much more than bringing him back to the practice squad for the 2016 season to possibly develop. He’s a 2015 7th round pick, so he’ll be the first man out if the Texans land a 1-3 round RB in the draft and need the room, on either the roster or, more likely, practice squad.

That being said, what should the Texans do in the free agency the draft? Simply put? Go big. The Texans have a history of failing in the free agency – losing more star power than what is brought in, whether it be failure to sign or releasing players. It almost seems like Rick Smith covets compensatory draft picks more than managing future team talent. That’s not unique to the Texans, but it is an area which has plenty of room for improvement. This year could be the year the Texans even the score. For starters, as mentioned above, Grimes over Polk  (symbolically, at least, as Grimes was an undrafted signing). Next move: top free agent RB.

First up for discussion is Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin. Martin’s the 2015 2nd best ranked RB, and is an unrestricted free agent for 2016. Tampa Bay will chase him, but not before the Texans can make an offer. The question will be whether Martin wants a payday or 2 more seasons to excel. The Texans would be smart in at least including Martin in the discussion of picking up a solid RB to lead the pack, with a 2 year contract. That may be a stretch; I’d see Martin looking more for a long-term contract, and Tampa Bay is on the upswing. Texans are a little further on that path, though, so that leaves for a realistic discussion.

Next up is Lamar Miller. Miller has the youth and is heading into his prime years with some impressive stats during his 4 year career with the Miami Dolphins . Miami’s new staff is sure to see this, and will certainly put up a fight. He may even get the dreaded franchise tag. Miller would be more of a long-term solution at RB than Martin, and the Texans would have to go to the table with a longer contract than 2 years. A 6 year signing would likely be what it takes to woo him from Miami, but 4 year contract would be optimal for the Texans. He’ll certainly garner the attention from other teams around the league as well, but the Texans this year are fortunate to have a big need at the RB position that most teams have filled.

My third pick is going to be Matt Forte. Forte on the downward slant of the cusp of his career, after playing 8 years with the Chicago Bears. He’s not an upgrade over Foster, but he’s a plug in that can patchwork a year, and allow a more aggressive draft to get a future hot shot. Forte (comparatively to Blount because please no more New England throwbacks) is a formidable vet that wouldn’t say no to a single year contract, and it doesn’t appear that the Bears have a lot of interest in keeping him around another year or two. He can be picked up at a cheaper price tag than Foster, and would add a reliable balance.

Out of the three, and with my suggestion to go bold in the free agency and draft, i’d like to see the Texans make a serious run for Lamar Miller. He’s a long term solution and has improved every year. His prime is before him, and he’d be a great addition to the team. Martin would be the best short-term plug in, as a second option. Forte would be a risk, as he’s coming off an injury. He’d be a gamble, almost enough to consider keeping Foster. His upside, though, is a possible substantial reduction to the cap, as his old team isn’t chasing him. That transaction would leave the door wide open for a top RB in the draft, though. A Miller signing would knock that down substantially.

Next up, we’ll discuss the options for RB in the 2016 NFL draft.

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