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Friday, April 4, 2014
With Johnson's exit, Foster stands alone

By Tania Ganguli

Just two seasons ago, the AFC South was a running back's paradise.

Three of the highest-paid running backs in the league belonged to the Texans, Titans and Jaguars. Only one remains in the division: The Texans' Arian Foster.

Johnson
Former Jaguars star Maurice Jones-Drew signed with the Oakland Raiders in free agency and on Friday the Tennessee Titans released Chris Johnson. (We broke down the chances of each team isigning him; I rated the Texans as low.)

The AFC South is following a trend. It's not that the running game isn't important -- it is hugely important -- but individual running backs aren't as valuable to teams anymore. The free-agent market showed that: Former Texans running back Ben Tate received a miniscule $6.2 million over two years to be the Cleveland Browns' starter.

The reason? I checked in with a few coaches during the owners meetings last week.

"I don't think you can have just one," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "We were at our best when we had two and sometimes three. Way back when we had Derrick Ward with us we had three and all three contributed very much. I think you need to have depth, you need to have versatility... The best are the backs that you evaluate today all have to have someone that comes in the game. Going way back it may not have been as important as it is now. Today it is."

There was a time when running backs were stars -- Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson, Earl Campbell. That time is waning.

"It's probably the most punishing position on the field," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "You look at it as a position that you want to have a first-down runner, a change of pace runner, there's different body types and there's different skill sets.

"You've got to have a running back that can pass protect. ... He's very involved in pass protection. Very rarely do you see a true four-down alignment. He's got to be able to identify the defensive formation, who the line's going to take and who he's going to take. Defensive coordinators do such a great job of changing up who's rushing. He's got to be the guy that blocks the fifth or sixth rusher. Never really have an idea who it's going to be. I think it's gone to more of a committee position."

The AFC South held on longer than most, but this change is enveloping this division, too.