Houston Texans: Chris Johnson

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.
Arian FosterBrett Davis/USA TODAY SportsThe AFC South has three of the 15 running backs in the #NFLRank top 100, including Arian Foster.

The AFC South is the lone division in the NFL with three running backs rated in the top 100 players on offense in #NFLRank, ESPN.com's widespread player-ranking poll.

Fifteen running backs made the top 100, so the AFC South accounts for one-fifth of them, with Houston’s Arian Foster 14th, Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew 50th and Tennessee’s Chris Johnson 68th.

Indianapolis, the only team in the division whose quarterback is on the list -- Andrew Luck is 41st -- is also the only team from the division without a running back on it.

But the Colts came close. Vick Ballard finished 110th.

Having a top running back doesn’t automatically make a team run-centric, though Tennessee and Jacksonville certainly will be. Houston's passing game with quarterback Matt Schaub (No. 108) is equipped to make big plays, but is also most effective when it’s built off play-action that is triggered by Foster’s success. (See sidebar.)

While running effectively and playing good defense remain things good football teams typically need to do to win, it’s rare for a team without a good passer to have a great deal of success. And that has changed the way running backs are regarded.

Foster, Jones-Drew and Johnson are all playing under lucrative second contracts in a league where a back is highly unlikely to get big dollars or years the third time his agent sits down for negotiations.

Increasingly, teams are wary of drafting a running back high, as the Titans did with the 24th pick overall in 2008. Instead, they seek to find a back in the middle or late rounds. Some even hit a home run in the undrafted rookie pool, as the Texans did with Foster in 2009.

“A lot of things we do start with the run,” Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. “I think you’ve got to do what your team does best. You can’t worry about what everybody else does or what everybody else thinks is the formula. Last year, our formula, we played great defense, we ran the ball well, we held onto the ball longer than anybody in football. It was an excellent formula for our football team. This year, I don’t know. We’ve got to go see.”

Foster gives the Texans a great combination of speed and power, running with a gliding, effortless style and catching the ball well. Those qualities have earned him 1,115 regular-season touches over the past three seasons.

“He’s a real good running back,” Johnson said. “He’s a bigger guy. He can run the ball and catch the ball out of the backfield. Just seeing him run the ball is interesting, because he is a very smooth runner. They’ve got a great scheme with him, they like to run that stretch with him, he’s got a great feel for his linemen and they’ve got a great thing going where they know when to cut the backside down. The offense he’s in is a very good offense.”

Jones-Drew was knocked out of action last season after just six games. He’s back from a foot injury now, and while he’s on a team with better receivers than they've had in some time, the Jaguars still have a giant question mark with Blaine Gabbert at quarterback as well as a susceptible defense.

The Jaguars will hand the ball to him against loaded boxes and when trailing. He could face those situations more than any of the league’s top backs.

He came into the league as a second-round pick just seven years ago but has seen a dramatic change in perception about the position in that span.

“I think money-wise they tried to change it, but there are certain players and every team understands that you need a balanced attack,” he said. “So Aaron Rodgers, they threw the ball so many times. I remember last year he was like, 'We need a running game, we need a running back.' And they went out and drafted two.

“Teams want to portray it as if running backs aren’t valuable or are interchangeable. No, everybody has a piece. Your piece [as a quarterback] may be bigger than the other positions. But in order for the whole offense to work …"

Jones-Drew points to the 2010 Packers who won Super Bowl XLV. Come the playoffs, pass-happy Green Bay got quality play from James Starks, who ran well and created a new option. Last season’s Super Bowl teams, San Francisco and Baltimore, had hot quarterbacks who were supplemented by good runners.

Balance and co-existing skill players -- it’s an easy formula to want, and often a difficult one to execute.

Things won’t work if they are too pass-centered, Jones-Drew said. And it’s the same if his team is over-reliant on him.

“I’ve been screaming for balance ever since I’ve been here,” he said. “People can’t say I’ve been like, 'Oh, let’s run the ball.' 'Cause I know what balance brings. It opens it up for everybody.”

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