- Matt Williamson, ESPN.com
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With free agency slowing down and the draft quickly approaching, Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson breaks down the running back situations in the AFC South.
1.Houston Texans: The Texans have the best set of running backs in the NFL in Arian Foster and Ben Tate. Of course, Houston’s scheme and blocking are phenomenal, but these two are outstanding in their own right. Foster in particular would fit any scheme. He has size, excellent vision, patience, explosive traits and can be a physical player with the ability to break off long runs. Foster is also extremely adept in the passing game. He gains separation in his routes, catches the ball cleanly and is also an above-average pass-blocker. Only 25, Foster should have a lot of great production ahead of him. The Texans are banking on it after locking him up with a long-term contract right before free agency began. You could make the argument that Foster is the best running back in football right now, especially when factoring in Adrian Peterson’s injury. Tate averaged a whopping 5.4 yards per carry in his second season. It could be argued that he is the most effective backup running back in the league right now. He is more of a straight-line runner than Foster and doesn’t fit all schemes as well as Foster, but he is perfect for what Houston does with its movement-based zone blocking scheme. Tate is quick to get downhill, decisive and runs with power, yet like Foster, can run away from defenders. Houston is loaded at running back.
2.Jacksonville Jaguars: Maurice Jones-Drew had as good of a season in 2011 as any running back in the NFL -- and every defense Jacksonville faced keyed on stopping him. Averaging 4.7 yards per carry under his circumstances was truly a remarkable performance. Everyone makes note of Jones-Drew’s lack of size when discussing him, but he’s a very powerful runner with exceptional leverage. He might not have quite the same burst and long speed as he once did, but his running skills are as sharp as ever. He has a great history of finding the end zone and is excellent as an outlet receiver. Jones-Drew can also stand up a blitzing linebacker as well as any running back in the league. At just 27, he is on a Hall of Fame career pace. Jones-Drew’s backups are Rashad Jennings and Deji Karim. Jennings missed the entire season, but is a very good running back when right. He runs hard and has light feet for a bigger back. As mentioned above, the circumstances were far from optimal last season, but Karim’s 2.1-yard average was simply abysmal. Karim has the look of a poor man’s Jones-Drew … a very poor man’s.
3.Tennessee Titans: Chris Johnson clearly had an incredibly disappointing 2011 season. He ran with little conviction or competitiveness for much of the season and too often looked to hit the home run instead of grinding out the tough yards. He improved late in the season, though, and there is no question Johnson can remain among the best players at his position. His speed has become legendary. Johnson is also a very good receiver who is lethal in space. I am not suggesting that we will see the back who exceeded 2,000 yards on the ground in 2009, but I am expecting a bounce-back season from Johnson in 2012. The Titans’ run blocking should be better and to me, Johnson is simply a much better player than what he showed on film for much of the season. There are also questions concerning what kind of shape he was in to start 2011. Javon Ringer is Tennessee’s top backup, but Jamie Harper also has ability. Ringer is much more reliable and proven, though. He runs hard with ample degrees of power and acceleration for a backup. Ringer is also an asset as a receiver and continues to improve in this area. Harper has a decent all-around skill set, but his 2.6-yard average last year is inexcusable.
4.Indianapolis Colts: Although Donald Brown has never really lived up to his first-round draft status, he was one of the few bright spots for the Colts last year. His 4.8 yards-per-carry average on the worst team in the league last season does stand out. It was by far Brown’s best season as a pro. As running backs go, I see Brown as a jack-of-all-trades but a master of none in many ways. He doesn’t have a single trait that stands out above all others, but as he showed in 2011, he is quite solid in all areas. Brown also is a decent receiver and a very good pass-blocker. Delone Carter was rather disappointing in all phases of playing the position as a rookie. He is a wide-bodied, shorter back who didn’t show the power you would expect and also wasn’t real light on his feet or agile. I still have hope for Carter, though. As is the case with fellow second-year RB Jamie Harper in Tennessee, a true offseason could do Carter a lot of good. With the gaping holes that Indianapolis has on its roster, running back is not among the top needs. But it is far from a great positional group when comparing it to the rest of the league. Perhaps the Colts will add another runner in the middle rounds of the draft.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com. Follow Matt Williamson on Twitter @WilliamsonNFL.