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Ranking the AFC South Position Groups: Running Back

Wild Card Round - Houston Texans v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

As we put the draft in the rear view mirror, it’s time to look ahead at the AFC South and begin to try to predict how the division will break down in the upcoming season. To do that, we’ll take each position group from each team and pit them against each other, ranking them from worst to best.

To clarify how I’ll be arriving at these rankings, I will be taking various factors into account for each position group. For example, simply having the best running back doesn’t make a group the strongest if they have to run behind a cardboard cutout offensive line. The totality of the situation will be considered before arriving at a ranking.

After ranking the divisional quarterbacks, it is time to move on today to the running back position.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Jacksonville Jaguars v Miami Dolphins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

By all rights the Jaguars should be number one on this list. They certainly have invested the most capital in the running back position, after selecting Leonard “Generational Talent” Fournette 4th overall in the 2017 draft. If you get a player like Saquon Barkley, that gamble pays off. Unfortunately, Fournette’s trajectory seems closer in line with a different top-of-the-draft running back, one who is all too familiar to Colts fans.

Many would caution that it is too early to label Fournette with the same brush as Trent Richardson, but I’m going to go ahead and do it. He just isn’t a very good running back. For a team that needs to be able to play ball control offense and let their prolific defense win games for them, his 3.2 yards per carry just isn’t adequate.

Backing him up are a bunch of questions. Thomas Rawls and Alfred Blue aren’t exactly names that strike fear into the heart of defensive coordinators, and it may be rookie Ryquell Armstead who shares carries with Fournette. Unfortunately, Armstead is not a very developed blocker, and his pass protection may hold him back from a bigger role in the offense.

While I expect the addition of a competent quarterback in Nick Foles to improve the overall effectiveness of the running game, this is a pretty weak unit both in terms of depth, and of overall talent level.

Houston Texans

Indianapolis Colts v Houston Texans Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

As with the quarterback play, there is a large jump from the bottom to 3rd place. The Texans could very well be listed second here, but I couldn’t quite do it. Lamar Miller gives them a reliable contributor who has created 1,100+ yards for five consecutive seasons with the Texans. The problem is, Miller is 28 years old and operating behind a terrible offensive line. It is too much to expect him to do much more than he has over the past several years, and everything we know about running backs says they start to show decline at this stage of their careers.

D’Onta Foreman should be back this season, and while that could provide a good lift to the running game, it is also a roll of the dice, since Foreman is coming back from a ruptured Achilles. That’s a big deal for a running back, and he may never play as well as he could have. Out of respect for Deshaun Watson’s mobility and passing attack, the Texans should be able to put together some semblance of a running game as they have in the past, but I don’t expect them to put the league on notice on the ground. They simply haven’t done enough this offseason to make anyone believe they will be anything but regressive in that regard.

Tennessee Titans

Indianapolis Colts v Tennessee Titans Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The Titans on paper are a vastly improved offense, and while not much will have changed in terms of their running back room, the supporting cast around them will likely make their job easier. Upgrades on the offensive line as well as at the receiver position (and tight end by way of the return of Delanie Walker), will make for an offense that can be more balanced and therefore more effective.

Derrick Henry should be handling the bulk of the snaps at this point, as he has proven worthy of that role. 2018 was his best year as a pro, but his numbers long ago indicated he might be in need of an increased role in the offense. As a part of a two back set, Henry is perfectly suited to grind out close games on the ground and wear down opposing defenses. He may not be an elite back, but he is a very good one.

His counterpart is Dion Lewis, who will likely handle more passing down situations. Lewis made his name on one season, 2017, as a part of the Patriots. Outside of that season he has been unremarkable, although he is a solid pass catching back. However, he will turn 29 during this season, which is more than enough reason to wonder about just how much juice he will provide this team.

With the early word being that the 2020 draft is perfect for teams looking for running backs and wide receivers, I fully expect the Titans to address the position in the offseason, but for this season they’ll rely on these two guys to largely get the job done.

Indianapolis Colts

Indianapolis Colts v Tennessee Titans Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

It might seem like homerism to put the Colts at the top here, but the numbers back it up. Marlon Mack played in just 12 games last season because he started out with a hamstring issue. That stemmed from sitting on the sideline in the offseason due to a shoulder surgery. Once he returned, he was electric. He tallied 1011 yards from scrimmage in those 12 games and added 200 more in the playoffs. Given another season in the same offense and an entire offseason to physically prepare, there is no reason to think he won’t be as good or better in 2019.

Behind Mack will be Nyheim Hines, who proved himself a dangerous part of the passing game as well as a valuable change of pace back. Hines was 3rd on the team in receptions last season, and while that level of production is unlikely with some of their additions, it certainly won’t go away completely. He showed himself as a tough runner and a nice complementary weapon on his way to 739 scrimmage yards.

After those two, you’ve got a couple guys who should be solid contributors, though they probably won’t see a ton of time. Spencer Ware is a recent acquisition from Kansas City who flashed major potential in 2016, and has averaged 4.6 yards per carry over his career. He may not be a guy the Colts can lean on heavily, but they won’t need him to be.

Jordan Wilkins is a highly underrated player who was very effective when the Colts used him. His snaps were limited because Mack simply has a higher upside, but he still managed to get 5.6 yards per carry, and is a player who consistently got positive yards, even on runs that looked doomed to take a loss.

Behind what may be the best offensive line in football and with the mind of Frank Reich calling the shots, this running attack could be very exciting. A lot depends on players developing and growing, but even should they play at the same level, both the depth and the overall talent at this position should easily make it the best group in the AFC South.

2018 AFC South RB Stats

Running Back Games Played Attempts Yards TDs YPC/A Fumbles Yards From Scrimmage
Running Back Games Played Attempts Yards TDs YPC/A Fumbles Yards From Scrimmage
Marlon Mack 12 195 908 9 4.7 2 1011
Lamar Miller 14 210 973 5 4.6 1 1136
Derrick Henry 16 215 1059 12 4.9 1 1158
Leonard Fournette 8 133 439 5 3.3 0 624