The drought is upon us. We have reached the point in the year when the NFL news cycle grinds to a painfully dull trickle and we are left in the pitiable situation in which we wait excitedly for training camp. It will get so bad that we’ll long for a preseason game before it is all said and done.
So, in the interest of feeding my appetite for football, I decided to take a look at the skill positions around the AFC South heading into the 2021 NFL season. Today we’re going to talk about the running back position.
The Colts are an easy pick at first on this list. At the top of the depth chart is lead back Jonathan Taylor, who enters season two after a blistering back half of his 2020 rookie campaign. Taylor had one of the most productive rookie seasons ever for a running back, and did so despite a slow start. Jonathan Taylor legitimately has 2021 rushing leader potential.
When you add in the stable of surrounding talent, this is a scary backfield. Marlon Mack is back from a torn Achilles, and while the exact quality we should expect from his is unknown, he was consistently excellent over the prior two seasons, and had shown an ability to learn and grow that made him one of the best backs the Colts have had in a long time.
Nyheim Hines provides a combination of speed and receiving ability that is tough to deal with, and also manages to be a really tough guy to bring down, despite his smaller stature. Expect Hines to be productive, even if he is undependable on your fantasy team.
Jordan Wilkins rounds out the group, and it is tough to see him taking a spot on the week one roster. Wilkins is one of my favorite backs, and since coming into the league all he’s done is exceed expectations. He doesn’t have the speed or burst of any of the other guys, but his vision, balance, and wiggle have consistently gotten him positive yards when needed. Look for him to find his way into a player swap trade close to cutdowns, because as good as he is, I’m just not sure there is room for him.
This one might be a surprise entry on the list, but with breakout rookie James Robinson back for his second season and first round pick Travis Etienne as a backup, this is a talented running back room.
James Robinson was one of the best surprises of the 2020 NFL season. An undrafted free agent, he hit the league like a first round back, finishing his rookie season with 1,414 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns. Where Etienne is more of a one-cut back, Robinson has the elusiveness, balance, and cutting ability to be the primary workhorse in a talented backfield.
With Etienne likely getting used as a pass catcher and given space to exploit his breakaway speed, he should be able to find a niche on the Jaguars roster right away. With two quality backs in their backfield, and the experience of a player like Carlos Hyde, this is a deep group that should help relieve pressure on their high-profile rookie quarterback.
3.) Tennessee Titans
It may come as a surprise to find the Titans listed at 3rd in this list, given that Derrick Henry finished 2020 as a First-Team All-Pro with 2,141 yards from scrimmage and 17 touchdowns. The problem? He did it on 378 carries, a year after he had 303 carries. At 27 years old, the question has to be asked whether Henry’s body can handle such a high rate of use. There have been some interesting discussions about backs who carry the ball 370+ times in a season. The following season has, for most, been marked by a major injury or otherwise a significant loss of productivity. If he is able to defy past history, there’s a solid chance that the Titans could make me look foolish, but it would require Henry doing something magical yet again.
Behind him, the list of backs is thin. With Henry dominating in shares of carries, the next of the bunch was Jeremy McNichols, which isn’t exactly inspiring. His 47 carries don’t indicate much about his abilities, and prior to 2020 he had just 2 carries for 4 yards. If Henry experiences setbacks, the Titans offense could be in big trouble.
4.) Houston Texans
With Deshaun Watson sidelined with legal troubles and a contentious relationship with the team, the Texans offense will look to their backfield to help the offense be more effective. They have some tools to do it, bringing on Phillip Lindsay of the Broncos to join David Johnson and Mark Ingram.
Lindsay is the best of this group, but suffered season ending knee and hip injuries in late December. He has been a productive back through his first three seasons, finishing both his first two years in Denver over 1000 yards rushing. Those injuries nagged him throughout December and put a major dent in his production in 2020. If he can bounce back, he should be the clear leader in the room.
David Johnson was a fine option for the Texans in 2020, putting together 1005 yards from scrimmage but missing 4 games. The real issue for this team is that they just don’t have anyone who can carry the load if they need to, and have several persistent injury struggles to deal with in their running back room. This is the kind of running back group that a casual fan would definitely look at and be excited about, but for Ingram and Johnson, their best days are far in the rear view. Their running game will go as Phillip Lindsay goes. With a limited passing game and against teams who will be expecting them to run the ball, my money is that it won’t go very far.