2012 Tennessee Titans preseason positional analysis: RB

Back when we did the offseason round of positional analysis, Andrew was kind enough to write up our look at the running back position. Had that been my task, you would’ve ended up with a lot of words like “!%#!#” and ^!#$%” as I got progressively more annoyed while writing the piece and remembering the 2011 season. By now, though, it’s been weeks since I’ve watched the Titans offense repeatedly and even longer since I forced myself to watch the running game, so I should be fine.

If the question that animated the quarterback positional analysis was “who will the starter be?” then the question that animates this positional analysis is “What will the Titans get out of Chris Johnson?” As Andrew ably chronicled, what the Titans got out of Johnson in 2011 was a lot that was not very effective.

The man then known as CJ2K held out, signed a lucrative new contract, then showed up out of shape and struggled to run the ball effectively. His nadir was probably the Week 7 loss to the Texans, after which I wrote he was not really an NFL-caliber rusher. He had some better performances after that, with good games against Carolina and Tampa Bay, but also a couple other games, including against the Saints in the rematch in Indianapolis against the Colts, where he was pretty much as ineffective as he was earlier in the season.

Re-hashing the entire Chris Johnson debate is beyond the purview of this post. Too often last season, he was only effective when the Titans manufactured ways for him to get the ball in the right circumstances. If they do that more this year, thanks to Chris Palmer’s better knowledge of how Johnson works as a runner, he’ll be better. If remains too often a product of the offense around him, the Titans will be better.

Then again, as Johnson himself has noted, the Titans are more of a passing team than they were two years ago, and one of the storylines will be how Johnson adapts to that continuing change. Thanks at least in part to the financial incentives in his contract, he was a regular participant in the team’s offseason program for the first time in his career. If he wants to continue to play the featured role he has in the past, improving his blitz recognition, blocking ability, route-running, and ability to catch the ball should have been high on the priority list. Time will tell if they were.

If Johnson falters once again, Javon Ringer is likely to be the main beneficiary. The Titans started to platoon him with Johnson in the middle of last season, until halftime of the Bengals game when Ringer was returned to his normal spot. For most of the year, that normal spot was playing on third-and-long and in obvious passing situations. True, Johnson got some of this work, especially on third down, but Ringer saw some of it as well. That may just be where the Titans saw Ringer as having the most value, at least relative to Johnson.

When he did get the ball, Ringer was mostly about as ineffective as Johnson. He’s forged a career for himself as a third-down back, despite not having the quicks or speed normally associated with that job. I don’t think he’s much more than a replacement-level runner. Entering the final season of his deal, I expect him to have more or less the same role he did last year, but there’s a reasonable shot 2012 will be his last season in a Titans uniform.

As a rookie, Jamie Harper struggled to make an impact. Coming out of college as somebody who tried to bounce many runs, he tried the same in the NFL, but with lesser results. Listed at 233 pounds, he’s much bigger than Ringer or CJ?k, but was not an overly physical runner. Unless he has heretofore-undemonstrated pass-blocking skills, his primary route to more playing time than last year’s 17 carries seems to be as a pure rusher in early downs and in goalline situations. To win either of those jobs, he’ll need to play with more power than he’s shown in the past.

Herb Donaldson should be a vaguely familiar name to Titans fans, but don’t feel any shame if his name is only vaguely familiar. He’s a return visitor to Titans camp, spending all of 2011 on the practice squad after passing 2010 in the same position. He’s been on the fringes of the NFL since 2009, spending time previously with the Saints and Cowboys. I’m pretty sure three years on the practice squad is the most you’re allowed to spend, so this is a make-or-break season for him. Frankly, I’m not sure what his route to playing time is beyond such a disastrous performance by Harper that the Titans cut last year’s fourth-round pick

Darius Reynaud has spent time both at running back and at wide receiver, but the Titans are listing him at running back. More of a traditional third-down back with speed than Ringer, he also has return experience. With Marc Mariani and Damian Williams, plus Kendall Wright on the unofficial depth chart, I doubt the Titans place much value on Reynaud’s skills as a returner. He could be an interesting player for the “F” position in Palmer’s offense, a guy who runs routes out of either the backfield or the slot. His career has been spent on the fringe of the NFL roster and I’m not seeing an obvious job for him to take, though, so more likely he’ll be on the outside of the roster looking in.

The Titans did not add any rookies or other young players, nor did they draft a running back.

Conclusion
The problems I saw from Johnson in 2011 are all, at least theoretically, eminently fixable. He should be in good shape the entire season, not slowly working his way into NFL shape. He controls his apparent effort level and could run harder, more consistently than he did last year. If he does, the Titans’ offense should be better, possibly much better.

On the other hand, if Johnson doesn’t abandon his at times putrid 2011 form, or if he gets hurt, the Titans do not seem to have quality depthand would likely struggle to run the ball effectively. In that case, the passing game would have to carry the lion’s share of the load on offense. That’s how most of 2011 worked, but I’m not looking forward to experience that again (let alone writing about it, as I’ve already pretty much given up on Johnson once). 

In other words, help me, Chris Johnson, you’re my only hope. 

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