Next up on our trip around the Tennessee Titans position by position by position as we head into the 2013 offseason is a look at the running back position.
I admit it. Normally, I follow a very standard schedule when I do these positional analyses. Quarterback comes first, then running back, and so on. I started with quarterbacks this offseason, though, then didn't follow up with running back. No, I decided to push it off and wait for other positions just in case, just in case, just in case, they decided to go ahead and cut Chris Johnson by last Friday, when $9 million of his $10 million base salary for 2013 became fully guaranteed. No, I did not expect that to happen. I did not even think there was a realistic chance of it happening. I thought the chances of CJ getting cut were so remote it wasn't even worth writing a post about the possibility. And so it came to pass that Chris Johnson was still on the team.
Ever since the bye week of the 2009 season, the running back position for the Tennessee Titans has been all about Chris Johnson. In 2012, he had 276 carries, while every other running back on the Titans roster had 42. That's 87% of the workload, right in line with what he'd been doing. In the 58 games since that bye week that led to a turnaround in that season's fate, Johnson has had 85% of all running back carries for the Titans. In an NFL where backs who don't get all the work are increasingly prevalent, the Titans are one of the teams standing against the trend.
With Johnson returning, will he continue to play the same role in 2013, and what will the rest of the running back corps look like?
As long as Johnson is around and the Titans are financially committed to him in a big way, it's obvious to see he'll still be a big part of the offense. He'll carry the ball a lot. He'll get thrown the ball some. As I've already chronicled, though, he wasn't thrown the ball nearly as much in 2012 as he had been in past seasons. That's part of a league-wide trend, but will it continue in 2013? I'm not quite sure what to expect.
The self-imposed delay ended up being somewhat serendipitous, as I can write this post with the benefit of knowing what was said in last Thursday's press conference and what's been said since then, most notably by Mike Munchak and by Sylvester Croom. One of the things Munchak has noted is that in 2012 the route distribution underneath by the tight ends and the running backs was not particularly quarterback-friendly. While it's easy to overread comments like that, one thing I would suspect is that the running backs, particularly CJ, may see more work in the passing game in 2013 than they did in 2012. After only 36 catches in 2012, it would not surprise me to see CJ break the 50 catch mark again in 2012.
Beyond how often he might get thrown the ball, there's a lot that can potentially be said about Chris Johnson. I'll try to keep this at moderate length. He's improved in pass protection, but still has moments where he's not very good at it. Chris Palmer seemed to be making an effort to limit his workload and keep him fresh, but Dowell Loggains late in the season seemed to content to play him about as much as possible. He's a boom and bust runner who does not have great vision and is too often an arythmic running back who makes his own holes, eschewing those where the play seems to be designed. After a down 2011, the Titans seemed locked into, at least publicly, a "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" mindset about his play, but the discussions involving Croom and the change at RB coach have cracked the code of omerta to some degree-admitting that CJ, like all players, has things he's better and worse at, and could stand to improve on the things he's not as good at, like being more consistent from play to play. 2012 was blessedly free of the almost completely unbelievable play I saw at times in 2011, like diving headfirst into the ground, though of course he's still not a good power runner.
Beyond CJ, the running back depth chart is completely unsettled, and Munchak and Croom were both completely noncommittal. Had he been healthy at all in 2012, Javon Ringer would likely have played somewhat of a role, perhaps as much as he did in 2011. As it was, though, Ringer missed the first couple games with a nasty elbow infection that nearly cost him his arm, then suffered an ugly knee injury that sent him to injured reserve for the rest of the season. He ended up playing only 24 snaps in the two games he managed to play in and had just two carries and three receptions.
I've liked Ringer since his collegiate days for what seems to be a good try-hard attitude, but have always seen him as a tweener, not quick enough to be a speed back in the NFL and not powerful enough to be a very effective inside runner. He carved out a role as a third down back, but isn't the ideal athlete for that role. A free agent coming off a serious injury, it's likely he finds himself elsewhere or nowhere in 2013. It wouldn't shock me to see the Titans bring him in on a deal for close to the veteran minimum late in the offseason if they don't find another back they like better. Beyond that, I do not expect the Titans to retain him.
With Ringer out, Jamie Harper ended up second on the team in carries by a running back. With 19 (on 45 total snaps). He's drawn not particularly favorable comparisons to former Titans back LenDale White, and that's a pretty good comparison. Like the better version of White, he's a big running back who despite his size doesn't run with much power, doesn't have much acceleration or burst in his game, doesn't add much if any value in the passing game, likes to bounce it outside entirely too much for his physical skillset, but is actually ok at finding and attacking the right hole in a zone scheme. In 2007, White had 1100 yards as the Titans' lead back. Harper's lack of special teams value probably makes him a 50-50 shot to be on the roster in 2013. It all depends on the Titans finding a back they can trust to be the RB3 without investing a whole lot in him.
Darius Reynaud, 2012 Tennessee Titans preseason MVP, 2012 regular season dud? I've seen that characterization before, and it's a bit of a misnomer. I've already written about how he did on kickoff and punt returns and how they impacted field position, so he wasn't a dud there. Where he did not have the effect some people were expecting was on offense, where he played 90 snaps all year (only 9 of them in five games under Dowell Loggains) and total 16 rushes for 33 yards and 5 receptions for 35 yards. He played mostly in obvious passing situations (second- and third-and-long), but didn't present much of a threat. I'd say he's even less of a pass blocker than Chris Johnson is, and wasn't effective running by, around, or through the big bodies on defense on the draws and inside handoffs from shotgun where the Titans tried to get him the ball.
Like Ringer, he's headed into free agency unless the Titans re-sign him before the new league year begins on March 12. If the Titans do retain him, then it'll be because they like his special teams value. They might, but I'm not sure it'll happen. If I were running the Titans, I'd have a training camp competition once again for the returner job and let Reynaud decide accordingly if he'd win a job or get more money somewhere else. He did some real good for the Titans in 2012, but he's far from irreplaceable.
I discussed him in more detail when I looked at the fullbacks, but Collin Mooney's snaps on offense in the season finale came at running back rather than at fullback, and the official site lists him as a RB rather than as a FB. He has fullback-like size and the straight-ahead running style he demonstrated certainly stood in sharp contrast to how CJ (or Harper, for that matter) ran. Still, I think he's a fullback.
Darren Evans was on the Titans' active roster in 2012. No, really. He didn't actually play on offense and then he got hurt and went on injured reserve, but he was there. Everything I've read about him reminds me of LenDale White and Jamie Harper, though I freely admit I've paid very little attention to him and barely remember him playing at Virginia Tech in 2009 and 2010. He has no NFL carries, and I consider him a longshot to make the team in 2013.
Chris Johnson is back and will do what Chris Johnson does. At this point in his career, I think it's pretty likely 2013 Chris Johnson looks an awful lot like Chris Johnson c. 2010 and c. 2012, except perhaps not quite as fast as 1463 NFL carries have taken somewhat of a toll on his body and running backs typically decline after age 26 (Johnson is 27, turning 28 in September).
Beyond him, I'm not convinced any running backs on the Titans' roster in 2012 will be on the Titans' roster in 2013. I do not think it is or should be a high draft priority, but a pick on a running back in the middle or late rounds is possible. I think it's also very possible for the Titans to bring in a veteran running back who's more of a between the tackles runner. I wouldn't expect a major investment, but as the Titans want to be a running team, a modest investment wouldn't surprise me. One name to keep an eye on might (or might not) be Rashad Jennings, whom Croom coached in Jacksonville in 2012, has run okay at time, and has a shot at being available for the right price.