Next up on our trip around the Tennessee Titans position by position as we approach the 2013 regular season is a look at the running back position.
For the past not quite four seasons, the story of running back for the Tennessee Titans has been almost exclusively the story of Chris Johnson. As I noted in the offseason positional analysis, Johnson has been the recipient of 85% of all handoffs the Titans have made to running backs over their past 58 games. This offseason brought the winds of change to the position, or at least a slight breeze at a certain time of day. Johnson remains, but the story of running back for the Tennessee Titans in 2013 looks like it will be only mostly the story of Chris Johnson.
But it will still be mostly the story of Chris Johnson. By now, I've spent enough time watching Chris Johnson I have a comfortable feeling for who he is as a back, one who, while perhaps not quite as fast as he was in 2009, still has excellent long speed for the position, but whose lack of vision and discomfort running between the tackles make him a boom-and-bust arhythmic runner. When he's comfortable with the quality of the first-level blocking at the point of attack, he's a quality back. When he's not comfortable with it, he tries to make his own hole, sometimes resulting in spectacular gains but all too often in lost yardage. Fundamentally, NFL teams mostly learned how to defend him after 2009, by denying him the space on the edges he craves. He didn't do the shockingly awful things he did in 2011 last year, but he's been a below-average producer by Football Outsiders numbers the past three seasons.
The Titans invested heavily on the offensive line this offseason, presumably in large part because they saw the same thing everyone else has seen, that Johnson is an ineffective runner when the blocking hasn't been to his liking. Despite the much-ballyhooed offensive overhaul, Johnson indicated in an offseason interview the running plays are largely similar. Of course, inside zone and outside zone are inside zone and outside zone; what's changing is the base personnel groupings and maybe a little bit of the blocking. Johnson will still get the ball a lot and probably still frustrate me with some of the yards he leaves on the field.
Where Johnson might see his role change with the new offense is in the passing game. Outside of the screen game the second half of 2009 and that play where the Texans forgot to cover him, CJ has never been a particularly productive receiver. Both he and Dowell Loggains have discussed him being more involved in the pass game, with CJ specifically noting he has more routes on the outside, something he didn't really have the past couple seasons. I've never been impressed by his work in the pass game, outside of that amazing stretch with the screen, plus he disappeared from the pass game the second half of 2009, but we shall see.
The man other than CJ who will play a role in the story of the running back position for the Tennessee Titans is Shonn Greene. The free agent acquisition from the New York Jets is nothing if not a stylistic complement to Chris Johnson, a back who operates at his best between the tackles. He's shown he can carry the load, with over 250 carries the past two seasons, but won't get that much work in Tennessee barring an injury to the heretofore-durable CJ or a fantastically successful season that results in a very large number of running back carries. He'll get some short yardage and goalline work. On the whole, how many carries he gets will be a function of the offense and its success; I'm expecting somewhere between 75 at a minimum (you don't pay backs $3.3 million a year to get 30 carries) and a likely maximum up around the 200 LenDale White had in 2008. The Titans have discussed him as a third down back, a curious call considering his ineffectiveness as a receiver and the fact that Bilal Powell, not Greene, served as the Jets' third down back last year.
The Titans added Jackie Battle to the roster at the beginning of training camp. Evan Silva of Rotoworld likes him as much or more than Greene; I don't. Outside of his performance against the Titans last year, he was very ineffective for San Diego to the point where John Gennaro of the Chargers blog Bolts From The Blue described every Battle carry over a healthy Ryan Mathews as seeming like an intentional attempt to lose the game. He had 14 carries for 69 yards and two scores against the Titans, 81 carries for 243 (3.0 ypc) and one touchdown against the rest of the league, including a sterling 19-37 performance in the season finale against the Raiders. He's not entirely worthless in the pass game, but with CJ and Greene in the fold will have to rely on his versatility to make the team.
Battle's primary competitor is Jalen Parmele. Like Battle, he's somewhere around replacement level as a rusher, but has made his bones as a special teams contributor and may be a little bit more valuable in that regard than Battle. The Titans had not yet signed Battle when I made my roster prediction, but I'm tentatively sticking with what I regard as Parmele's greater special teams value over Battle's somewhat better value on offense. In either event, I'm not expecting more than 25 or so carries barring injury to the top two.
Do the Titans value Darius Reynaud as a running back? Off the basis of him not seeing the field the final five games when Loggains was the interim offensive coordinator, plus what he did when he got to touch the ball in the regular season, I think the answer is or at least should be no. He's a return man, and that's where I expect his value to come if he wins that job.
I'll defer my discussion of Collin Mooney to the fullbacks position analysis, though Loggains noted in his latest media session Mooney will have to be a contributor at tailback, fullback, and on special teams to earn a roster spot.
In their own, different ways, Chris Johnson and Shonn Greene are backs whose production will be as much a product of the offensive line as their own skills. If the blocking is good enough, each can be a productive runner. If it's not, they won't get many yards on their own. Expect them to get about all of the carries a Titans running back has in 2013, with a special teams and versatility likely a key for the contenders for the third running back spot.