After the customary first stop at quarterback, our next stop as we travel around the Tennessee Titans position by position as we head into the 2014 offseason is the running back position.
As he does at quarterback, but even more so, new head coach Ken Whisenhunt must start with a major personnel decision. It makes a great deal of sense to keep Jake Locker on the roster; he's young enough to be promising, fairly inexpensive, and you don't save any money on either the cap or in cash by cutting him. Chris Johnson, on the other hand, is due $8 million in non-guaranteed salary, meaning cash savings of that much and a reduction of his cap hit by potentially that much. That's an awful big base salary for a running back, though of course the Titans kept him at even bigger salaries in 2012 and 2013.
Will the Titans actually cut Johnson? Whisenhunt and general manager Ruston Webster have been generally non-committal about CJ's future, even moreso than they have been about Jake Locker's status. As I noted in last year's offseason positional analysis, I thought the Titans were so unlikely to cut CJ that it wasn't even worth writing a post on the subject? Now, I think things may have changed. The cap hit to cut him is less. He's played three seasons since he was signed to his massive extension. It's psychologically easier and easier to sell as a move when it comes after hiring a new coach and a change in offensive philosophy My guess, and I stress it is just a guess though I would bet money on it at even odds, is that the Titans do indeed cut Chris Johnson.
Unlike the past couple seasons there is no salary guarantee that kicks in in February so there is no need to do it immediately, but my prediction is that Chris Johnson will not come to training camp this year as a member of the Tennessee Titans. More likely, if his recovery from offseason meniscus surgery permits, I think he'll be gone before the first OTA, or at least that's what I would do if I were Ken Whisenhunt.
In terms of on-the-field performance, I thought CJ was basically the same back he'd been for the previous three seasons minus the shockingly awful parts of 2011. He still has long speed, but his production is insanely dependent on the quality (and perceived by him quality) of the first- and second-level blocking the rest of the offense can provide him. If you can get him in the open field against safeties, he can still be elusive, but he rarely runs through tackles or dodges defenders in the box. He is not an ideal fit as a zone runner, as he does not have particularly good vision and regularly cuts back into even worse situations if his initial read is to cut back. He is also not an ideal fit for man-blocking plays, as he too often is an arhythmic runner who lacks a feel for the timing of allowing blocks to set it and develop and then attacking before the holes close. He's improved from a couple years ago as a pass protector, but the Titans still had him regularly come out of the game on third down even though they lacked a prototypical third down back. I'm still not sure I've ever seen him run what I would characterize as a real passing route, a disappointment considering he spent a season in college as a receiver.
Statistically, 2013 may have been CJ's best season since 2009. By Football Outsiders' per-play DVOA metric (perma-disclaimer: I write for FO), he was a hair above average among all backs with at least 100 carries with a DVOA of 1.3% (0.0% is precisely average). While he did not post any particularly long runs (his longest carry only went for 30, thus his sub-4.0 ypc ranking by conventional statistics), he posted the best success rate of his career. Yeah, 46% is still a below-average success rate (31st of the 47 ranked running backs), but for him it was his best. I credit the offensive line for that.
By more conventional measures, he finished the season with 279 carries for 1077 yards and 6 touchdowns. He also had 42 catches for 345 yards and four receiving scores, doubling his career total in that area. He fumbled thrice, losing two of them, including a devastating one on the first play from scrimmage in the home loss to the Jaguars. He played in 797 of 1074 offensive snaps, a 74% participation rate. And with any luck, this is the last time I'll ever have to write about him here, only 34.5 months after I declared I was pretty much done with him.
Shonn Greene was CJ's primary backup in 2013, at least in the games where he was healthy. He was injured four carries into the game against the Steelers, and didn't return to a full role until the Week 9 game against the Rams. He finished the season playing in only 155 snaps, 14% of the time. When he was in the game, he generally got the ball, with 77 official carries. Considering the official snap count total includes plays negated by penalties, Greene probably carried the ball slightly more than half of the snaps on which he played. He had 295 yards on those carries, 3.8 ypc if you like that stat, and four touchdowns. His rushing DVOA was 8.7%, so slightly better than CJ's. He also had six catches for 39 yards, though he ended up sharing the non-CJ third down duties with the next man I'll discuss.
Greene is due a base salary of $2.3 million for 2013. Ideally, that's more than you'd pay a back like him even if you think he's likely to be the 1A back in a committee. Nevertheless, I still expect him to be around. Ruston Webster signed him to that contract, and Greene is a reasonable fit for the man-blocking-based scheme Whisenhunt seems likely to install based on his personal coaching history. I prefer my backs with a little more explosiveness than Greene has demonstrated the past couple seasons, but at least he didn't look like the back who was soon out of the league he did early with the Jets early in 2012. Oh, yeah, and short yardage rushing success is still about the offensive line much more than the backs as his magical ability to convert third-and-shorts ended up getting lost in the move from New Jersey. Imagine that.
Jackie Battle got a surprisingly healthy share of the third down work late in the season even when CJ and Greene were both in the lineup. I could only read that as a comment on his pass protecting abilities relative to Greene and CJ's, or maybe Ryan Fitzpatrick really liked him. He got most of his work in the games Greene missed, with 79 of his 113 snaps (10.5%) coming in the first five games of the season. He finished with 36 carries for 142 yards at a roughly replacement-level rate by Football Outsiders numbers. That fits in pretty well with how I rate him as a rusher. He had one rushing touchdown and four catches for 36 yards. A free agent this offseason, it wouldn't shock me to see Sylvester Croom liked him enough to bring him back later in the offseason for a similar sort of RB3/special teams role (he had 10 tackles here, 5 solo). That doesn't mean I have any interest in seeing him back, though, or expect to see him.
Leon Washington is nominally a running back, but he was a return man only and did not play any snaps on offense in the time he was with the Titans. Like Battle a free agent, I will discuss him in more detail when I write about special teams.
Whisenhunt's first big decision will be about Johnson. I expect him to be cut. I expect Shonn Greene to be retained and to play the lead role in a committee. I would like to see the Titans add a running back on the third day of the draft to be part of the committee, preferably a player with some explosiveness like Arizona found with Andre Ellington in the sixth round last year. The Titans could choose to part ways with Greene even if they also part ways with CJ; I do not expect this to happen, but it is not inconceivable. If that happens, then I would expect them to spend some of the money they are saving on one of the better free agent backs out there. Even if they draft a back, I would expect them to add a veteran back, though much more at the Battle level (cheap, later in free agency) than at the Greene level (expensive, early in free agency).
If the Titans do not in fact cut Chris Johnson, then Mr. Bigglesworth will get upset and who knows what their plan at running back will be aside from to give CJ all the carries they feel like because why not, while I contemplate the infinite and write bad poetry* in response (*-I don't write poetry).