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Lamar Miller's Injury: What It Means for Duke Johnson And The Texans Other RBs


In one of the wildest days in NFL preseason history, one story completely overshadowed the rest of the news around the league and it wasn't even related to anything happening on a football field. Andrew Luck retired from football at 29 years of age, just on the verge of starting his seventh (he missed all of 2017) professional season playing for the Indianapolis Colts. A four-time Pro Bowler and the reigning Comeback Player of the Year certainly merits attention when taking such a stunning decision. But we're not here for Luck. We're here for what happened to Houston Texans running back Lamar Miller in his first action of the 2019 preseason.

In what was supposed to be "rehearsal week" (which mostly was not as not many starters saw playing time around the league), the Texans opted to give Miller the starting gig against the Cowboys. In just the second play of the Texans' first drive, Miller got the ball to run with it, was tackled by Malick Collins and ended being carted off the field. And just with that, Miller could be off the gridiron for a year.

What are the implications of Miller's injury for fantasy football? How will Houston handle its current backfield situation? Let's take a closer look at the current Texans backfield picture and how you should approach it in your leagues.

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How Did We Get Here?

Houston entered the 2019 preseason with a backfield led by Lamar Miller and backed up by D'Onta Foreman. In April, the Texans were praising Foreman's good shape after the offseason. At the end of July, Houston's coach Bill O'Brien said that the No. 2 RB spot was "wide open", putting Foreman's role as Miller's de facto backup in question.

O'Brien wasn't joking. Just five days later, Houston got rid of Foreman and waived him, supposedly because of bad "work habits". With that, the Texans found themselves in a difficult spot with no clear option to cover for any potential Miller injury, which brings us to...

 

Duke Johnson Is The In-House Solution

The Texans then completed a big trade by acquiring Duke Johnson from Cleveland in exchange of a fourth-round draft pick (could become a third-rounder). Considering how valuable draft assets are, the move was seen as an important one for Houston's backfield and it looked like Duke was going to, at a minimum, feature heavily in the passing game, complementing Miller's run-heavy style.

Duke Johnson has always been considered a third-down tailback. Johnson has only surpassed 100 rush attempts in his rookie season (104), and his last three-year attempts were only 73, 84, and 40. On the other hand, he has been targeted on passing plays 74, 74, 93, and 62 times since his first year. He's got a 77.6% catch-rate and great receiving-productions for an NFL running back.

With Miller out for the year, the logical path forward for Houston is to make Johnson their RB1. Although he only has one season of 100+ carries, Johnson could flourish with more carries. He's about to turn just 26 years old, and in his three years of college football, he logged 139 (11.6 Att/G), 145 (18.1), and 242 (18.6) attempts. He rushed for 947, 920, and 1,652 yards respectively. A heavy workload in the NFL is different than college, but it should not be an issue for Johnson to handle a greater workload than he's seen so far in the NFL.

Miller is leaving 210 rushes on the table. Alfred Blue also attempted 150 rushes last season and is now gone. That makes for 360 rushing attempts to distribute amongst Johnson and whoever he shares snaps with. Let's be bullish and assume he gets 65% of those attempts, which would amount to 235. With that usage, he could finish with 1000+ rushing yards. Add a fair share of targets to that (let's say 75), and his yards from scrimmage could pile up to around 1,600 potentially.

A quick calculation yields around 50 points on receptions, and 160 on rushing/receiving yards combined for a total of 210 points. Sprinkle in a few touchdowns and we're looking at a potential 250+ PPR points season. That would have made Johnson a low-end RB1 last season.

Fantasy Verdict: Draft Duke Johnson right now. Don't wait anymore. His ADP will go sky-high and he may even start to get drafted inside the first three rounds or earlier. The upside is massive and Houston, as of now, doesn't have a better option to give the ball to in the backfield.

 

Texans Other Running Back Options

Let's forget about Miller for a minute and pretend he doesn't exist. Actually, he won't play for the whole year, so we're not far from reality.

Duke Johnson should become Houston's RB1 and potential bell-cow, but there are some concerns at Johnson's role not being as robust. What if the Texans bad luck didn't run out after Miller's injury, and they also lose Johnson at some point?  Or what if Johnson only receives 20-40% of the carries, rather than the lofty 65% we assumed above? Even if he doesn't get injured and just shares a big amount of snaps with other tailbacks, what are Houston's remaining options at the running back position right now?

These are the other backs the Texans have currently on their roster:

Buddy Howell

A professional running back since last year, Howell was signed as a UDFA by the Miami Dolphins, released days after that move, and snatched by Houston. He's remained part of the Texans since September.

Howell has had one of the best performances this preseason in a 15-attempt effort against the Lions in which he amassed 84 yards for a touchdown. He gained six first downs in those 15 carries (40%), and his longest run went for 14 yards. He also performed nicely for Miami in last year's preseason and that didn't help him, so this game will probably not amount to anything much neither.

Damarea Crockett

He profiled as Foreman's replacement when Foreman was released a few weeks ago. He's the one to have generated more buzz and seems to sit just behind Johnson in the depth chart, but he has yet to see an official NFL snap. He is a UDFA signee and last season as a junior in Missouri he rushed for 709 yards on 147 attempts with 7 TD while logging 88 yards on 12 receptions.

During the three preseason games in which he has played, he's got the third most attempts out of the Texans backfield with 17 combined carries. He has run for 83 yards and a touchdown and gained a first down on 29.4 percent (five in total) of his tries.

Karan Higdon

Same as Crockett, Houston signed Higdon as a UDFA this summer. He is the more heralded college player of the two. In his senior season at Michigan, he rushed for 1,178 yards on 224 attempts with 10 TD and added 43 yards on 7 receptions.

Per NFL.com's preseason tracked stats, Higdon has logged 28 attempts for 78 yards (2.7 Y/A) and no touchdowns. His upside seems to be higher than that of Crockett, yet he seems to be at the same position in terms of the pecking order. Neither of the two players seems to be ahead of the other, so it'll be a matter of time to assess who is higher in the depth chart.

Josh Ferguson

In comparison to the rest of the running back corps currently on Houston (Duke Johnson aside), Ferguson is quite a veteran. The problem with Ferguson is that he has had just one carry since the 2017 season and has mustered up just 26 rushing yards on 15 career carries since his debut back in 2016.

This preseason, Ferguson has seen the field one game, running six times to gain 17 yards and a single touchdown. At the end of July it was reported that he was the leading candidate to take on the third-back role behind both Miller and D'Onta Foreman. With both of them out, he will be fighting with the rookies and Howell for the backup role assuming Houston opts to not bring anyone from outside.

Fantasy Verdict: Pass on all of Howell, Crockett, Higdon, and Ferguson. The four of them have flaws, and even those with experience in the NFL (even just in preseason games or on short appearances in-season) don't offer any kind of fantasy potential. They are totally unproven players without a track record, don't profile as even moderately reliable handcuffs to Johnson, and will probably be out of contention for the RB2 spot when Houston inevitably makes a move and brings some other veteran tailback. There are much better options out there not being drafted currently.

 

Houston's Trade/FA Targets For The RB Role

The last option Houston will explore are a trade and free-agent signing. Rosters are about to be trimmed all around the league and some veterans will be released here and there. There are whispers around Carlos Hyde getting ousted. LeSean McCoy could also be waived. Jay Ajayi is already available.

Neither of those names is very appealing, but neither is Houston's backfield state right now. At this point in the preseason, barely two weeks from Week One, Houston can't ask for much more for free.

Perhaps the most appealing option that could potentially move places and join the Texans via trade is Melvin Gordon. It is not entirely crazy, but it is purely speculative. Gordon is currently holding out, it doesn't look like Los Angeles and the running back are close to agreeing to a new deal, and there are reports of Gordon asking for a trade.

If the Chargers grow tired of Gordon's attitude, they might actually end up moving him. Gordon's ADP and fantasy value are dropping by the day because of his situation, but his real-life outlook is as good as ever (barring the injury concerns, of course). If Houston is able to trade for him, Gordon will instantly become the RB1 of the team and slot straight in Miller's place, with Duke Johnson dropping again to the RB2 slot and taking mostly on receiving duties.

Fantasy Verdict: Wait. Don't assume any good RB will be targeted by Houston as part of a trade, much less Melvin Gordon, until we start to hear something to that tune. Free agents and soon-to-be cut players around the league are probably not better options than Johnson is right now and whoever is signed as an FA by the Texans will just be Johnson's backup.

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