HOUSTON -- Houston Texans coach and general manager Bill O’Brien has some meaningful decisions to make at running back this offseason, as Duke Johnson is the only regular contributor from 2019 at the position under contract for 2020.
The Texans traded for Johnson from the Cleveland Browns during training camp for what became a third-round pick. Johnson is under contract through the 2021 season, with cap hits of $4.1 million in 2020 and $5.1 million in 2021. But Houston clearly didn’t see him as a lead back last season, instead depending primarily on Carlos Hyde.
In 2019, Johnson had 127 touches, running for 410 yards on 83 carries and catching 44 passes for 410 yards. In his first four NFL seasons, Johnson only ran the ball at least 10 times in four games. He did not have more than nine carries in a game last season.
“He's a guy that can run the ball, catch the ball," quarterback Deshaun Watson said of Johnson. "He can do it all. You have to pick; either you’re going dime personnel and have a DB on him or you have to put one of the linebackers on him, and linebackers don't do too much covering. … He's a guy that's really a receiver playing running back, and he can do a lot of different things that can help us."
One upside to Johnson -- and something O’Brien preaches -- is his availability. The running back has never missed a game in his five-year NFL career.
While Johnson could have a bigger role in Houston’s offense next season, expect Houston to find at least one more back who can make a significant number of carries in 2020.
A look at Houston's options:
Re-sign Carlos Hyde
Hyde is coming off of his best NFL season -- he scored six touchdowns and ran for a career-best 1,070 yards on 245 carries -- after being traded to the Texans by the Kansas City Chiefs on cutdown day. After the Texans’ playoff loss, Hyde said he believed he played well enough to earn another contract.
“I definitely want to be back here,” Hyde said. “I don’t want to go to another team and start all over again. I felt like Houston was home. I think I handled my part. I’ve just to let things play out in the offseason and see what happens.”
The desire for stability makes sense for Hyde. In the last three seasons, he has played for the San Francisco 49ers, Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars and Texans. He also spent the offseason and training camp with the Chiefs.
O’Brien was a fan of the way Hyde played last season, and if the price is right, the Texans could bring back Hyde on a relatively low-risk contract. But he’ll be 30 years old in September, so don’t expect Houston to outbid any teams that might want to reward Hyde for his 1,000-yard season.
Re-sign Lamar Miller
The Texans traded for Hyde because Miller tore his ACL in the Texans’ third preseason game. O’Brien has always spoken highly of Miller, but the running back never really played up to the four-year, $26 million contract he signed with the Texans in 2016.
Miller’s best season came in 2018, when he averaged 4.6 yards per carry and was named to the Pro Bowl, and perhaps had he not torn his ACL, he would have built on that campaign for another strong year. Look for Miller to test the market, and perhaps return to Houston on an incentive-laden deal if he doesn't get a better offer.
Other internal options
The Texans also have Karan Higdon under contract. The former Michigan running back signed with Houston as an undrafted free agent and spent all season on the Texans' practice squad. He should get a chance to compete in training camp.
Houston currently has nearly $60 million in cap space, but given the fact O’Brien wants to reward Watson and left tackle Laremy Tunsil this offseason, as well as fill other holes on the roster at cornerback and interior pass-rusher, it seems unlikely either will end up in Houston.
Last offseason, when Le’Veon Bell was available on the free agent market (and signed a four-year, $52.5 million contract with the New York Jets), Houston was not interested, even though they did have the cap space to make a move.
There are plenty of lower-priced options on the free-agent market outside of Henry and Gordon, including Kenyan Drake and Jordan Howard, but a better place to look might be in the draft. There also is a chance that a running back currently under contract, such as Devonta Freeman or Rex Burkhead, could become available.
The Texans don’t have a lot of draft capital. After trading for Tunsil, Houston does not have a first-round pick in either the 2020 or 2021 drafts. They have a second-round pick (No. 57) and could have a third-round pick (No. 90) if the conditional third-round pick the Texans traded to the Browns for Johnson is the expected compensatory pick that Houston will get after the Chiefs signed safety Tyrann Mathieu.
While running backs D’Andre Swift (Georgia), J.K. Dobbins (Ohio State) and Clyde Edwards-Helaire (LSU) will almost certainly be off the board by the time Houston picks, they could end up with a running back like Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor or Florida State’s Cam Akers. If Taylor falls to the Texans, he could be an impact player as a rookie.