Just weeks ago, after releasing presumed No. 2 D'Onta Foreman, the Texans acquired Duke Johnson from the Cleveland Browns for a conditional pick that will likely become a third-rounder. He's the guy now.
But Duke Johnson can't carry the load, right? He's a pass-catching specialist who, despite playing all 64 games possible in his four-year career, has just 299 career rush attempts, with a career-high of 104 in his rookie season.
So what are the Texans going to do?
What if we haven't seen all Duke has to offer?
At 5-9, 207, Duke Johnson has a 58th percentile BMI for a running back, so he's not exactly your everyday passing-down back. That doesn't mean he's big — he's certainly smaller than many prototypical workhorse backs — but he comes in at the same height and one pound lighter than Aaron Jones. Duke's size suggests he could at least handle more work than he's seen.
So it's not really a surprise that he got it in college at The U. Johnson played three seasons at Miami, leaving after his junior season. Right away as a true freshman, Johnson carried 139 times for 947 yards, averaging 11.6 rush attempts per game. He missed time in his true sophomore season, but logged 145 carries for 920 yards in eight games, an increase to 18.1 attempts per game.
Things clicked in Johnson's junior season, as he stayed healthy for 13 games on essentially that same workload, going for 1,652 rushing yards on 242 carries, 18.6 attempts per game. Across three seasons and 33 college games at an ACC school, Johnson ran 526 times for 3,519 yards, a 6.7-yard average, with 26 rushing scores. He added 69 career catches for 719 receiving yards and four more scores. He was a workhorse!
Now, not all college workhorses can bring that to the NFL level, but the best comparison here might be the guy he could potentially replace.
The similarities with Lamar Miller
Interestingly, Miller also played his college ball at Miami, and was the team's leading rusher in 2011, a year before Johnson became the lead back for the Hurricanes. These two have been here before.
Miller spent four seasons playing for the Dolphins, and while he ran more than Johnson ever did in Cleveland, he wasn't exactly a workhorse himself, cresting 200 carries just once, when he topped out at 216 in 2014. The same questions about handling the workload dogged Miller during his time with the Dolphins, and upon signing with the Texans "the biggest question for Miller (was) whether he (could) handle a heavy workload."
Bill O'Brien was already entering his third season as the head coach of the Texans at the time, and he gave Miller all he could handle. Miller totaled 268 carries in 14 games (19.1 per game) in his first year in Houston, then saw a slight reduction to 238 in 16 games (14.9) in 2017 and 210 in 14 (15.0) last year.
The Texans seem like clear candidates to add at least one veteran rusher between now and Week 1, perhaps after other teams cut down their rosters. There are some names to watch, and I'll discuss a few below.
But as far as Johnson is concerned, right now I'm projecting him for 183 carries, or 11.4 per game. Based on Miller's career arc, I think there's upside beyond that, but it's fair to note Johnson's previous NFL experience as a ball-carrier doesn't match up to Miller's time with the Dolphins. I'm assuming Johnson would be spelled more.
But even with that, and a projection of just 60 targets — a number that would be a career low for Johnson but would far outpace Miller's season high with the Texans of 45 — Johnson comes out as my PPR RB20.
The reason I'm projecting a career low for Johnson in targets while also easily projecting a career high in carries is the reality that rushing quarterbacks don't throw to running backs as frequently. But I used similar logic and Cam Newton's history to project Christian McCaffrey to not have a big receiving role as a rookie, and I whiffed there. There's upside beyond both of Johnson's usage totals in this projection.
It adds up to plenty of reason to be optimistic about Johnson if you're drafting in the next few weeks. He's someone I'm willing to target in the fifth round, especially in PPR.
If not Johnson, who?
That's not the full story, though. As I noted, the Texans are prime candidates to add a veteran, because their other options are extremely unproven. If I had to rank them, I wouldn't even know where to start between Damarea Crockett and Buddy Howell, with Karan Higdon a bit behind and guys like Taiwan Jones and Josh Ferguson more or less receiving options. None are targets for me outside of very deep leagues until we get word that one is ahead of the pack, and we have little to go on there.
They also aren't targets because my expectation remains they will bring someone in, and it'll be someone who can come in and handle 10-15 carries per game. Melvin Gordon is the easy name to throw around, but the Texans, without a GM, have already given up what will likely become a third-round pick for Duke this offseason. As far as rating speculation, I would classify a trade for Gordon as "wild."
I've also heard Jay Ajayi's name come up, but the fact that he has not yet gotten an opportunity leads me to believe most in the NFL think his knees are just too worn down.
Instead, I'm looking to veterans who might get cut, and particularly Carlos Hyde.
Judging by Preseason Week 3 usage, the hype about Hyde being cut is real, as 225-pound Darrel Williams played ahead of him with the first-team offense in the big back role for Kansas City. If Hyde is released, landing in Houston makes too much sense not to happen.
The Texans tolerated Alfred Blue for several seasons, so they don't seem to mind inefficient backs, and Hyde's supposed strengths as a 230-pound back overlap with Johnson's supposed weaknesses. If you're a fan of Johnson, this is a good scenario — a player who will spell Johnson but do nothing to threaten him as the best back on the team. Hyde would likely cut into high-value green zone touches, but not passing downs work. It would resurrect Hyde's value a bit, but only make him a very late Draft Day option.
On that same note, keep an eye out for what happens in Buffalo. For most of the offseason, it's seemed one of LeSean McCoy or Frank Gore is a cut candidate. If McCoy somehow landed in Houston, that would be a more significant blow to Johnson's potential, though Gore would profile similarly to Hyde.
If it's none of the backs I've named here, I suspect it will be someone in this mold. We'll find out more soon, and there's some risk with Johnson until we do, but for now there should be plenty of optimism that he can handle the workload and, judging by how O'Brien handled Miller, might actually get it.
So which Fantasy Football breakouts should you target in your draft? And which rookie running back is a must-have RB2? Visit SportsLine now to get 2019 Fantasy Football cheat sheets from the model that called Tevin Coleman's breakout season, and find out.