When Texans coach Bill O'Brien stood before the media hours after Lamar Miller was carted off the field with a season-ending torn ACL, he didn't immediately indicate that new running back Duke Johnson would serve as an every-down back. Instead, he seemed to refer to his run game moving forward as a "package deal" and brought up the name of another back unprompted.
"Obviously Duke would be in there, Taiwan (Jones) has had a good camp," O'Brien said. "I think our backfield situation with depth is actually decent. It's very difficult to lose a guy like Lamar for a lot of reasons."
It's worth noting that Jones played one snap in the Texans' preseason loss at the Cowboys -- the play directly after Miller's injury took place. When Houston took the field for their next series, undrafted rookie Karan Higdon was in the backfield. It's as if the Texans were protecting Jones from getting hurt.
How's Jones looked this preseason? In two games, not great. When the blocking's right, he's put up some decent gains but didn't consistently produce, wasn't a good blocker, and was frequently slow after the handoff. But that's what I see, it's not what O'Brien sees, and that's what matters. We don't know how Jones has looked in practice, but the 31-year-old back has one receiving touchdown and zero rushing touchdowns over an eight-year career. He's made it in the NFL as a special-teamer.
"Duke has come in here and learned the offense and done a good job, and we've got a number of guys. Like I said, Taiwan Jones and other guys that have played well this training camp," O'Brien noted late Saturday night. "It'll be interesting to see how it all comes together."
Houston does have two interesting undrafted rookie runners in Higdon and Damarea Crockett.
Crockett is a big-bodied, powerful downhill runner who can work in short yardage (he scored from a yard out against Packers backups) and is a better blocker than their other young backs. With a preseason rushing average at 4.9 yards per carry, Miller's season-ending injury should lock up a roster spot for him.
Higdon is more of a smallish, quick, agile runner who can run through contact for decent gains. His first four runs against the Packers in the first preseason game went for 7, 9, 6 and 5 yards. But Higdon also saw mop-up duty in the Texans' blowout loss at Dallas, a telling sign. He played behind a bad O-line and couldn't find any room to run, which is partially why his rushing average this preseason sits at 2.8.
If the coach likes Jones, for whatever reason, he'll be the one paired with Johnson first. Crockett is interesting since he's such a different back than the others in Houston and could serve in a short-yardage goal-line role. The only Texans running back I'm drafting in a typical redraft league is Johnson, but Crockett is worth a spec pick in leagues with nine-plus bench spots and deeper long-term formats. Jones is tough to believe in and Higdon might make the team but not see much playing time.
One last, non-running back thought: If the Texans stick with this group at running back, it's going to put a lot the offensive workload on Deshaun Watson's shoulders. Instead of traditional runs, the Texans can use short passes to Johnson, Keke Coutee and others to pick up small chunks of yardage. Watson will also run with the ball. Their offensive line isn't great but it's better than what it was last season. There's a real chance Miller's injury opens the door for Watson to have an MVP-type of season — and huge Fantasy numbers to go with it. He's now my No. 2 overall Fantasy quarterback.
Michel better than his line
Let the lame-os in your league peep Sony Michel's box score and a 3.6-yard rushing average. They didn't see him first break a sweet 8-yard run, then an impressive 30-yard gallop, only to get both called back by holding penalties. Michel appears over any knee issues as he cut and swerved his way through the Panthers defense on a number of occasions, unafraid to take on contact along the way.
If there's bad news, it's that he failed on a goal-line carry (one of the Patriots tight ends missed a block) and saw fullback James Develin cash in from the 1 on the next play. That was a problem for Michel last year and would hurt his Fantasy upside if he didn't get those goal-line carries consistently in 2019.
For now, Michel seems a medium-risk, high-reward running back with a chance to have some games like he did last postseason. Round 5 is a bargain for him in non-PPR leagues and about the right spot in PPR. Matching him with Damien Harris should lock up most of the Patriots' rushing touchdowns.
The rest of the AFC
Jaguars: Leonard Fournette's first few runs were snuffed out in part because Dolphins linebacker Jerome Baker made some outstanding plays, but then he got a little bit going by the Jaguars' third series — just in time for the coaches to take him out of the game. He still runs strong with quickness and is easily the best back on the Jaguars. His work in the passing game (three targets, two catches, 19 yards) should provide optimism for extra numbers during the year. Most folks will love taking him in Round 3 but I don't see too much fault in grabbing him in late Round 2 when the elite-tier receivers and tight ends are gone.
Dolphins: The more I watch Kalen Ballage, the more I like Kenyan Drake. Ballage really didn't get much going against the Jaguars and was a total liability in the passing game for the third week this preseason. I'd be shocked to see him play on passing downs in games Drake is active for. I'd also be shocked to see him play a ton of first, second and fourth downs when Drake is healthy. For me to take Ballage, he'd have to slide to a round beginning with a 1, and I'm not talking the first round.
Ravens: Justice Hill's poor stat showing is perfect for feisty Fantasy fanatics who want to stash him late. His speed is excellent and is sure to be utilized in the Ravens' creative running offense. Mark Ingram is still the best choice (Round 4 or 5) but Hill could have some blow-up moments.
Bengals: Joe Mixon chilled on the sideline while the other backs who played failed to gain even 10 yards on the ground each. Mixon should be a true workhorse with 1,500-yard upside and is an easy top-20 overall pick.
Raiders: We got a long look at James Butler at tailback for Oakland while Josh Jacobs, Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington didn't play. Of all the rookies, Jacobs has the best chance to finish as a top-12 running back. Draft him after the first 30 picks or so.
Browns: We didn't see Nick Chubb play at Tampa Bay, nor did we see Dontrell Hilliard. Kareem Hunt did and he wasn't very impressive. It's Chubb's backfield until further notice — he should be a top-15 pick in every draft.
Bills: I've got to hand it to LeSean McCoy — he looks great. He's still got very good speed and lateral agility and has a better offensive line in front of him than he did last year. But what do you think it means when he's starting and playing most of the time with the starters, getting spared for Frank Gore, and then rookie Devin Singletary plays one snap and scores from 9 yards out on that one play (with the starting unit)? Showcasing for a trade? Wishing he would get dinged up? McCoy is attempting to thrive with his "back against the wall" in order to keep his roster spot. I still view Singletary as the Bills back with the most upside, but the reality is that none of them are in line for heavy workloads so long as everyone's healthy. Drafting McCoy and Singletary as a duo is cost-effective — one in Round 9 and one in Round 10. And, if Shady gets traded to Houston/Tampa Bay/who knows where, you'll have two good backs on your bench instead of one good handcuff situation.
Chiefs: It took one play — Damien Williams' wheel route catch-and-run — to remind you of what he's capable of in this offense. The play itself was a third-down call where Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Sammy Watkins all drew close coverage, leaving Williams on a linebacker in space. It didn't end well for that guy as Williams sped away for the score. With Carlos Hyde on the outs, Fantasy managers can corral Williams with a top-25 pick and Darwin Thompson with a Round 9-10 choice and theoretically lock up the Chiefs backfield.
Colts: Indianapolis rested its starters in its latest game, including Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines. The change at quarterback figures to turn the offense into a more conservative but still creative unit, so expecting work from both backs makes sense. Mack is more of a Round 5 or 6 choice while Hines is a late-rounder in PPR.
Jets: Look, it would be nice if Le'Veon Bell played a little this preseason just to prove he's regained his old form, but we have no choice but to take the Jets at their word that he is. We have seen Ty Montgomery, however, and his versatility has been utilized this preseason. The results aren't amazing (3.8 yards per run, 5.8 yards per catch) but all signs point to him being involved. His value won't be much unless he replaces Bell.
Broncos: Denver rested their entire starting unit at the Rams, so we're left to believe they'll split the rushing duties up between Phillip Lindsay, Royce Freeman and a passing-downs guy like Devontae Booker or Theo Riddick. Lindsay is the most desirable of the bunch because he's fast and can play any down and distance. Freeman had a nice preseason run two games ago but really isn't a unique back. The other guys will just annoy Fantasy managers. Lindsay is the only one worth a pick in Round 6 or 7. Freeman isn't on my wish list.
Chargers: So long as Melvin Gordon holds out, Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson will team up to replace him. Jackson's later Fantasy value (Round 9-plus) makes him more appealing than Ekeler (Round 6). Neither back looked hot against the Seahawks, but Jackson's been slightly more impressive this preseason. That might buy him a slightly larger share of touches than he had last year when he stepped in for Gordon for four weeks.
Titans: We went the whole preseason without seeing Derrick Henry play. That's not a bad thing — the Titans basically handled him with kid gloves (really big ones) after his strained calf sidelined him for two weeks. They can focus on unleashing him against the Browns in Week 1. His talent is awesome; his supporting cast, newbie playcaller and one-dimensional skill set are not. He's OK in Round 4 in non-PPR, Round 5 in PPR. Dion Lewis is the second man up.
Steelers: This team has made noise about Jaylen Samuels having a big role, but through the preseason we've seen James Conner sop up most of the starter's reps. He's a better back than Samuels, and the track record of Steelers running backs in Fantasy is pretty good. I'm not overthinking it — Conner is a Round 1 pick. Samuels is a solid handcuff in Round 9-plus.
The NFC's running backs
Falcons: We didn't see much of Devonta Freeman for the second week in a row, but he did look fine. As for his backups, expect Ito Smith to be the next man up. Despite playing poorly through most of his first three preseason appearances, he was effective against the Redskins with a lot of patience and lateral agility. He doesn't tend to play fast, so don't expect Smith to overtake Freeman, but he's in line for 10 touches per week.
Redskins: Though we didn't see Derrius Guice flash his top speed, we did see him make some good cuts while running decisively. He took on plenty of contact as the Redskins offensive line did him no favors, including at the goal line where he had three scoring attempts, falling short on two of them and barely getting in on the third before a holding penalty wiped the points off the board. We also saw Guice lose a slew of touches on third downs to Chris Thompson, which isn't surprising. We also didn't see Adrian Peterson play, which is also not surprising. Guice is a good talent stuck on a bad team with a three-headed backfield and a below-average offensive line, which is why I can't bring myself to recommend him as anything more than a bench running back worthy of a Round 8 pick.
Packers: Dexter Williams continued to bury himself on the depth chart. Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams are the only draftable running backs on this team. Jones isn't one of my favorites.
Giants: Wayne Gallman had his moments against the Bengals, but he won't have many moments during the regular season when Saquon Barkley plays. At least, I hope he doesn't have any moments — that would mean something bad for Barkley.
Panthers: Christian McCaffrey is every bit as speedy and versatile as you remember. I don't have much confidence in any running back behind him on the depth chart.
Eagles: Corey Clement got a lot of run in his first preseason action while Miles Sanders and Jordan Howard rested. Sanders' hype is rising to the point where he's not a safe bet to make it to 70th overall anymore. He could go sooner to an excited Fantasy manager. That same hype has pushed Howard's stock down, but he has redeeming qualities as a Round 8 or 9 choice.
Buccaneers: I hate to say it, but there's nothing here for Fantasy managers to get excited about. Peyton Barber started, got three touches and was done for the night. Ronald Jones did have a couple of good short runs and seems to be over the whole tentative-to-play-football thing. He also returned kicks. Andre Ellington continued to play on third downs and Dare Ogunbowale was up-and-down as a carrier and a little better as a pass-catcher with the backups. I'll guess Barber is the Buccaneers starter but wouldn't count on him as anything more than bench depth. If you're drafting before Round 8 or 9, you're making an error. Jones should follow him within 10 to 20 picks or so.
Vikings: Not a whole lot to take away from Dalvin Cook's two carries other than he's still got it. I thought the Vikings O-line did a nice job pushing around the Cardinals defense for Cook and Alexander Mattison. Cook is fine in Round 2, Mattison in Round 11-plus.
Cardinals: David Johnson ran with a lot of patience ... too much patience. While the Cardinals offensive line played much better at Minnesota, Johnson still had a hard time finding room to run. Only four of his runs were for four-plus yards and only one went for more than five. I think there's enough evidence to believe he'll struggle to put up huge games like he did two seasons ago and play more like the back we saw last season, who was good, but not first-round good. It took me a while to come around on this, but Johnson is better served as a second-round pick. If you already drafted him in Round 1, don't freak out, but hope he runs with more decisiveness when the season starts.
Cowboys: We don't know when or if Ezekiel Elliott will sign, but all preseason long it's been Tony Pollard running well with Dallas' first-team offenses. He didn't miss a snap with Dak Prescott through three preseason games and finally got extended playing time versus Houston, running with very good patience and continuing to display good acceleration, power and balance. If you take Zeke early, you must commit to a Round 8 pick on Pollard unless you pick up three other starter-quality running backs by the end of Round 7. But if Pollard's going to be the guy running behind the Cowboys' mammoth O-line to begin the season, I want him whether I get Elliott or not. That's why Round 9 isn't too soon to roll the dice on Pollard no matter who your other running backs are.
Lions: We can sit and wish for the Lions to lean on Kerryon Johnson as an every-down stud, but it doesn't look like that's going to happen. Johnson had all the running back snaps on the Lions' first drive. He had none on the second drive — those went to C.J. Anderson. Johnson was back in on the third drive but slipped on a penalized play and didn't re-enter the game. Anderson took over and had 13 consecutive snaps over two series (including penalties) before a third back — rookie Ty Johnson — caught an 11-yard pass on a wheel route for a touchdown. Then Anderson worked exclusively on the Lions' fifth drive. Anderson ran with physicality, typical for a back as big as he is, but he's not fleet of foot like Johnson at all. Still, the Lions have used a multi-back formula for years and figure to continue. I can no longer trust Johnson ahead of Chris Carson or Dalvin Cook.
Bears: Coach Matt Nagy rested David Montgomery and Tarik Cohen for two straight preseason games and Mike Davis also got a rest at the Colts. The outlook remains the same: Montgomery (Round 4 or 5) is most likely to touch the ball the most, Cohen (Round 7 PPR, Round 8 non-PPR) should average 10 touches per game and Davis (very late pick) kicks in a few touches from week to week.
Saints: Alvin Kamara has looked like himself this preseason. Latavius Murray has looked fine as a Mark Ingram replacement. Kamara remains a top-3 Fantasy rusher while Murray has stand-alone value as a Round 7 flex with big potential if something happens to Kamara.
49ers: Time to hit pause on the Tevin Coleman hype train. A week after looking great, Coleman struggled to consistently find room against the Chiefs. He also split reps a little more evenly with Matt Breida, who came through with a 20-yard touchdown bomb from Jimmy Garoppolo. He also had more touches in the two-minute offense. If Breida is going at a three-round discount to Coleman, wouldn't that make him the better bargain?
Rams: Not only have we not seen Todd Gurley this preseason, but we haven't seen Malcolm Brown either. Is he being saved? Do the Rams know what they have in him? Is he hurt? Who knows? Meanwhile, rookie Darrell Henderson is coming up roses as a receiver but struggling as a rusher. That's sent his Fantasy stock into Round 8 and beyond. Gurley's ADP is still around 15th overall, which is a spot I'm not comfortable drafting him.
Seahawks: Chris Carson is simply better than Rashaad Penny. I wouldn't be surprised to see him have a two-to-one advantage in touches over Penny over the course of the season. I also expect him to catch a nice dose of passes to help keep the pass rush off of Russell Wilson. I'm weird in that I would take Carson in late Round 2, but some Fantasy managers find him as late as Round 4.
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.