The 2022 Texans Backfield Breakdown is part of an offseason series in which I take a deep dive into one NFL team’s backfield and examine the respective rushing performances of the players in it. In doing so, I hope to gain insights into key players from a talent evaluation standpoint, and using that evaluation as a baseline, from a dynasty valuation standpoint. The first installments in the series can be found here.
I’ll start by taking a quick overview of each team’s raw rushing volume and propensity to run the ball in general, and then dive into the player evaluation portion. Before we start, let’s define the metrics I’ll use as part of those evaluations:
Yards per Carry+ (or YPC+)
The degree to which a player’s raw yard per carry average exceeds or falls short of the collective yard per carry average of all other running backs on his team. Meant to be an overview of a player’s team-relative efficiency.
The degree to which the average amount of defenders in the box that a player faces on his runs exceeds or falls short of the collective average faced by the other running backs on his team. Considering that the outcome of any given rushing attempt is largely dependent on the amount of defenders in the box pre-snap, Box Count+ describes the relative degree of difficulty of a running back’s carries.
Breakaway Conversion Rate (BCR)
Quantifies performance in the open field by measuring how often a player turns his chunk runs of at least 10 yards into breakaway gains of at least 20 yards.
Box-Adjusted Efficiency Rating (BAE Rating)
Improves upon YPC+ by accounting for the box counts that a player carried the ball against. Looks at team-relative yards per carry against each individual box count, then uses a weighted average (based on total carries against each box count) to generate an overall score. A score of 100-percent indicates that a player is producing exactly the per carry output of his teammates, a score above 100-percent indicates that he is outdoing their per carry output to whatever degree, and vice versa for a score below 100-percent.
Relative Success Rate (RSR)
Measures player consistency using Success Rate, but relative to his teammates and adjusted for the box counts that he faced in the same way that BAE Rating is. “Success” on a given carry is defined by gaining 40-percent of yards needed on first down, 70-percent of yards needed on second down, and 100-percent of yards needed on third or fourth down. A score of 0.0-percent indicates that a player is succeeding on exactly the same percentage of his carries as are the other backs on his team, a positive score indicates that he is succeeding more often than his teammates are, and vice versa for a negative score.
Team Rushing Volume
The Houston Texans had a low-volume rushing attack in 2021, finishing No. 24 in the league in attempts. Their total of 420 was over 30 carries fewer than league average. It marked two consecutive seasons with carry totals near the bottom of the league (they ranked No. 31 in 2020).
The Texans scored the third-fewest points in the league last year while giving up the sixth-most. They were only a pass-heavy offense because they were frequently in catch-up mode. According to rbsdm.com, Houston had the fourth-highest early-down run rate in neutral Game Script situations (when win probability for either team did not exceed 80-percent). They also opted to run the ball more often than expected (given league-wide play-by-play data) in most down-and-distance situations, and three-percent more often than expected overall. After being a pass-first offense with Deshaun Watson, they tried to be a run-heavy team without him in 2021.
Watson is now gone-gone, as is former head coach David Culley. Lovie Smith will lead the team going forward. But since he’s a defensive-minded leader, the offense’s tendencies will likely follow the philosophy of new offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. Unfortunately for those making projections, Hamilton hasn’t been an OC since he coordinated the Andrew Luck offense in Indianapolis from 2013 to 2015. During those seasons, the Colts had the third-highest early-down pass rate in the league.
After Indy, Hamilton was part of the offensive staff with the Browns and Chargers before joining the Texans in 2021. But I digress. Houston is likely to be bad again next season, and we don’t have much to go off of to project how much they’d like to either run or throw the ball in an ideal world.
It was a smorgasbord of castoffs at running back for the Texans last year. Seven different guys saw touches in the running game and Rex Burkhead had the team lead with just 122 carries. Here are the complete rushing efficiency profiles for those players:
None of these guys provided much fantasy utility last season. But a few were relatively impressive from an efficiency standpoint.
Burkhead, in particular, was a quality runner given the context of the abysmal offense he was in. According to a Composite Efficiency Score made up of the average of his percentile ranks in BAE Rating and Relative Success Rate, Burkhead offered the fourth-most value on a per-touch basis among lead backs last year, behind only Najee Harris, Jonathan Taylor, and James Robinson. His RSR was especially impressive, landing in the 96th-percentile since 2016.
So Now What?
None of the players who saw rushing work in Houston last season should have any dynasty value. Rex Burkhead has had a Composite Efficiency Score of at least 57.6 (out of 100) in each of the last three seasons, but he’s not going to have a useful role.
The low-key move here is to target the newly-acquired Marlon Mack as a what-the-hell upside play. Mack ruptured his Achilles in Week 1 of 2020, missed the rest of that season. He then ran the ball only 28 times in six games of action last year.
The last time we saw healthy Mack was during the 2019 season, where he ran for over 1,000 yards and posted a 128.6-percent BAE Rating landing in the 84th-percentile. He was also good in 2018 and 2017, posting Composite Efficiency Scores of 75.0 and 59.9. He has been an efficient runner throughout his career, even going back to his time at South Florida. In college, Mack outdid the other USF backs (a group which included D’Ernest Johnson) by 1.94 yards per carry; team-relative efficiency in the 91st percentile.
The Texans are going to be bad next season, but volume is the tail that wags the fantasy points dog. If Marlon Mack is healthy, he’s easily the best running back on this team. The other backs currently under contract are Rex Burkhead, Royce Freeman, Scottie Phillips, Dare Ogunbowale, and Darius Anderson. Still only 26, Mack could have one more RB2-level season left in the tank.
There’s a chance his opportunity gets eviscerated by the NFL Draft. There’s also a chance his injuries have sapped him of his explosiveness. But he’s currently going in the 16th round and as the RB56 in single-QB startups (per DLF). It won’t cost you much to find out if Mack’s still got it.