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2010 Titans offseason positional analysis: running backs

We conclude our look at the Titans as they enter the 2010 league year with a look at the running backs, both at tailback and fullback.

That discussion starts, of course, with #28 Chris Johnson, who’s only the third most prominent player on this site’s masthead because there wasn’t a good enough picture to put him in a prominent enough position for the role he plays on the Titans.  Somewhat of a surprise pick in 2008’s first round, he quickly proved his doubters wrong, adding a much-needed element of explosiveness and big play ability to a Titans offense that, to be kind, did not excel in those departments.

CJ of course split carries with LenDale White for 2008 and the first 6 weeks of 2009, but started playing a much more prominent role beginning after the by week for the 0-6 Titans and exploded.  He tied a career high with 24 carries (which would be broken the next game, and again the next game, and again the next game) for a career-high 228 yards that game in Nashville against the Jaguars, thanks in part to two long touchdown runs, and didn’t look back, as he wasn’t held under 100 yards the rest of the way en route to becoming the 6th running back in NFL history to rush for over 2000 yards.  In sort of an oh by the way, he led the Titans with 50 receptions for 503 yards, 3rd on the team, setting an NFL record with 2,509 yards from scrimmage.

That total was slightly inflated by the Titans’ pre-occupation with getting him to 2000 yards, including giving him the ball 36 times in the season finale against the Seahawks.  Yes, it’s a pretty cool achievement, but, frankly, I’m inclined to agree with Michael Roos’ comment late in the season that it’s kind of meaningless considering the Titans didn’t make the playoffs.  The cautionary note comes from the additional wear and tear-running backs tend to have short NFL careers, and the 36 hard carries against the Seahawks and the 29 for 104 against Miami in Week 15 don’t properly count as favors.

A further cautionary note comes from the last back to have 2000 yards his second season in the league for a 5.6 ypc average, Eric Dickerson.  The Rams great didn’t even manage 1300 yards the next season, thanks to missing two games, and his per carry average never again exceeded 4.6.  That’s still a fine total, and Dickerson was never known for his explosiveness like CJ is, but does suggest that expecting him to put up 350 carries for 2,000 yards again is not realistic.

Ok, that’s plenty of water on the parade of a guy who set a couple NFL records last year, like 4 rush TDs of 50+ and the enormously impressive yards from scrimmage mark.

Beyond CJ The Great, there is the aforementioned LenDale White.  The SoCal Trojan was the Titans’ feature back in 2007 and a valuable back in some situations in 2008 but was largely relegated to the bench when CJ took over with the 7th game, with 39 carries in the first 6 games and only 25 in the last 10.  That’s quite a comedown after 300 carries in 2007 and 200 for 15 TDs in ’08.  He’s out of contract, but the Titans made him a restricted free agent.  He’s let his unhappiness become known, making the cliched “Play me or trade me” demand.  While the Titans tendered him at the second round level, the guess here is he could be had for less than that if there’s a team willing to pay him what he thinks he deserves and let him play for the role he thinks he deserves.  Given his history, we’ll see if such a chance materializes and how he reacts if it doesn’t.    Don’t be too too surprised to see him unhappily back on the Titans in 2009.

The Titans’ third running back in 2009 was fifth-round rookie Javon Ringer.  After a promising training camp and preseason, he was only active for 7 games and totaled a mere 8 carries.  Neither a big back at 5’9″, 205#, nor particularly fast with a 4.6 40 yard time, he’ll need a surplus of hard work and probably good special teams play to see more time on the field in 2010, especially if LenDale White returns.

Also officially listed at RB was Alvin Pearman, the former Jaguar picked up by the Titans as a return man.  He appeared in 5 games, didn’t have a carry, and only had maybe a couple plays on offense.  He’s officially under contract for 2010, but I’d be surprised to see him on the Titans’ roster come opening day.

The discussion of the backs on the Titans’ roster ends with fullback Ahmard Hall.  Sarge has been a fine blocking back since beating out Troy Fleming, but was plagued by ball security issues, fumbling twice on thirteen touches in 2009 after his fumble in the playoff game that ended the 2008 season.  These ball security concerns seemed to impact his playing time, as the Titans lined up Scaife and Crumpler in the backfield at times on passing downs, something I suspect they wouldn’t have done nearly as much had they had confidence in Hall’s ball security.  He remains under contract for 2010 at a base salary of $850,000, so he should stick around.  Still, don’t be surprised if 2010 ends up being his last year with the Titans, and that makes him a guy who could be vulnerable if there’s good competition from a rookie.

Expectation: Chris Johnson is awesome and should remain awesome.  I’d prefer that he be awesome for 300 carries rather than 350 or the 400+ he could see if his pace for the last 10 games keeps up.  For that to happen, the Titans will need a #2 back they can be confident in.  Don’t be surprised to see if this is once again LenDale White, despite his apparent wish to the contrary.  If White does not return, Ringer has the inside track on that #2 job, but he has to take it.  Don’t be surprised to see the Titans add a back; if White is back, that’ll be a cheap rookie.  If White departs, look for the Titans to possibly grab an inexpensive veteran.  I’d also expect to see at least a fullback for camp purposes, though that may be an H-back instead.

I’ll try to further the running back analysis with a post following up on this one about running back success from last offseason, with additional thoughts on CJ, White, and when the Titans might want to give CJ a rest in 2010.