Texas is a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust kind of state. After all, it owns the reigning NFL all-time rushing champ (Emmitt Smith) and used to boast the NCAA all-time leader (Ricky Williams). It's the home of Darrell Royal's wishbone offense and the birthplace of Earl Campbell, the Tyler Rose.
But every state has a red-headed stepchild, and in the Lone Star state it's the Houston Texans, who have had two 1,000-yard rushers in their six-year NFL existence. The Texans ranked 22nd in rushing last season, one of a dozen NFL teams to average fewer than 100 yards on the ground per contest. The coaching staff hopes with a promising (and healthy) passing attack in place the ground game will benefit.
So, who is going to come out of camp with the starting gig? It's Ahman Green's job to lose at this point, but offseason pickup Chris Brown could dislodge Green with a good camp, and the team has a few young backs fighting for elbow room at the table. Of all of the running back camp battles in the NFL, this one is the deepest.
Why Green will keep the job: For an offense ready to shift to a zone blocking scheme under the guidance of offensive line coach Alex Gibbs, Green might be the best fit of all of his counterparts. Green thrived in Green Bay for many years as a back willing to break to the hole and capable of bouncing big runs to the outside. Though he lacks the top-end speed of his youth, Green is still in fine shape and capable of running through or around NFL defenders. Another reason he will stay in the lineup is the $6.5 million Houston guaranteed him in 2007. The Texans will want to see at least some return on that investment. A knee injury plagued him during much of 2007, and can be attributed for his poor numbers following Weeks 2. However, it could be argued that Green gets a bad rap for being considered an injury risk. Green missed significant time in 2005 and 2007 (a total of 21 games combined) but other than that he has never played in fewer than 14 games in any other season in his 10-year career. While he is 31 - an age that strikes fear in the hearts of fantasy owners -- a healthy season could make Green a viable No. 3 fantasy back. No other back on the Texans roster can say that.
Why Brown will win it: Every fantasy owner remembers Brown's 175-yard performance in Week 1 last season. Problem was, Brown disappeared after that, and injuries ruined yet another season for the Titans back. Brown was brought into Houston this offseason to add depth to a backfield that's had trouble keeping its backs on the field. Now many believe the 6-foot-3, 220-pound back will steal the show. Brown is four years younger than Green, and now that his back problems are beginning to disappear he has been turning heads in practice. Brown's rushing style fits what the Texans are trying to do, and despite the well-deserved knock on him as a medical risk, Brown is coming off of one of his finest seasons in terms of games played (12), yards per carry (4.5), touchdowns (five) and receptions (19). The Texans wouldn't have brought Brown to town if they didn't feel he could be a productive back capable of pushing Green. As he gets closer to 100 percent health he'll push Green more and more.
Don't forget about: There are several other backs who factor into the mix in Houston, not the least of which is former Notre Dame rusher Darius Walker, whose 4.6-yard average last year was far better than that of 2007 team rushing leader Ron Dayne (released this offseason) or Green. Walker gained all of his 264 yards in the final four games of 2007, including 86 yards and a touchdown in the finale against Jacksonville. Like Green and Brown, Chris Taylor must remain healthy to compete for time. Taylor is probably a better fit at fullback, considering the number of players competing for halfback duty. Former Bronco Mike Bell entered camp out of shape, then injured his hamstring. Bell performed well in Denver, but then again, what NFL running back hasn't? Rookie Steve Slaton is the real wild card of this bunch. The third round pick has no experience and lacks ideal size but could have the most big-play potential. The West Virginia standout was an early Heisman candidate in 2007 but faded in October.
Who fantasy owners should pull for: Green Of all of the backs in Houston's stable, Green is the only one capable of offering fantasy owners week-to-week value in 2008. Walker could provide a nice effort here and there, and Slaton is an intriguing prospect, but the thought of a 16-game season for Green is something that must tempt fantasy owners.
Mike Beacom is the publisher of SportsBuff.com