As we continue to march toward the beginning of the 2020 NFL season, we at JaguarReport have opted to begin taking a look at the likely starting units for each AFC South team. Among the Jaguars, Colts, Titans, and Texans, which team has the best signal-caller? The best wide receiver group? The best pass-rushing tandems?
In this edition, we look at each of the backfields throughout the AFC South. All four teams have made big investments at the running back position over the last several years, meaning each team is set to enter 2020 with a talented lead back and, in some cases, solid depth behind them.
The Indianapolis Colts will feature a backfield duo in 2020 that is composed of productive and athletic veteran Marlon Mack and 2020 second-round pick Jonathan Taylor, who the Colts traded up to No. 41 to select.
Meanwhile, the Houston Texans will return Duke Johnson, joining him with recently acquired Duke Johnson. Earlier this year, the Texans traded DeAndre Hopkins and a fourth-round pick in exchange for Johnson, a second-round pick and a 2021 fourth-round selection.
The most run-centric of the four offenses in the AFC South, Tennessee will deploy Derrick Henry, the league's leading rusher last season. The Titans opted to place the franchise tag on the All-Pro running back but he is once again set to be the focal point of Tennesse's offensive attack.
Finally, Jacksonville will return the majority of its backfield from 2019 with one notable addition in veteran free agent Chris Thompson. Jacksonville explored trade options for fourth-year running back Leonard Fournette, but ultimately no trade was arranged, meaning Fournette is once again bound to be Jacksonville's featured back.
In our ranking of the division's backfields for the 2020 season, we are weighing both what the players have done in the past but also what can be expected from them moving forward and what trajectory they are on in their career.
Without further ado, here is how we rank the AFC South's four backfields.
No. 1: Tennessee Titans
Group: Derrick Henry, Darrynton Evans, Khari Blasingame, David Fluellen, Dalyn Dawkins, Shaun Wilson.
Tennessee gets the nod for the top spot here solely because of Henry, who is the division's best running back and one of the most dominant running backs in the entire NFL over the past season and a half. Henry was the centerpiece of the Titans' offense in 2019, rushing for 1,540 yards (5.1 yards per carry) and 16 touchdowns while catching 18 passes for 206 yards and four touchdown catches. Henry's 446 rushing yards in the postseason also set an NFL record for most rushing yards in a single playoff run (not including the Super Bowl).
Henry is entering 2020 with as much hype as he has ever had in his career, and he should once again be expected to be the driving force behind Tennesee's offensive strategy. He has the size, speed, power, and vision to make defenses pay at all levels of the field, making him one of the tougher backs in the league to defend.
The cupboard behind Henry is relatively bare, though third-round rookie Darrynton Evans (No. 93 overall pick) offers plenty of athleticism and talent as a change of pace option. Ultimately, Henry is on a hot enough of a streak to make Tennesee's backfield the best in the AFC South all on his own, but the addition of Evans certainly doesn't hurt.
No. 2: Indianapolis Colts
Group: Marlon Mack, Jonathan Taylor, Nyheim Hines, Jordan Wilkins, Darius Jackson, Bruce Anderson III.
Each of the Colts running backs benefits a fair amount from the fact that the Colts field one of the NFL's best offensive lines, but it is a talented group that is right up there with Tennessee. In fact, in terms of depth the Colts easily have the edge over the Titans.
Marlon Mack carried the load for the Colts more often than not in 2019, rushing for 1,091 yards (4.4 yards per carry) and eight touchdowns and he should be expected to play a huge role in the Colts' offense as he enters the final year of his rookie contract in 2020. He offers an explosive skill set that puts stress on a defense thanks to his speed, but he still has to appear in all 16 games for the first time.
Likely to split carries with Mack will be second-round rookie Jonathan Taylor, one of college football's most productive running backs in recent years. Taylor broke record after record during his time at Wisconsin, rushing for 6,174 (6.7 yards per carry) and 50 touchdowns over three seasons. He has a lot of carries already on his resume, but he is a dominant back in terms of height/weight/speed.
Behind Mack and Taylor are two backs who have produced in Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins. Hines is perhaps the league's most underrated pass-catching backs, catching 107 passes for 745 yards and two touchdowns in the last two seasons. Wilkins has started four games over the last two seasons, rushing for 643 yards and three touchdowns on 111 carries.
No. 3: Jacksonville Jaguars
Group: Leonard Fournette, Ryquell Armstead, Chris Thompson, Devine Ozigbo, James Robinson, Tavien Feaster, Nathan Cottrell.
Entering his fourth year, Leonard Fournette doesn't have exactly high expectations surrounding him due to the team declining his team option, but he could still be in store for a career year. Fournette was give more volume in terms of rushes and passing targets than most other backs last year, and while he didn't deliver in terms of touchdowns (career-low three in 2019) or efficiency, he did have a few huge games for the Jaguars that showed he can transform an offense when he is on top of his game, including 225 rushing yards vs. Denver in Week 4.
Fournette will have a few things working in his favor in 2020, including potentially the best starting quarterback he has played with at the NFL level in Gardner Minshew II and easily the best offensive coordinator he has played under in Jacksonville in Jay Gruden. Fournette was productive last year but he wasn't exactly impactful. With an improved Jaguars offense around him this season, that could potentially change. Regardless, the Jaguars are only No. 3 on this list because, for the most part, Fournette hasn't lived up to his lofty draft status.
Behind Fournette are two second-year backs in Ryquell Armstead and Devine Ozigbo who didn't get many carries last year. Each displayed an explosive and intriguing skill set, but it was hard for them to get many meaningful snaps behind Fournette. With that said, Armstead impressed as a pass-catcher as he caught 14 passes for 144 yards and two touchdowns.
Finally, the veteran back in Jacksonville's backfield will be long-time Gruden lieutenant Chris Thompson, who Jacksonville signed as an unrestricted free agent earlier this offseason. Thompson won't steal many carries from the other backs on the roster but he is a dynamic and proven third down back who can be used across the formation in the passing game.
No. 4: Houston Texans
Group: David Johnson, Duke Johnson, Buddy Howell, Karan Higdon, Scottie Phillips.
Just a few years ago, David Johnson was one of the league's most dynamic and valuable running backs. But over the last several seasons, injuries have sapped his effectiveness and forced Arizona's hand when it came to finding alternatives at running back. While Johnson still has plenty of natural talent, he has only rushed for 1,308 yards (3.6 yards per carry) and nine touchdowns in 30 games over the last three seasons.
Houston is clearly high on Johnson and his fit within their offensive scheme, though it remains to be seen how much he can impact their running game after struggling to make a mark with the Cardinals in recent years. With that said, Johnson is still a solid receiving option out of the backfield, catching 36 passes for 370 yards and four touchdowns last season.
Behind David Johnson will be long-time change of pace back Duke Johnson. Duke Johnson has rarely been relied upon as a lead back or as a top rushing option in his five-year career (Just 1,696 career rushing yards), and in 2019 he had only 83 carries for 410 yards and two touchdowns in Houston's offense. But, like David Johnson, Duke Johnson is a solid pass-catcher, recording 44 catches for 410 yards and three touchdown receptions last season.