A year ago, there was nobody worse at running the football than the Houston Texans. They finished last in the NFL in rushing yards (83.6 per game), yards per carry (3.4), and rushing touchdowns (eight). Their leading rusher was journeyman running back Rex Burkhead, who at age 31 paced the club with 427 yards on 122 carries — both were career highs for a back who was in his ninth season.
It’s no surprise Houston chose to overhaul its running back room, bidding farewell to pretty much everyone that ran the ball for them in 2021 not named Burkhead, and then adding Marlon Mack via free agency and spending a fourth-round pick on Dameon Pierce. While coming into the preseason it seemed like Mack and Pierce would split the duties, the rookie has had a strong camp, which included a five-carry, 49-yard effort in the preseason opener.
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That performance led to head coach Lovie Smith resting Pierce in the second preseason tilt and saying that he’d seen what he needed to see from the rookie. While Smith has yet to officially name Pierce the starter, the fact that he’s already watching his touches suggests a substantial role. Update: He returned for a final tune-up in the team’s preseason finale and looked the part once again.
A slight uncertainty is how much work Pierce could see in the passing game. He’s not a terrible catcher by any measure, but his pass protection is arguably the weakest area of the rookie’s game.
As it happens, a knock on Pierce coming out of Florida was his background as a complementary back, having never functioned in a true No. 1 role during his time with the Gators. There are two ways to view that, both of which are viable: 1) Pierce is unproven in a featured role, and it’s unknown if he can handle the rigors of heavy use, and 2) the rookie has limited mileage on his odometer and should be fresh, which is something that’s rare for running backs ticketed for the highest level.
One thing that should work in his favor is the lack of talent around him. We already touched on Burkhead, a tangential piece throughout his career, but Mack, the expected RB2, has only carried the ball 32 times in the past two seasons after suffering a torn Achilles in the season opener in 2020. He’s on a one-year, prove-it deal, so nobody is quite sure what he has left. Royce Freeman could also push for a spot, but he hasn’t done much more than Mack over the last two years.
Fantasy football outlook
Although there are some drawbacks with Pierce, most notably his lack of a track record as a lead back, there is currently a lot more to like. He’s been the best back in Texans camp, his backups don’t look like real threats, and he’d be teaming with a young quarterback and a veteran coach, which is a classic recipe for leaning on the ground game. At this point, Pierce has moved up into that midrange RB3 area, and there’s still some upside beyond that designation.