With the top of the depth chart populated by names that were well past their sell-by date and a rookie quarterback learning on the job, it’s easy to understand why the Houston Texans finished dead last in the NFL in rushing yards (83.6 per game), rushing touchdowns (eight), and yards per carry (3.4) last year. That led to a complete overhaul as, of the team’s top five rushers, only running back Rex Burkhead, who paced the team with 427 yards on 122 carries, returns.
Also gone is much of the coaching staff with David Culley replaced as head coach by Lovie Smith, and Tim Kelly giving way to Pep Hamilton as offensive coordinator. Hamilton served as the passing game coordinator last year but has OC experience from his time with the Indianapolis Colts.
With young quarterback Davis Mills the starter, Smith and Hamilton would love to put together a quality ground attack to take some pressure off their second-year signal caller. The question is whether they have the horses to do it.
Mack, the former featured back for the Colts made expendable by the emergence of Jonathan Taylor, looks to be the nominal frontrunner for the No. 1 spot on the depth chart. In 2018-19, Mack rushed for 1,999 yards and 17 TDs combined for Indy, checking in at a healthy 4.5 yards per carry. Unfortunately, that’s where the good news stops.
In 2020, Mack sustained a torn Achilles in the season opener and wouldn’t suit up for the Colts again until Sept. 19, 2021. He’d appear in just six games for them last year, becoming a weekly healthy scratch after requesting a trade that never materialized.
Mack found a chilly reception on the open market and is hoping he can rehabilitate his value with the Texans. Whether Mack, who at best projects as an early-down option, can do so remains to be seen.
At 5-foot-10, 218 pounds, Pierce has the kind of compact, powerful frame teams like in an NFL back. He has good balance and is effective between the tackles. The rookie also has above-average hands and could develop into a reliable target out of the backfield.
Pierce was a complementary back for most of his time at Florida, however, and seems better suited to a timeshare arrangement than as a lead back — though the flipside of that is the 22-year-old has less wear on his body than most collegiate RBs. His speed is also of the middling variety.
With four years of team control and limited mileage on his odometer, Pierce should be provided with every opportunity to contribute. Smith and Hamilton are veteran coaches, though, and they may not be as patient with rookie mistakes as some staffs.
As mentioned, Burkhead led the Texans in rushing a season ago. If he does so again it’ll be because things went wrong with Pierce and/or Mack. The 32-year-old has been in the NFL for nearly a decade now, and last season was the first time in his career that he topped 75 carries or 350 yards.
Bulkhead is a physical plodder with decent hands whose veteran savvy might be enough to carve out a role — on third downs, most likely — of some size regardless of what the other backs do.
Fantasy football outlook
Given the collective struggles of the Houston offense last year, there are no sure things for 2022 even in a retooled backfield. The defense hasnnot improved enough to expect a wealth of sustained drives by Houston’s offense, which ultimately caps touchdown-scoring potential and general upside.
If all goes to plan, Mack and Pierce are likely to divvy up most of the touches. That gives each of them low-end RB4 appeal with some upside during better matchups. Of the two, Pierce is the preferred option to roll the dice on given Mack’s recent history, limited hands, and lack of scoring prowess. Burkhead is a potential in-season stopgap with no real value on draft day.