Coinciding with our Texans TV 2009 season preview series with "Voice of the Texans" Marc Vandermeer, HoustonTexans.com is taking a position-by-position look at the Texans in the days leading up to training camp. Our second preview covers the running back position.
Key players: RB Steve Slaton (2008: 268 att., 1,282 yards (4.8 avg.), 9 TD; 50 rec., 377 yards, 1 TD); FB Vonta Leach (2008: 1 rushing TD; 12 rec., 103 yards)
Additions:RB Arian Foster (rookie, Tennessee); RB Jeremiah Johnson (rookie, Oregon); RB Clifton Dawson (free agent, Indianapolis Colts); FB Boomer Grigsby (free agent, Miami Dolphins)
Subtractions: RB Ahman Green (released); FB Cecil Sapp (unsigned)
2008 breakdown:Running in Alex Gibbs' zone blocking scheme, Slaton set a franchise record with 1,282 rushing yards to lead all rookies. He was expected to be a third-down back as a rookie, but injuries to Green (groin, knee), Brown (back) and Taylor (quad) pushed him into the starting role in Week 2 and he never looked back.
In eight games, Green finished second on the team with 294 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Moats, signed in October, played in nine games. His best game came in Week 17, when he carried 12 times for 38 yards and a touchdown.
Leach was instrumental in the rushing attack as Slaton's lead blocker. He also was valuable as a receiver, especially when his one-handed 22-yard catch keyed the Texans' game-winning drive at Green Bay. Both Leach and Slaton were named alternates for the Pro Bowl.
The big question: Who will emerge as Slaton's primary backup?
Slaton surprised most observers by holding up as a No. 1 running back for the entire 2008 season. He got even stronger this offseason, adding about 10 pounds of muscle. But the Texans would like to find a reliable second option to lighten Slaton's workload and take on 8-12 carries per game.
Head coach Gary Kubiak called Brown and Moats options "2a and 2b" during OTAs, so they'll have the first crack at backup duties. Moats was a capable performer last season and had some impressive games as a rookie with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2005. Brown has the ideal size (6-3, 234) to complement Slaton's speed and has a 1,000-yard season in 2004 to his name, but he has missed at least 11 games with injury in two of the past three seasons.
"Texans fans know that when you've seen Chris Brown in an opposing uniform, he's pretty good," Vandermeer said of the former Titan. "If he's able to be healthy and play, you know he's going to contribute. You know he's solid enough to be a No. 2. I would definitely say Chris Brown is the No. 2 right now."
Camp battle to watch:Foster vs. Johnson
Though the Texans didn't draft a running back, they added two rookie free agents who most scouts were surprised went undrafted. Foster and Johnson will need to make the most of every carry during camp and the preseason to earn consideration for a spot on the team, as roster spots will be at a premium.
Both backs had a 1,000-yard season and sustained production in college. Foster is a power runner, while the smaller Johnson has excellent burst and quickness. Johnson, who has a lingering shoulder injury that does not prevent him from playing, missed OTAs because his school had a late graduation date.
"That rule really inhibits his quick growth as a rookie running back, so Arian Foster's your guy right now if you have to rate them," Vandermeer said. "Arian Foster really looks the part. You look at him in a Texans uniform in OTAs and you see a lot of potential. We're excited about seeing him in pads, what he can do in the preseason, because he will play a lot in the preseason. So will Johnson. They want to get a long look at what those rookies can possibly do for them."
Roster size (2009 vs. 2008):Heading into the 2008 season, the Texans had three running backs (Green, Chris Taylor and Slaton) and one fullback (Leach) on the active roster, plus Brown on IR and Darius Walker on the practice squad.
Vandermeer predicts the Texans will keep the same number in 2009 – three running backs and one fullback. If that's the case, then Brown, Moats, Foster, Johnson and Dawson are competing for two roster spots. Grigsby could help his chances with a strong showing on special teams.
Final thought:Slaton watch: Don't expect to see a whole lot of Slaton in preseason action. There isn't much clarity on the depth chart behind him right now, and the preseason will be a critical time for that picture to come into focus. The Texans will want to keep Slaton healthy and rested for the regular season.
As for Slaton's 2009 season, will we see a sophomore slump? Vandermeer doesn't think so.
"He should have a phenomenal campaign," Vandermeer said. "He makes the whole team better. He can get to the outside, break big plays. The Texans have never had a back like Steve Slaton before. Even Domanick Davis, their previous best back in franchise history, didn't hit the home run ball as well as Steve Slaton does. So we're very excited about what's going to happen with him in 2009."