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Improving running game is essential for Texans to become a Super Bowl contender next season


John McClain, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, is in his 48th year of covering the NFL in Houston, including 45 seasons at the Houston Chronicle.

It's no secret the Texans are planning to improve a running game that finished tied for 22nd last season. Executive VP & General manager Nick Caserio and Head Coach DeMeco Ryans could use free agency or the draft – or both – to upgrade a vital part of the offense that averaged 96.7 yards, including 3.7 a carry.

The idea is to increase the productivity of the running game to provide quarterback C.J. Stroud, the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, with more balance than last year when the Texans relied so heavily on the pass during a 10-7 season that included an AFC South title and a wild card playoff victory over Cleveland.

The goal next season is to win another division title and contend for the Super Bowl, and a more consistently productive running game should give the Texans a better chance to accomplish their mission.

"I think the running game will be significant for us to improve," Ryans said after the season. "As you go through the game, especially in postseason, teams that win (have) to be able to run the football and sustain it. We'll see where all the guys and all the positions on our team are. We'll look at the roster – me and Nick – and see where we have to improve. Our job is to improve our roster as best as we can."

As the Texans prepare to play a first-place schedule that includes 11 games against teams that compiled winning records last season, including five division champions – Kansas City, Baltimore, Buffalo, Dallas and Detroit – a possible barometer for what the Texans can do for the running game is what they did for the run defense in Ryans' first season.

In 2022, the Texans finished last in run defense, allowing 170 yards a game. Under Ryans and first-year coordinator Matt Burke, they improved to sixth, surrendering 96.6 yards a game. Ryans and his defensive coaches did a marvelous job, targeting an area of the team that needed to undergo an amazing metamorphosis.

Until clinching the AFC South title with a 23-19 victory at Indianapolis in the last game of regular season, the Texans hadn't allowed more than 126 yards rushing, and no opposing back had reached 90 yards against them. Then Jonathan Taylor ran for 188 in the Colts' defeat, and the Texans went from third to sixth against the run, still an exceptional achievement.

Next season, Ryans and second-year offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik will try to orchestrate a similar transformation on the other side of the ball. At the Indianapolis combine this week, Ryans made it clear he hopes leading rusher Devin Singletary returns. Caserio signed Singletary to a one-year, make-it contract, and he produced career highs with 216 carries for 898 yards. The Texans are hoping to re-sign him.

"Yeah, very pleased with Devin," Ryans said this week. "We'll see what happens in free agency, but we'd love to have Devin back because of what he brought to our team. He was definitely a bright spot for us in that running back room.

"I remember sitting in a free agent visit with Devin and, man, his personality, his demeanor, it was a guy I knew I wanted to work with right away. Devin is a great guy. (He's) made of the right stuff. He's a hard worker. He's a leader. He shows up every day in practice with a great attitude, and the guys around him feed off that."

It's interesting to note that Singletary didn't start the first seven games playing behind Dameon Pierce, who was coming off an excellent rookie season in which he rushed for a team-best 939 yards, despite missing the last four games with an ankle injury. During those seven games, Singletary averaged seven carries and 26 yards. Once he was promoted to the starting role, he averaged 16 carries and 71.5 yards. That was a pace that would have netted 1,215 yards over 17 games.

An example of what an improved running game can mean to Ryans and Slowik can be found in the team's record. The Texans were 6-1 when they rushed for at least 100 yards, including 3-0 when Singletary reached triple digits. The Texans haven't averaged 100 yards rushing since 2019. That season produced 125.6 yards a game, a division title and wild card victory.

In 2023, the Texans finished with a 5-1 record when they had at least 30 rushing attempts. They had a 6-1 record when they controlled the ball for at least 31 minutes, and there's nothing like an effective running game to create an advantage in average time of possession.

Fans and a lot of the media want Caserio to go on a spending spree in free agency. This week, the NFLPA has the Texans $77.2 million under the $255.4 million salary cap. Fans and media are hoping Caserio will sign Giants running back Saquon Barkley if he doesn't get the franchise tag.

Barkley could cost the Texans at least $12 million a year, and that kind of expenditure for a running back would be a departure from Caserio's vision that's helped him choreograph the team's impressive turnaround. He's been more likely to reward Texans' players with a new contract or extension before spending beyond his budget for a free agent from another team.

When asked at the combine about the running back market, Caserio said, "In terms of what I think is going to happen, it's what does the market tell you? What are you willing to pay that player commensurate with their role?

"Every year markets change. Once you establish a certain financial commitment level, it's almost used as a starting point, so you're either comfortable paying him that level or you're not, and it's all about resource allocation. Our job is to try to add good players to our team. We have a couple free agents at that position, so we're going to evaluate that position like we do other positions.

"DeMeco talked about this yesterday – Motor (Singletary) had a great year, did a lot of great things for us. We'll see how it goes. There's a lot of good players out there at a number of different positions, and our job is to evaluate (and) try to make good decisions."

One of the most important facets of an improved running game will be the health of the offensive line. First-year offensive line coach Chris Strausser, who came from Indianapolis, coached Slowik's zone scheme for the first time. And he had a revolving door for starting linemen because of injuries.

Strausser was forced to start 11 different linemen. Only right guard Shaq Mason started all 17 games. The Texans had three starting left tackles (Laremy Tunsil, Josh Jones, Austin Deculus), four left guards (Tytus Howard, Juice Scruggs, Kendrick Green, Josh Jones), two centers (Jarrett Patterson, Michael Dieter), one right guard (Mason) and two right tackles (George Fant, Charlie Heck).

Better health up front – and it's hard to imagine it getting worse – is essential to the offense having an improved running game. Next season could be the first time the Texans have produced a 1,000-yard rusher since 2019 when Carlos Hyde generated 1,070. The only question is: Will that 1,000-yard rusher be Singletary, Pierce or a free agent?

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