With the news that the Houston Texans have released running backs Marlon Mack and Royce Freeman, the already-rising dynasty stock of running back Dameon Pierce has skyrocketed. While many in the dynasty community assume that Houston has found their new long-term workhorse, I would look to cash out and sell Pierce, especially if you can turn him into a 2023 first-round pick.
First, I preface this by saying I like Pierce as a talent. I rated him out of Florida for his athletic profile, and obviously, the landing spot in Houston afforded him an excellent opportunity for early work. Ultimately, Pierce has made the most of his audition period this preseason, and that’s why he’s currently in line to be a starting NFL running back in 2022. The fact that I think it is time to sell Pierce is not the same as saying that I think he is a bad player.
What it boils down to for me is Pierce’s draft capital and weighing that investment that Houston has made in him versus the potential to add a running back in 2023.
Range of Outcomes
Is it possible Pierce continues to impress as the starter in Houston and is so good in 2022 that he locks up that role for years to come? Yes, absolutely, especially since the Texans have a myriad of positions on their roster that need to be improved before they can realistically contend. As a fourth-round pick, Houston has very little invested in Pierce, meaning they won’t be under any pressure to keep him as their starting running back. If he doesn’t perform, as opposed to a team like the Steelers or Jaguars who have spent first-round picks on their running backs, the team is less likely to stick with him.
Again, this isn’t me predicting that Pierce won’t perform well, but Houston will likely be a bad team playing from behind quite a bit. Negative game scripts could cap some of Pierce’s fantasy potential. The Texans also boast a below-average offensive line, ranking 22nd in the league, according to PFF. The Texans’ offense could struggle, limiting scoring opportunities even if they manage to keep games close and maintain neutral or positive game scripts.
Even if Pierce does perform well in 2022, it might not guarantee him the starting role next season. There are many recent examples of teams not being content to let their young running backs go unopposed heading into the following season, especially if an elite running back prospect is available to them in the draft.
Jacksonville saw undrafted rookie James Robinson put up 1,400 scrimmage yards and ten touchdowns in 2020. The Jags promptly drafted another running back, Travis Etienne, in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
Marlon Mack (fourth round, 2017) rushed for almost 1,100 yards and eight scores in 2019 before Indianapolis took Jonathan Taylor early in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft.
Michael Carter (fourth round, 2021) had nearly 1,000 yards from scrimmage in only 14 games last season. We all know that the Jets followed that up by drafting Breece Hall in the second round this past spring.
Rashaad Penny, Elijah Mitchell, Aaron Jones, and Melvin Gordon are just a few more examples of running backs who had very good seasons immediately before their teams added significant running back competition via the draft the very next off-season.
Running Backs Don’t Matter?
NFL teams are taking advantage of the recent trend of even elite running backs sliding past the first round. They are looking to maximize the value of their drafts by electing to take “sure things” at the running back position in Rounds 2-3 rather than gambling on lesser prospects in those rounds just because they play a more premium position.
Remember, NFL teams don’t care about your fantasy rosters. They won’t pass on a running back in the draft just because dynasty managers think someone like Pierce deserves to keep a bell-cow role. The Texans will do what is best for their team.
Look at the state of the Texans’ running back room outside of Pierce right now: Rex Burkhead (free agent after this season), Dare Ogunbowale (signed through 2023, but virtually no dead money penalty if cut after this season), and that’s it! If Pierce is the only running back on the roster heading into the 2023 off-season, most objective fantasy managers would easily predict that Houston will look to add talent to the position regardless of how Pierce performs this season.
2023 NFL Draft
The 2023 NFL Draft will include plenty of high-level talent at the running back position. Many forward-thinking dynasty managers already know the names: Bijan Robinson, Jahmyr Gibbs, Zach Evans, Sean Tucker, Zach Charbonnet, and others that could emerge during the 2022 college football season. Combine that glut of in-coming running back talent and Houston’s likely need for more players at the position. The likelihood increases that Pierce will see competition coming into next season.
The Texans currently have eleven picks in the 2023 NFL Draft, including two first-round and two third-round picks. That’s a lot of draft capital for Houston on the draft’s first two days. That is the range that outstanding running backs have typically been picked in recent years.
Some have stated that Houston will have so many other positional needs heading into 2023 that they won’t spend any significant draft capital at running back. That may be true, but we’ve already examined over a half-dozen cases around the NFL where the same thing could’ve (and was) said before those teams ultimately elected to invest heavily in the running back.
Looking Ahead at the Cap
Houston is projected to have the fourth-most 2023 cap space in the league. So, unless the Texans are willing to slow play this rebuilding project, they will likely choose to improve some of their positions of need with proven veterans rather than try to fix everything with draft picks that may or may not hit.
With five draft picks on the first two days of the draft and the fourth-most cap space in the NFL in 2023, the conditions are right for one of the several high-level 2023 running backs to eventually end up with the Texans. Because Pierce and Ogunbowale are the only running backs under contract next season, the team will likely go for another back.
The Future for Pierce
I’m not saying I know any of this for sure. I’m not saying it’s impossible that Pierce will be the starting running back for the Texans for the next ten years!
But we, as dynasty managers, are playing the “game of probability” here. With the 2023 draft capital, the strength and depth of the 2023 class, and the fact that Houston is very thin at the position after Pierce, the Texans will have to add backs. The chance that the Texans add a significant running back heading into 2023 is high enough to where I want to sell the immense hype Pierce is riding on right now.
If you can extract a 2023 first-round pick or similar value, I think it’s time to sell Pierce. That’s a deal all Pierce managers need to jump on.
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