The Case for Donald Brown

As much disdain that Donald Brown as received in the past three years, I am of the firm opinion that he does not deserve a large portion of it. Fans have been down on Brown ever since his draft day, where running back wasn’t a huge need, and other play-makers were in position to picked (such as Hakeem Nicks). Brown is often seen by Colts fans as a player who is weak, can’t pass block, and succeeded in college due to his poor quality of competition and incredible offensive line. 

I must admit, I’ve had similar feelings, especially throughout Brown’s rookie season in 2009, and the majority of the 2010 season, when Brown couldn’t seem to adjust the NFL and a Peyton Manning-led offense. But, before a mysterious benching at the end of 2010, Brown put together a very good performance against the Jacksonville Jaguars, and then played fairly well in 2011, despite the injury ravaged offensive line group in front of him for most of the season.

Throughout the season I tracked each run by the running backs, and was impressed with Brown’s improvement from his first two years. So, it pains me to continue to hear old myths about Donald Brown, myths that have led to preposterous positions among some Colts fans.

Let me be clear: I don’t think Donald Brown was a good draft pick in 2009. I am a firm believer in the “Don’t take running backs in the first round” mantra, unless it is an extremely special talent.  Bown has some gifts, but he wasn’t the player the Colts needed, and was a poor pick. But, this does not make him a “bust” or a hopeless reject who holds no value for the team. Fans that have called for drafting a running back in the 2012 draft with anything higher than a seventh rounder need to take a look at this team. 

Running back, spearheaded by Donald Brown, is one of the most secure positions on the team. Just about every other position has questions, both with starters and depth. The running backs have clear starters in a Brown/Carter tandem, as well as depth with the two and Darren Evans. With the amount of holes in every other position, the Colts would be wasting draft picks by drafting a running back any earlier than the seventh round (even then I would cringe). 

But, some would say that Brown is not a starter worthy running back. He’s never been as good as Addai was, he’s a poor pass blocker, and he goes down at the first contact. 

Well, I’d disagree. Brown proved himself to be starter-worthy in 2011, where his performances were under-appreciated by most. 

  • In 2011, Brown gained 4.8 yards per carry, tied for 13th in the league among running backs, and best on the Colts. 
  • Brown was 5th in the NFL in running back DVOA (players with over 100 carries), and 16th in DYAR, despite having a much more limited amount of playing time than most of the backs on that list. 
  • Colts Authority’s Jacob Crocker tracked Brown as gaining an average of 3.16 yards after the first hit during 2011, which is very similar to Pro Football Focus’ record of 3.10 yards per carry. According to PFF’s Sam Bronson, Brown’s elusive rating (based on ability to produce broken and missed tackles) was 21st in the league, well ahead of running backs like Joseph Addai, Ray Rice, Shonn Greene, Ben Jarvus Green-Ellis, and more. 
  • Pro Football Focus also tracks pass blocking for running backs as well, an area where Brown has had much criticism in the past. But, in 2011, Brown rated 5th overall in pass blocking, allowing just two pressures on 68 pass block snaps. Despite Brown’s stigma for being a terrible pass blocker (and deservedly for most of his first two years), he was pretty good at it in 2011. 
  • Over 15% of Brown’s runs went for nine yards or more, nearly 5% more than the next back for the Colts. 

These numbers aren’t Hall of Fame numbers, or even Pro Bowl numbers, but they are the numbers of a very decent starting running back in the NFL.

While Brown still can be inconsistent, we must remember that he ran behind an offensive line that had Jeff Saturday as the only constant throughout the season. The line was in constant flux all season, whether it was due to injuries (Castonzo, Reitz, Diem, Ijalana, etc), or just due to having to run behind Jeff Linkenbach, the OL situation last season was a mess, especially when you remember that the OL’s arguably best performances came in Weeks 1-4, where Brown didn’t even play. 

Brown also dealt with terrifyingly bad quarterback play last season, which allowed defenses to cheat towards the line of scrimmage as well as having notoriously bad pocket presence. Brown’s best performances came behind a fullback (such as Panthers game), which were used sparingly last season, but will likely have an impact under Chuck Pagano and Ryan Grigson. 

Brown has improved every year he’s been in the league, both in traditional and advanced statistical measures, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him succeed further under a more stable (hopefully) offensive line in 2012. Of course, it’s not guaranteed, and Brown still has questions and concerns, but with him leading the way, the Colts running back position is strong enough to focus on other areas in the upcoming draft. 

Kyle J. Rodriguez

About Kyle J. Rodriguez

A film and numbers guru, Kyle writes about the NFL and the Indianapolis Colts for Bleacher Report, Draft Mecca and The Football Educator, and is a co-founder and associate editor of Colts Authority. Kyle also is a high school sports reporter for the MLive Media Group in Michigan, covering high school sports across the state.