Last week I took a look at the receivers closely evaluating free agent Donnie Avery. Maybe I was harsh but I suggested it's time for the Colts to look for a better option at wideout.
This week we tackle a tougher scenario: Dammit Donald.
Donald Brown, much maligned by media and fans, has one year left on his rookie deal. While Vick Ballard emerged as a standout rookie talent and long-term prospect Brown's future became increasingly cloudy as his injury history piled up and he missed six games in 2012. Brown is slotted to make $1.7M in 2013–he'll count $2.2M against the cap with his bonus. With an abundance of cap space that kind of hit is considerably less valuable than a roster spot.
Pro Football Focus ranked Ballard and Brown very similarly in elusiveness, breakaway percentage and pass blocking. They both averaged 3.9 yards per carry. Ballard fumbled 3 times while Brown didn't cough up the ball at all. Ballard carried the ball nearly twice as much as Brown however.
If these guys aren't that different then why are fans upset with Brown and tumbling head over heels for Ballard? Does the team feel the same? Despite fan outrage, indifference or preference Brown remains a viable running back when healthy. Should the Colts keep or cut Brown?
Part of the answer can be found in draft position. Brown was a late first round pick. First round running backs rarely are worth their selection but there's also not much value to be found late in the first round when compared to the salary differential. Ballard, a fifth round rookie, is clearly a tremendous value and possibly one of the great late-round picks of this draft.
From a cap standpoint it's a moot question: Brown's cap hit isn't big enough to matter one way or the other.
From a roster standpoint it's clear he's behind Ballard and will remain there for the rest of his career in Indy unless injury dictates otherwise. The other options are Mewelde Moore, Deji Karim, Delone Carter, Alvester Alexander, Davin Meggett, some possible free agents or a rookie. Do the Colts feel strongly enough about those players to let Brown walk?
Aside from Ballard and Brown the Colts running backs haven't produced much. Only Carter comes close according to Pro Football Focus in terms of productivity. The Colts should feel much better going with Ballard, Brown and Carter than Ballard, Carter and Moore or Karim if they consider productivity.
Looking at free agents it's not much better. Free agent running backs aren't usually a great deal. It's like buying a used bed–lord knows how much further it will go or how squeaky it'll be. That said there are some names out there that are interesting like Danny Woodhead, Felix Jones, Peyton Hillis and Jacob Hester. None of those guys are going to be a long-term answer but could spell Ballard. For a changeup a guy like Brandon Jacobs might even be possible.
The only real question about Brown should be whether he can be on the field enough to platoon with Ballard. If he's healthy then he's clearly the kind of back that can change games, provide excellent pass protection and be effective in the running game despite playing behind an offensive line that was 17th in the league in rushing efficiency according to Football Outsiders. The risk is huge as Brown has played only one full season and has outlived the average career for running backs already.
Donald Brown won't likely spend another season in Indianapolis possibly even in the NFL. Should the Colts dump him it's a clear sign they don't believe he can be on the field enough to help Ballard more than the other guys available.
Verdict: GO (but he should stay)