Gonzalez, Brown, and Hughes: How Long is Too Long?

When do the Colts cut their losses? That question has huge implications for the Colts as they approach the final cuts entering the 2011 NFL season. The Colts need to have their roster down to 53 men by next Sunday, and Anthony Gonzalez, Donald Brown, and Jerry Hughes are all possible casualties. The difference between these three and the 30 or so other questionable players, is that these three are the Colts last three first round picks, other than Anthony Castonzo, and have shown a potential that warranted that pick in their respective draft class.

The Colts have invested time, money, and coveted first round picks into these young men, hoping that they would develop into household names. But, they haven’t. They’ve disappointed, whether that be via injuries, a lack of production, or otherwise, these three players have all been very disappointing for the Colts. So, when is the time that the Colts must cut their losses with players like this?

With Jerry Hughes the answer is simple, at least, it is in my eyes. An NFL franchise cannot, or at least, should not, give up on a first round  draft pick after one unfruitful season, especially not one who has such athletic potential. Hughes was graded as a mid first round pick in 2010, and somehow slipped to the Colts at 31. I’d like to be fair, so I will say that Hughes has been massively disappointing thus far. I was very concerned last year after five weeks when he hadn’t seen the field yet, and I’m concerned now that he still isn’t developed to the point where he should be. But, being honest, the best way for players to develop is with playing time and Hughes hasn’t had that chance. He plays behind two of the best pass rushers in the league from the 4-3 end position. I know that Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis rotate out quite often, but more often than not, those downs are running downs. Hughes is an edge pass rusher. That’s what he was drafted for. That is supposed to be his niche. He doesn’t get a chance to practice those skills on run downs, he doesn’t get to improve them. No, he hasn’t developed yet, and no, he may never will. However, in my opinion, it would be a very bad decision by the Colts to cut such a young player who hasn’t had much of a chance to improve on his enormous potential. Especially since Hughes is the only one on the Colts to have the edge rushing skill if Freeney/Mathis go down. He is unique in that sense. Since, I spent so much time on the subject already, I’ll leave it at that, and just say that Hughes has the least potential to get cut out of the three.

Donald Brown is the next option for cuts. While he is more likely to be cut than Hughes, I don’t believe that Brown has a high likelihood of getting cut, and nor should he. Brown has been immensely disappointing as a running back, averaging only 3.8 yards per carry in his career. He’s shown very bad vision running the football, as well as being weak in pass protection, something that is a cardinal sin for Colts’ running backs.

For Colts’ fans, it’s been frustrating watch a running back with his home-run ability get stopped on the line of scrimmage time after time. Therefore, the question is there: Should the Colts cut their losses with this guy, and invest in some younger backs? The other options the Colts have at running back would be Darren Evans, Javarris James, and Chad Spann.

My answer? No.

While Brown has not played well at all in the last two preseason games, he does have something the other three backs don’t have: regular season production. Brown has played much better in the regular season than he has in the last two games. In the Redskins and Packers’ games, Brown took seven carries for a grand total of 7 yards. While Brown has been disappointing, a one yard-per-carry average is not indicative of his talent. Not to mention, those numbers need some context. Against the Redskins, Brown only had one carry, and was once again victim of a paper-thin offensive line. Brown was hit in the backfield for a five yard loss, which severely hurts the extremely small sample size. And let’s not forget the strong showing Brown showed against the Rams in the first preseason game, where he had four touches for 21 yards.

Now, I’ve seen claims out there that the Colts should cut Brown because “he’s been outplayed by guys like Javarris James, Chad Spann, and Darren Evans.” If somebody makes those claims, they are either delusional or trying to push an agenda. Javarris James has a grand total of 7 carries all preseason. He had one 15 yard run during the game against the Packers, but other than that, has accumulated 11 yards on 6 carries. James has played well on special teams, but as a running back, Brown has certainly not been outplayed. More importantly, the Colts know what they can get out of James in the regular season: he had 46 carries for 112 yards last year, a 2.4 average. He does have a nose for the end zone; his six touchdowns last year is why the Colts kept him around. But Baby J’s claim to fame will likely be irrelevant this year, as rookie Delone Carter looks to be the answer for short yardage running. James has a use for the Colts, but it would be silly to keep him over Brown.

Chad Spann has five carries for 14 yards this preseason, less than three yards per carry. He was brought to Indianapolis mainly due to his ability to return kicks. With the emergence of David Gilreath and Joe Lefeged however, and Spann dropping two punts, he looks to be on his way out of Indy. He certainly hasn’t outplayed Brown. Darren Evans would be the best performer of the three, getting 15 carries for 77 yards, a 5.13 average. Evans ran especially well in the Rams game, amassing 52 yards on 3 carries. Since then Evans has carried the ball seven times for 25 yards. Evans certainly has performed well this preseason, and a case could be made for him out playing Brown. Of course, one must remember that Evans is getting his carries against players who very well may never play in a regular season game. Also, Evans was the beneficiary of a 23 yard run that raises his average from 3.85 to over 5 yards per carry. Saying that, Evans has performed well, and I’d like to see him make the cuts over James. But, Brown has had regular season success, albeit not as much as one may like. But Brown has had only two seasons in the league, and improved last year from his rookie year. In his rookie year, Brown ran for 281 yards on 78 carries, a 3.6 YPC in his rookie year, then upped it to 497 yards on 129 carries during his sophomore season, a 3.9 YPC. One must remember that this improvement was behind a line that was significantly worse in 2010.

Brown also has a home run ability, something no other back on the roster has, other than possibly Spann. Brown has ability in open space that is his advantage over the other backs, including Addai and Delone Carter. This is shown by his success in the passing game, having 31 catches for 374 yards in his career. Brown had the 10th best DVOA in the league last year for receiving running backs, ahead of anything Reggie Bush has ever gotten. Brown’s ability in space is something that makes him extremely useful for the Colts, and his improvement from year to year should continue this year behind a revamped line. Cutting Brown at this point would be, much like Hughes, too soon for a unique talent to the Colts.

Anthony Gonzalez has the most potential of the three to be cut simply because he has had the most time. Unlike the other two, Gonzalez is actually the most proven on the field. Gonzalez had two incredibly productive seasons at the beginning of his career, but the last two years have been marred by injuries. While Gonzo has been the best performer of the three when healthy, he hasn’t been on the field in two years. If he’s not healthy by the end of the week, the Colts will most likely cut their losses with him. I don’t know what it is with Gonzo. He’s had different types of injuries, this time it’s a hamstring. Even Gonzo is preparing for the possibility, as he can’t prove his worth if he can’t get on the field. Caldwell knows that Gonzo is a producer on the field, but the Colts need healthy players:

“We know exactly what he can do. Every time he’s on the field, he makes something happen. He does a lot of things extremely well… I know [former Indianapolis coach] Tony [Dungy] used to say it quite often. He used to always say that the most important ability is availability.”

I would like to see the Colts keep Gonzo, just because without him, there is no depth behind Austin Collie, who returned to practice Tuesday. Still, if Gonzalez can’t keep healthy, he isn’t going to be depth either. If Gonzo is  cut, I’d see David Gilreath and Chris Brooks as the most likely candidates for the WR position, along with a veteran receiver. In the end it’s sad that the player who’s shown the most on the field is most likely to be cut, but that’s the way the league works. I’m rooting for all three to make the cut, but wouldn’t be surprised/crushed if Gonzo was cut.

Hughes and Brown however, deserve more time. I’d be disappointed with the front office if they gave up on either of them this quickly. 

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.