Positional Training Camp Battles, Part II: Running Back

 The Indianapolis Colts’ running back position faced a lot of uncertainty heading into this off-season.   Joseph Addai was a free agent.   Donald Brown, the team’s 1st round draft pick in 2009, has largely underperformed.  Javarris James, whom lead all Colts’ running backs with 6 rushing TD’s last season, was arrested for marijuana possession

And maybe most importantly, the offensive line was still a mess. What a difference a few months can make:  the Colts addressed their offensive line issues with their first 2 draft picks, re-signed Joseph Addai (thanks in part to Peyton Manning), and drafted a promising rookie RB in Delone Carter. 

What appeared to be a major weakness for the Colts, has suddenly become a strength. Joseph Addai is one of the more underrated running backs in the NFL.  I’m not suggesting that he’s an elite back, but he's certainly underappreciated. 

How much does his presence mean to Peyton Manning & the Indianapolis Colts? 

Consider this – this same Colts’ management let Marshall Faulk (at the age of 25, coming off a 2,200 total yard season) and Edgerrin James (at the age of 27, after back-to-back 1,500 yard rushing seasons) walk in free agency.  While Addai may not put up the gaudy numbers that Faulk & James did, his overall impact cannot be denied.  Here’s what Bleacher Report wrote about Joseph Addai’s re-signing:

“Addai is the best running back in the league…for the Colts.  Indy’s pass-heavy offense requires its backs to be involved in pass blocking more so than other teams and Addai is one of the best at the skill.  His ability to pick up a blitzing linebacker is matched by few backs in the league.  Also, due to the Colts offensive scheme, their running backs must catch well.  Addai could move to slot wide receiver right now and be productive for most teams.  He runs crisp routes and makes smooth catches, even in traffic.”

Make no mistake about it: Joseph Addai is the team's best RB, and will continue to be the starter if he’s healthy.  I said “IF he’s healthy” for a reason – Addai has missed 13 games over the past 3 seasons (including 8 last year) and is 28 years old; so let’s look at the other RB’s on the roster who can make a difference in 2011.

Donald Brown has only played 2 seasons in the NFL, yet some Colts’ writers have already declared him a bust.  While I haven’t quite given up on him yet, 2011 is certainly a make-or-break season for Brown.  Despite leading the team in yards in 2010, the former 1st rounder has averaged just 3.8 yards per carry for his career. 

Some may be quick to point out the depleted offensive line that he’s been forced to run behind, but he enjoyed far less success than any other Colts’ RB last season: Addai, Dominic Rhodes, & Mike Hart all had higher ypc averages.  He hasn’t exactly impressed as a pass-blocker either. (That's a video worth watching).

However, for the optimists out there, there are a few reasons to believe that Donald Brown can turn it around.  According to ProFootballFocus.com, Brown got 74.4% of his rushing yards after contact, which was 4th highest in the league among running backs with 100+ carries.  While this statistic isn't a true indicator of a back's talent, it can be a consolation prize for Brown's supporters.  From the games that I've watched (every game), Brown seems to be the biggest 'hit-or-miss' running back on the team: with poor blocking – Donald sucks; with good blocking – Donald is great.  

He had four runs of 20+ yards, and two runs of 40+ on 129 carries in 2010, while Joseph Addai tallied just one such run on 116 carries.  While Addai is the more complete back, the hope is that with an improved offensive line, Donald Brown will be able to take advantage of the extra running lanes.

The one running back that I'm most excited to see play is rookie Delone Carter.  At 5'9" 225 lbs and an impressive 4.45 40-time, he offers a size and speed combination that the Colts simply haven't had before.  The hope is for him to contribute as a between-the-tackles running back, in addition to being the team's short yardage back.   Early word from training camp is that Carter has been very impressive:  Matt Grecco, a writer for Stampede Blue, noted that

"Carter was quite impressive on the goal line drills, scoring on the first play bouncing outside, then on the last play he blasted into the line, kept pumping, and scored."

As many of you may already know, the Colts have struggled in short yardage situations over the years:  the Patriots' goal line stand in 2003, failing to run out the clock in the 1st half of SuperBowl XLIV against the Saints, failing to convert 3rd & 1's in playoff losses to the Chargers and Jets, the list goes on and on.  If Delone Carter can emerge as an effective short yardage back, it will go a long way towards improving the Colts offense.

All 3 of these running backs should have no problem making the final roster, and should have a significant impact in 2011.  However, the Colts usually carry 4 RB's (one who can usually double as a kick returner), which leaves one open roster spot for a number of young players.  

My two early favorites for the position are Devin Moore and Chad Spann.  Devin Moore actually opened up the 2010 season as the Colts' full-time kick returner, returning 12 kicks for an average of 21.4 yards.  He lasted only 4 games, however, before suffering a season-ending injury to his spinal nerves.  So far, he has impressed at training camp, especially with his speed; and remains the early favorite to be the Week 1 kick returner.

Chad Spann is an undrafted free agent out of Northern Illinois, but he's been a local favorite, as his hometown is Indianapolis.  Spann is a small (5'8", 197 lbs), quick running back who rarely goes down on first contact; highlights here (personally, he reminds me of Felix Jones of the Dallas Cowboys).  It seems that Spann has been told that he's a candidate for the Colts' kickoff return job this season, according to Rotoworld.  It's also worth a note that Rookie Scouting Department's Matt Waldman ranked Chad Spann as a top-10 running back in this year's draft class.  Expect him to battle Devin Moore for the kick return duties as the 4th running back this season.  

Final Predictions: Joseph Addai – 220 carries, 950 yards (4.3 ypc), 40 catches, 300 yards, 6 total TD's. Donald Brown – 120 carries, 500 yards (4.2 ypc), 15 catches, 100 yards, 3 total TD's. Delone Carter – 90 carries, 350 yards (3.9 ypc), 8 TD's. Devin Moore – 4th RB on the depth chart, exclusively as a kick returner.

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.