Assessing Positional Value for the Colts 2011 NFL Draft: Running Back

This story will continue to break down the value of players at each position for the Colts in the upcoming draft by taking a look at the running backs. As mentioned in the quarterback assessment, the theory behind these stories is that while it is popular for draft analysts and Colts writers to refer to Bill Polian as a “best player available” drafter, a more appropriate way to analyze the likelihood of Indianapolis using one of their picks on a player is to consider where the line between team need and a player’s talent level cross in relation to all remaining prospects — Most Valuable Player Available.

While there may be some uncertainty about where the Colts will be heading into the 2011 season at running back, all of the injuries in 2010 allowed the team to get a good look at a lot of potential rushers. Joseph Addai is still the unquestioned number one option in the Colts offense and as long as everything works out in the CBA in a manner that does not nullify Indy’s prior actions with regard to its free agents, he will stay with the Colts for another year. Donald Brown was the team’s 2009 first round draft pick and has not yet lived up to his draft billing. Some place a great deal of the blame for his slow progression on an offensive line that does not operate in a way that benefits his running style.

Former 2008 sixth round pick Mike Hart showed that he could be a productive backup over a two game period but suffered another leg injury that kept him from having a further impact during the second half of the season. Undrafted free agent rookie Javarris James was an efficient goal line rusher who showed flashes of talent but he never had a chance to play a significant role in the running game outside of the red zone. Colts veteran Dominic Rhodes came in late in the season and had more success than many might have expected after his UFL season came to a close — but Rhodes’ age continues to be a growing question-mark on his sustained value. Finally, kick returner Devin Moore offers depth at the position if he is retained.

Ultimately, the question of need is highly contingent upon Bill Polian and the Colts front office’s confidence in Brown’s development. If the Colts believe that Brown will continue to improve and be a steady change of pace for Joseph Addai in 2011, there is little reason to believe that there will be much priority for another running back. Hart, Rhodes, and James all have shown enough to this point in their careers that there is little reason to be upset having them contribute as third string backs and special teams contributors. Even Moore could return kicks and offer enough emergency depth for the team to get by should Brown or Addai need a breather. If the team lacks confidence in Brown, the positional need jumps significantly.

Running Back

First Round – Pick 22

Mark Ingram – Alabama – Two things are working against Ingram as a Colts selection. First, after he suffered a knee injury early in the 2010 season, he was never able to sustain the success he enjoyed during his 2009 Heisman Trophy winning season. Second, with two former first round running backs on the roster, the likelihood that Polian and the Colts draft room will choose another first round running back is very small. Considering that so many running backs from later rounds are having success, it is one position that arguably does not require a first round pick for a team to be successful. Low value.

Second Round – Pick 53

Mikel Leshoure – Illinois – Leshoure is an intriguing prospect who unfortunately falls into a talent range that places him in the low first or early second round. This likely means that the Colts will not have a chance to choose him. His size, strength, and abilities as a receiver make him the kind of back that could intrigue Indy brass. If he falls this low in the second round, he would certainly warrant at least a short discussion. Moderate value.
Ryan Williams – Virginia Tech – Williams is one of my favorite running backs in the 2011 NFL Draft. At 5-foot 9-inches and 211 pounds he is the right size for a potential look from Indianapolis and his shifty running style is the kind that may be effective. The value of players on the defensive and offensive lines may well make it so picking a running back in the second round is not the best choice but Williams would likewise warrant a discussion. Moderate value.
Shane Vereen – California – Vereen is similar to Williams in speed, shiftiness, size, and running style. He is also from a Cal program that has put out some relatively successful NFL running backs recently. He is worthy of a pick but may also suffer from comparisons to lower rated backs who will nt require the Colts to pass on greater need positions. Moderate value.

Third Round – Pick 87

Daniel Thomas – Kansas State – Thomas is an excellent example of illustrating the point between players who are rated high like Mikel Leshoure and players who may fall later into the draft who are similar in running style, size, and strength. He may not offer quite the receiving weapon but for a player who may be around two rounds later (Leshoure could go in the first round) he is comparable. Low to moderate value.
Jordan Todman – Connecticut – Watching Todman run is like watching Donald Brown run. They both come from the same system, they very likely received the same or very similar training, and have the same kind of speed and explosiveness through defined gaps. It is hard to imagine that the Colts would draft Todman with a product from the same system already on the roster unless they believe there is something significantly different about his running to justify such a pick. Low to moderate value.
DeMarco Murray – Oklahoma – Murray is an athletic freak. At 6-foot 213 pounds, Murray ran a 4.38 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. Throw in that he is a solid receiver out of the back field and he could present a great deal of value in the third or fourth rounds. Reports that he generally shies away from contact could potentially call into question his willingness as a blocker. He also has a worrisome injury history. Moderate value.

Fourth Round – Pick 119

Kendall Hunter – Oklahoma State – Hunter is only 5-foot 7-inches tall but weighs 200 pounds. His 4.52 second 40-yard dash at his Pro Day may hurt his value. With smaller backs like Devin Moore and Mike Hart already in competition for sports on the roster, Hunter may make little sense for Indianapolis. Low value.
Delone Carter – Syracuse – Carter is a good running back prospect and may be the last of the running back class worthy of consideration for a draft pick. At 5-foot 9-inches and 222 pounds he could offer the kind of short-yardage back Indianapolis has had interest in locating in prior drafts. The question is Carter’s value against what could be very valuable prospects on the lines and possibly wide receiver. Also, Javarris James has already shown effectiveness in short yardage and goal line situations. Low to moderate value.

As discussed, the likelihood that the Colts will have a significant need for a running back is contingent upon the front office’s confidence in Donald Brown. Assuming the team has not given up on the former first round pick after only two seasons, it will take an significant fall for one of of the top running back prospects for Indianapolis to pull the trigger. Otherwise, it is much more likely the team will look at undrafted players or cheap free agents for summer competition. Feel free to discuss other running backs who are not mentioned and who could spark the team’s interest.

The Colts have visited Northern Illinois running back Chad Spann.