For this edition of “Horse Course”, we will look at the true horses of the Colts, their running backs. While the team lacks a true feature running back, it certainly doesn’t lack depth at the position, even if there are some serious question marks with the group as a whole.
In 2013, the Colts were tied for 20th in Total Rushing Yards at 108.9 ypg during the regular season, showing there is some definite room for improvement from the position in 2014. Some of this falls on the offensive line’s run blocking (or lack thereof), but the running backs will be expected to do a better job next season with their overall performance:
In early June, it was reported that RB Trent Richardson was getting the bulk of the first-team carries at OTA’s. Therefore, we will go forward with the assumption that he will be the Colts’ starter for Week 1 against the Broncos.
Hopefully, a fresh start is exactly what the football doctor ordered for Richardson, as his 2013 debut season with the Colts was nothing short of a disaster. In 14 games with the team, he rushed for 458 yards on 157 carries, for an ugly 2.9 ypc. That 2.9 ypc placed him at 46th among all 48 qualified runners, as only the Ravens’ Bernard Pierce and Browns’ Willis McGahee were worse. It was so bad that in two playoff games, the biggest games of the Colts’ season, he had 4 carries for a total of 1 yard and a fumble lost.
Still, there may be some reason for optimism for Colts’ fans, as Richardson allegedly has a firmer grasp of the playbook, as he works toward obtaining a full offseason under his belt as a member of the team:
“I remembered the playbook last year. I know it now. I’m learning a lot this year. It’s much easier and it’s slowing down a lot, so it’s making the game much better for me.”-Trent Richardson, 2014 Offseason
The coaches have taken notice, as SI’s Jim Trotter tweeted that the Colts’ coaching brass thinks that he has a chance to be a 3-down player this coming season:
Richardson’s also looking to shed some weight to help his explosiveness, hinting that he might slim down from his 225 lbs. playing weight last season.
Unfortunately, his advanced statistics did not shed any more favorable light than his film did, as ProFootballFocus (PFF) rated him as the 46th best running back in 2013, hardly befitting of a player that the Colts surrendered their 2014 First Round Draft pick for and the former 3rd overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.
The Colts will have to find more creative ways to use Richardson, it simply cannot be handing him the football and watching him slam up the middle into the heart of the opposing defense. His rookie season, as a Cleveland Brown, he had over 50+ catches and 350+ receiving yards. Even with his woes last season, he flashed glimpses of potential in both the receiving game and when properly utilized running in space.
In 2014, the odds are that Richardson will be a better player than he was in 2013 because in reality, it would be hard to be much worse. With another year of understanding the playbook and learning his offensive line, there’s no doubt in my mind he’ll be an improved player. But by how much?
No one should expect him to be our next-“Edgerrin James”, but I’m hoping we will have a capable every-down back that consistently gives us productive carries. However, given his dreadful 2013, it’s hard for me to give him anything other than the grade below, and that’s even factoring in some of his likely potential improvement.
The achilles heal of this back-up tandem, no pun intended, is their health. Last season, Ahmad Bradshaw may have been the Colts best overall running back when healthy. It’s easy to forget that he still remains one of the top pass blocking backs in the league, and even last year, PFF rated him as the 20th best overall.
His running didn’t disappoint either. In 3 games, he had 41 carries for 186 yards and a “healthy” 4.5 ypc. Who could forget his Week 3, 95-yard rushing performance against the 49ers in a 27-7 Colts’ demolition of a win? The very same game where he suffered a season ending injury to his neck.
Health issues have plagued the oft-injured Bradshaw throughout his NFL career, so it should come as no surprise to the team or any informed NFL observer. It would be neither wise nor prudent to believe that Bradshaw can hold up in 2014, as the workhorse back of the Colts. However, in this current set-up, he fortunately doesn’t have to be. He’s part of the solution, not thee solution.
He’ll be competing for reps with third-year pro Vick Ballard, who rushed for an impressive 814 yards as a rookie runner in 2012. He played in one game last year, rushing for 63 yards on 13 attempts, before tearing his ACL in a late week practice. He’s reportedly close to 100% and is on pace to make a full recovery. Whether he regains his prior form, remains to be seen, but a team could do far worse than the steady, even if unspectacular, Vick Ballard as their 3rd running back.
If this tandem can stay healthy, it’s one of the better back-up running back situations in the league as far as depth is concerned. Bradshaw is a proven quality NFL runner, and Ballard was rock-solid for the Colts as a rookie. It’s just whether they can stay healthy that will be the underlying question mark for the backups in blue. Color me an optimist, but I like this current tandem. Even if both can’t stay healthy, one should theoretically, right?
Out of all of the positions of the Colts, this is one of the primary positions that has a chance to significantly fluctuate either way. A lot of that fluctuation will be tied to the future play of projected starter, Trent Richardson, and whether he can rebound from a woeful 2013 season. Reading all of the signs, it appears we’ll see a better runner in 2014. He could elevate this grade as high as a B+, but remaining cautiously optimistic is key.
For the Colts, the strength of this position is in its numbers if health permits. Richardson doesn’t have to be Adrian Peterson for the Colts, he just has to be the primary-head of a 3-headed RB Monster. The durability of both Bradshaw and Ballard is too fragile to consider either one as a feature runner, but if used appropriately in a platoon style set-up, and the team appears to have the makings of a fairly good group all together. Yet, the questions marks surrounding Richardson & the “Backup B’s” durability prevent this grade from receiving anything higher as it currently stands.
OVERALL GRADE: B-