The Indianapolis Colts have four running backs expecting to land a starting job next year. The question is, will they be starting in Indianapolis?
The season started with something of a running back carousel for head coach Chuck Pagano and newly appointed offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. Ahmad Bradshaw was signed during preseason after being released by the New York Giants while Vick Ballard was hoping to improve upon a solid rookie year in 2012. At that point, fifth-year man Donald Brown looked to be surplus to requirements and was expected to remain on the sidelines for the duration of his final contracted year with the Colts. Of course, nothing is that straight forward in the NFL.
After losing Ballard to a season-ending ACL tear in Week 1, Brown ran the ball seven times against the Miami Dolphins the following week as Bradshaw picked up Ballard’s heavy workload. The trade acquisition of Trent Richardson prior to facing the San Francisco 49ers in Week 3 led to Brown’s demotion back to third string, and the effective one-two punch of Bradshaw and Richardson against the Niners’ vaunted defense made for promising viewing. Unfortunately for the Colts, Bradshaw was placed on IR after the game, a recurring neck injury bringing a premature close to what looked to be a promising season for seven-year veteran.
With Richardson taking the starting position, the Colts’ running game was worryingly ineffective. The highest number of yards Richardson accumulated in one game was 60, and that was against a Jacksonville Jaguars team that started the season 0-8. The only bright spots appeared when Brown took over. Despite having half the number of carries, Brown would frequently generate more yardage and score more touchdowns than Richardson. His production paid off when he earned the starting role in Week 13 against the Tennessee Titans.
Looking ahead to next season, there is no doubt Ballard will be back. He performed well in 2012 and will cost the Colts just $606k next year due to his rookie contract. Brown is set to hit free agency after having the best season of his career and is likely to receive big money offers from teams looking for a starting-caliber running back. Can the Colts match competing offers? Perhaps. Can the Colts convince Brown to sit behind Ballard for another season? Highly unlikely.
Despite obvious injury concerns, Bradshaw may well feature in Indianapolis next season as he won’t be a major target for other teams in free agency and the Colts could re-sign him for a nominal fee. He’s familiar with the playbook and has already demonstrated his ability during the opening month of the season. It would be a low risk move for the franchise with potentially high benefit.
Richardson will almost certainly be in a Colts’ uniform next year. He cost the franchise a first-round draft pick, and cutting him would charge Indianapolis an additional $2.5 million in guaranteed money. He performed horribly this season, but the Colts are under pressure to turn things around and he will be given that opportunity in 2014.
This leaves the organization in a tricky situation. With Ballard coming back from a serious knee injury and Richardson’s lack of production this season, can they be relied upon to handle the workload? If the Colts’ efforts to lure Brown back for another year prove unsuccessful, expect Andrew Luck to be throwing a lot of passes on third and long come September.
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