Thursday, August 2, 2012

Colts Training Camp Preview: Running Backs

As a first-time reporter covering the Indianapolis Colts training camp for the Ball State Daily News, I will be doing “research” by writing a position-by-position breakdown and preview for the 2012 Colts season. Today – running backs.

Currently on roster:
Donald Brown
Delone Carter
Deji Karim
Darren Evans
Mewelde Moore
Vick Ballard

Indianapolis is coming into camp with six unspectacular running backs. Aside from the right side of the offensive line, it is the biggest question mark on the offensive side of the ball. One of these six will probably win the starting job by default.
Nonetheless, here’s a breakdown of each back, their strengths and weaknesses and their chances of making the roster and at what spot on the depth chart.

Donald Brown is coming into 2012 with a huge target on his back. This will be his fourth year in the league, and for a fourth-year running back who hasn’t done much as of yet in the NFL, it’s now or never for Brown.
As much as Colts fans may scoff, rookie head coach Chuck Pagano has been doing his best to hype Brown up as Indianapolis’ answer at the position.
“Donald is an every-down back,” Pagano said in mid-June. “He is doing a tremendous job and he is having a fantastic offseason. He understands, especially on third down as far as protections go and all of those things. Nothing is going to be more important than protections.”
Donald Brown will attempt to be an
every-down back for the first time in his career.
Despite Pagano’s claims, pass protection has always been quite possibly Brown’s biggest shortcoming during his career with Indianapolis.
Peyton Manning even thinks so.
To Brown’s credit, he led the team in rushing last year with 645 yards, but just started just two games.
He racked up those 645 yards on 134 carries, for an average of 4.8 yards-per-carry. If those stats are extrapolated into a “bell-cow” role, (approximately 260 carries) then Brown would have 1,251 yards rushing, with 10 touchdowns.
Those look like good numbers at first glance, but let’s delve a little deeper into Brown’s 2011 year. He played in 12 of 16 possible games. Of those games, Brown averaged less than four yards-per-carry in half. That is clearly a mark against him. Brown wasn’t consistent with his production.
In Week 15 against Tennessee, Brown was in the backfield heading into a late fourth-quarter drive with a seven-point lead, looking to seal the game.
Brown took a carry to the right, broke a tackle, reversed field and followed blocks 80 yards all the way to the end zone. His day finished with 16 carries for 161 yards and a score.
Take the touchdown away from the season, and Brown’s numbers look much more pedestrian; he would’ve ended with an average of 4.2 yards-per-carry. Remember, he only finished with 645 yards anyway. That run was one-eighth of his season’s production.
The 80-yard carry was a fluke. Aside from that run, Brown’s longest rush was for 24 yards. Not exactly the epitome of explosive.
Brown can give the 2012 Colts a level of reliability, just not a level of explosion. He doesn’t have enough speed and athleticism to be a “bell-cow,” especially in a Pagano “ground and pound” offense. Everything Brown does, he does it fine, but he needs more than “fine” to be an elite NFL running back.
Brown will enter the season as the clear-cut, No. 1 halfback, but over the course of the year, he’ll lose time and carries to the other options in the backfield.

Delone Carter, since being drafted in the fourth round in 2011, has had an up-and-down opinion in the eyes of Colts fans.
Many fans have wanted a more physical running game since the departure of Edgerrin James, and it appeared that Carter, who is listed at 5-foot-9, 238 pounds, would fill that role. He even said so following the draft.
Delone Carter is trying to carve out a role
for himself after fumbling away opportunities in 2011.
“I want to go in there and stick my nose in a linebacker,” Carter said.
However, as Colts fans learned quickly, some players sacrifice power for speed. Carter seemed to run in slow motion all season, rarely outrunning even the defensive linemen.
Midway through the season, another problem for Carter revealed itself – fumbling.
Carter fumbled twice in a three-game stretch, leading to his benching in Week 12 against Carolina. Carter then said he was thinking about the fumbles, which is never a good sign for a running back.
The coaching staff had enough faith in him a week later at New England to give him a few carries. Carter promptly fumbled again. His ball security problems surprised many, as he entered the NFL with a 215-carry streak without fumbling.
In his defense, the Syracuse alum did have a high point of the season – Week 7 at New Orleans.
Carter only received 10 carries, but ran for 89 yards and scored Indianapolis’ only touchdown of the game on a two-yard carry. He also had a 42-yard run in the second quarter.
Carter could enter the season as the No. 2 running back, but will get more chances as Brown struggles.
Carter is also a solid option as a goal-line and short-yardage back for Indianapolis in 2012. 

Before going into detail about Deji Karim, here is a quick clarification about his background. He was born in Oklahoma City, but his parents are Nigerian. His full, legal name is Abdul-Gafar Olatokumbo Ayodeji Lamar Karim, which means “pure happiness.” His mother shortened Ayodeji into just “Deji,” which is what he goes by now.
Back to on the field, Karim was drafted by the division-rival Jaguars in the sixth round in 2010, and was claimed off waivers by the Colts in April.
Karim is similar to Carter in that he is built stockier at 5-foot-8, 209 pounds. However, he appears to have more burst and speed than Carter. At his Pro Day at Southern Illinois, he ran his 40-yard dash in 4.37 seconds and had a 20-yard shuttle of 4.05 seconds.
Karim showed some flash in his rookie season, running for 160 yards on just 35 carries in spot duty behind Maurice Jones-Drew.
Last year, however, both Karim’s opportunities and production dropped. He ran for just 130 yards on 63 carries, possibly contributing to his getting cut.
Where Karim has really excelled, however, is as a kickoff specialist. He has a career average of 24.7 yards-per-return, Karim has shown explosion and shiftiness when bring back kicks.
To put that in perspective, his career average would be the best that the Colts have had returning kicks since Dominic Rhodes did it in 2004, with an average of 24.8.
Karim may try to stick via special teams, but Indianapolis has acquired many different returning options for 2012. He’ll be among the final cuts at the end of camp.

Darren Evans joined the team as an undrafted free agent in 2011. Evans spent the majority of the year on the practice squad as the extra running back to be promoted in case of injury. He had a spectacular year as a freshman at Virginia Tech, rushing for 1,265 yards and 11 touchdowns, before tearing his ACL before his sophomore year. However, he rebounded well the following year, re-claiming the starting job and running for 854 yards and 11 scores. Speed and durability are concerns for Evans, and he’ll likely return to the practice squad in 2012.

One of Mewelde Moore’s biggest highlights, interestingly enough, involves the Colts. In a 2008 game against Pittsburgh, the Indy defense stopped Moore on the goal-line on three straight plays.
Mewelde Moore signed with Indianapolis
as a free agent in 2012.
Moore has been a career third-down back for both Minnesota and Pittsburgh, starting just seven career games in eight years in the NFL. Moore has 214 career receptions, which currently stands as second-most on the team behind Reggie Wayne.
His receiving ability can help rookie Andrew Luck as a passing outlet out of the backfield.
However, Moore just turned 30, and it remains to be seen how much he has left in the tank. Most running backs end up wearing down around age 30, but Moore doesn’t have anywhere near the mileage as a regular running back. He only has 494 career carries, which is what most No. 1 backs rack up in two years in the NFL.
Moore will stick on the roster as a third-down back, but will bring little to no explosion to the team. Just reliability coming out of the backfield, and in pass protection.

Vick Ballard is the biggest X-Factor at the running back position for the Colts. He’s a fifth-round pick, and, at 5-foot-11, 217 pounds, is built bigger than the other running backs on the roster, and looks to have more power than speed.
Vick Ballard was a fifth-round
pick out of Mississippi State.
He ran a relatively slow 40 time at the combine at 4.63, but Ballard plays faster than his timed speed.
Ballard rushed for 2,157 yards in two years at Mississippi State, and set a school record his first year there with 20 total touchdowns. He’s yet another hard-nosed, power runner for the Colts, but isn’t shifty and won’t break a ton of tackles.
Pass protection is also another area in which he must improve. That is one spot where he really struggled at Mississippi State. But that’s why he was a fifth-round pick, instead of an early-round selection.
Despite Ballard’s shortcomings, there is one NFL analyst that is still in his corner. Shortly after the draft, NFL Network’s Michael Lombardi listed Ballard as one of his value draft picks, and recently said that he would draft Ballard in Fantasy Football, if he played it.
Ballard’s biggest competition for playing time will be Carter, as they are similar players, both looking to be the No. 2 option and possibly the goal-line back.
Considering the current regime drafted him and not Carter, that will bode well for the rookie.

Sometime before the start of the season, Evans will be cut and once again relegated to the practice squad. Karim will show some promise as a return specialist, but so will other players on the roster who also play well on offense, which Karim does not. He’ll be cut before Week 1. Moore won’t be anything exceptional, but he’ll prove himself as a reliable third-down option for Luck.
In training camp and preseason, Ballard will show more explosiveness than Carter and take over the No. 2 job from him. Depending on how many running backs Pagano decides to keep, Carter could remain on the active roster. However, if the team only keeps three, Carter would be cut.
Barring injury or epic collapse, Brown will start Week 1 as the every-down back, but Ballard will start to eat into his playing time, starting as a goal-line and short-yardage specialist, but perhaps even taking the starting job from him. Unless Ballard or Brown show more promise in pass protection, Moore will have the third-down back role locked up.

Note: Statistic projections are very general and are rounded to reflect that.
Donald Brown – 8 starts, 200 carries, 800 yards, 5 touchdowns      
Delone Carter – 2 starts, 50 carries, 175 yards, 2 touchdowns
Vick Ballard – 6 starts, 175 carries, 775 yards, 4 touchdowns
Mewelde Moore – 0 starts, 30 carries, 100 yards, 1 touchdown, 25 catches, 150 yards receiving, 1 touchdown receiving

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