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2010 Colts Positional Review: Running Back

A few days ago, we took a look at the wide receiver position.  We continue our look back at the 2010 roster today with a look at the running back corps, a unit whose depth was certainly tested last season.

As much as I'd love to share my thoughts on Joique Bell, we'll primarily concern ourselves with Joseph Addai, Donald Brown, Mike Hart, Dominic Rhodes and Javarris James.  You probably wouldn't have guessed that all five of those players would play significant roles for the Colts heading into last season, and I know you wouldn't have guessed that James would score more touchdowns than any player in that group and as many as Addai and Brown combined.  But then, 2010 was a wacky season, so there were a lot of occurrences that nobody could have predicted.

Like most other positions, injuries were the name of the game in 2010.  Addai spent half the season in the training room due to a serious shoulder injury suffered at Washington, Brown was off-and-on all year with hamstring issues and Hart was effectively lost for the season with an ankle injury in an important home game vs Houston, leaving Rhodes and James as the only players whose seasons weren't adversely-affected by injuries.  Rhodes, of course, was a late season addition, and James was a practice squad call-up.

After the jump, we'll break down each player individually.

1.  Joseph Addai

Though the statistics may not reflect it, I felt that 2010 was one of Addai's strongest years in a Colts uniform.

Again, his numbers weren't sexy: 495 yards and four rushing touchdowns at a 4.3 yards per carry clip, but if ever there was an example of a player succeeding in spite of what was around him, Addai was it.  I lost track of how many times Addai squirmed through seemingly non-existent holes, stumbling forward for yards that were never really there due to some abhorrent run-blocking.  He asked countless tackles in the backfield and made plays when they weren't really there to be made.  Heck, up until his injury, he probably was having one of his better seasons statistically.

I've been impressed with Addai in general the past two seasons.  After a fantastic rookie start and a Pro Bowl sophomore season, Addai really fell off with some soft play in his third year.  He didn't look like the same player and it was really the first time I could remember the Colts' offense looking anything less than stellar.  However, he rebounded pretty well despite a poor offensive line in 2009 and was hitting creases as hard as ever in 2010.  It would appear my 2008 concerns were limited to that season.  

Is Addai a top ten back in this league?  No.  But he's a perfect fit for the Colts' offense.  He has great vision, runs hard, secures the ball, catches almost everything that comes to him and, most importantly, takes pride in his pass-blocking.  How many times have we seen Addai absolutely stonewall a blitzing linebacker?  He might not be remarkably explosive or likely to break off many 80-yard runs, but man, if you're a football purist, you actually enjoy watching Addai in the pass-blocking game.

Going forward, I hope Addai is a part of this team, but I understand that the Colts don't tend to prioritize (at least, from a financial perspective) the running back position and I think fans would be surprised how much Addai would and could command on the open market.  That's not to say he'll break the bank, but he'll more than likely draw more money than the Colts are willing to pay, meaning the Colts need to either hope the restricted free agent tag holds up or otherwise entice Addai with a unique, short-term deal that would largely hinge on Addai's desire to stay in Indy where his role is pretty much known and guaranteed.

I just know the last team I want to see Addai suit up for is New England.  And something tells me he would fit that team perfectly.

2.  Donald Brown

I still don't know what to think about Brown.  He's easily the most exciting running back on Indy's roster, but he's also the most likely to lose yards on a given carry.  We'll start with the positives that were on display in 2010: when healthy, Brown is explosive.  He's not a flyer and he doesn't have an intimidating arsenal of moves, but he does have a deceptive burst of speed and good acceleration - he's able to get to top speed quickly.  I think, if the Colts had a better offensive line, Brown would have a more definitive role on this team.  He's definitely a change-up back, his style is very different from Addai's.  Whereas Addai is a between-the-tackles slasher, Brown is more of an off-tackle sprint guy, someone the Colts feel is dangerous in space.  The team would probably like to get Brown more involved in the screen and short passing game, but there's only so much you can do with such a limited offensive line.

On the flip side, Brown still struggles with some important areas of the game.  For one, his blocking is atrocious.  Not bad, not "needs improvement", but atrocious.  Moreso than anything else, this weakness limits Brown's ability to get on the field.  Brown also needs to improve his field vision, which was not good in 2010.  Addai made plays out of nothing because of his excellent vision; he was able to find creases on the fly and squeeze through them.  In Brown's case, if a hole wasn't there, if the play didn't develop as it was supposed to, he more often than not just froze in the backfield and took a loss on the play.  Honestly, if Brown were just to improve one of these two things, he could earn himself much more playing time.  They are by far the two biggest anchors currently weighing him down.  Blocking, I really think, is a matter of effort.  Anyone can block.  That can be improved if Brown puts the work in.  I would find it hard to believe that Addai, Hart, Rhodes and James can all block reasonably well but Brown just cannot for some reason he can't control.  

Some are calling Brown a "bust", and they're entitled to say that, but I'm still not sure what the Colts have in Brown, especially in a future sense.  Would you like to see more production out of a first-round pick?  Absolutely.  But injuries have certainly held him back to some extent and he has effectively walked into the Colts' worst run-blocking line in franchise history, so in that sense, I'm still willing to give him another season to see what he can do.  That said, it's certainly getting close to do-or-die time for Brown.  If he can't improve his blocking and prove to have a better sense of field position, there isn't going to be much of a role on this team for him.  That Brown struggled to get carries at times over Hart, James and Rhodes should be telling, this team still isn't comfortable leaning on him.  If Brown wants a future with this team, he had better find a way to convince the Colts he's a reliable horse in 2011.

3.  Mike Hart

Let's cut to the chase here: Hart's main enemy is health.  He just cannot stay healthy.  It's unfortunate, too, because Hart is a useful player.  He'll never be a feature back and he's not going to re-write any record books, but he's as good a utility back as you could hope to have.  Hart reminds me a lot of James Mungro pre-knee injury, but a better overall game.  If you need him to start for a game or two, he can do that.  But more often than not, his best role is a a short-yardage or goal line back and as a guy who can take three or four carries a game and make positive yards on all of them.

The problem, as I already said, is that he's often not healthy enough to perform in that role.  It's a shame, too, because he's a fan favorite and has earned that status on effort alone.  Hart isn't particularly fast or strong, but has a great sense of balance and can run low and through arm tackles.  You may be tired of hearing this question, but how many times have you seen Hart surely wrapped up for a tackle and, a few seconds later, he's four yards further upfield?  

2010 didn't tell us anything new about Hart.  He was terrific in a reserve role and opened eyes in a featured role against the Texans.  Unfortunately, he also sprained his ankle in that featured role and wasn't seen much for the remainder of the season.  And that's why nobody should consider Hart a mortal lock to make the 2011 squad, he just can't stay healthy.  He runs well and blocks well and catches well and theoretically should be a perfect RB3, but just as there are questions of whether or not Anthony Gonzalez is worth a roster spot given his injury history, there are similar questions circling around Hart.  James' emergence as a quality reserve back (if a bit overrated by fans, but we'll get to that later) and Rhodes' prospective availability really make Hart's roster spot a serious question heading into 2011.

4.  Javarris James

Perhaps no player surprised more Colts fans than the team's rushing touchdown leader in 2010: Javarris James.  As an undrafted rookie brought up from the practice squad after injuries to Addai and Brown, James managed to lead the team in rushing touchdowns (six.)  There is no denying that Edgerrin's cousin was an instrumental component of the 2010 Colts running back platoon.

James did nothing special but everything right, minus a bad fumble vs the Chargers in a game where half the team seemed disinterested in playing.  I'm not sure if his relationship to the Edge is the best thing for his career, as obviously Baby J is nowhere near the caliber back his cousin was and probably does not even have the same playing style (though with such a limited sample size, it's difficult to tell.)  Those are some lofty expectations to live up to.  But to his credit, James stayed within the realm of his own game, didn't try to do anything too exotic and became the team's go-to red zone back for a healthy stretch of the season.

When I look at James' 2010 season, nothing in particular jumps out at me.  He actually reminds me a lot of Hart as a player (though I would argue Hart is slightly more talented): he's not particularly fast or strong or in possession of ankle-breaking moves, but at the end of the day, he does everything he needs to and gets the job done.  James proved himself a good blocker and adequate receiver, and on more than a few occasions was able to punch the ball in for a score with just yards to go.  His hard work was also apparent in learning enough of the playbook on such short notice to not only get in the game, but make key blocks and hit paydirt.  

If his 2010 season is any indication, James will never be a feature back in this league.  He probably won't even be a RB2.  But if he keeps working hard, I see no reason why he can't be a utility back, and if the Colts decide Hart is simply too injury-prone to justify a roster spot, I could easily see James usurping that role from Hart.  I think there would be a minor talent drop-off, but not significant enough to raise any concern over the overall play from that role.  As this deals with health and long-term projection, this isn't something I can necessarily predict, but I will venture a guess that one of Hart or James will be on the 2011 roster, but not both.

5.  Dominic Rhodes

Again, you know it was a wild season when Rhodes, of all people, was the featured back in a critical (on paper, before other scores rendered it meaningless) Week 16 game against the Raiders...despite having spent 2010 in the UFL and only having been on the team for two weeks.  Even crazier?  Rhodes averaged 4.6 yards per carry on the season, though obviously with a limited sample size (37 carries.)  Most fans were just expecting him to be a warm body when he was added to the active roster.

But Rhodes works well in this offense.  It's why the Colts keep bringing him back and why he keeps agreeing to come back.  He's a proven commodity and, most importantly, is trusted by Manning.  Rhodes provided somewhat of a resurgence to a struggling running attack in 2010, giving Colts fans hope that, with a healthy Addai joining him, the team might actually be able to run the ball in the postseason.  That, of course, was proven false the moment Mike DeVito drove Jeff Saturday five yards into the backfield on one of many failed 3rd-and-short conversions, but Rhodes' return and the flash in the pan that was the refreshed Colts running game was one of the season's few positive notes.

Rhodes played last season like he's played every season: tough and smart.  I would never classify Rhodes as a speedy runner nor would I say he's any sort of breakaway threat.  But, like Addai, he has good vision as a ballcarrier and, like Addai, he blocks tremendously well for Manning.  He's not quite as agile as Addai, but then you wouldn't expect that at this point in their respective careers either.  Rhodes was brought in as a familiar body who knew the offense and succeeded because of his tenacity and his ability to squeeze yards out of dire run-blocking circumstances (minus the one aforementioned game, at Oakland, where the line suddenly decided to play nasty...and never play that way again for the remainder of the season.)

For as well as he played in such a limited span of games and as much as he endeared himself to teammates and fans, I don't think you can love Rhodes' chances of being on the team in 2011.  With Addai at the moment tendered a restricted free agent, Hart set to become a free agent for the 2012 season and Brown quickly running through his rookie contract, you've got to think the Colts look to add a running back through the draft or at least undrafted free agency, and ultimately Rhodes' age is going to be his biggest enemy - he's 32.  It's not out of the realm of possibility that the Colts offer him back on a one-year deal, but I just find it more likely that a roster that already has Addai, Brown, Hart and James for the 2011 season would afford itself a flyer on a late-round or undrafted free agent running back over Rhodes, if in fact the team decides to carry five running backs, if in fact Hart and James aren't a redundancy, etc.  A lot of scenarios here, but ultimately, you can't like the chances of a 32-year-old journeyman back, even if most of his journeys have been to Indy, making the squad.