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With Ballard out, Running Back Position a Concern for Colts

With the reports that Vick Ballard will miss the 2014 season after suffering a torn Achilles in practice, the running back position for the Colts suddenly looks thin and concerning.

Gregory Shamus

Entering the day today, the Colts running back position looked pretty good.  The hopes were high for Trent Richardson, with him having an offseason and camp to work with the team - though, certainly, we need to actually see the improvement.  Vick Ballard was coming back from a season-ending injury last year, and he was an effective starting back his rookie season and in week one last year, and he looked good in camp yesterday, cutting well and looking good to go with his knee.  And Ahmad Bradshaw was also coming back from an injury and, while his time was limited yesterday, he looked promising too.

And then today's practice happened.  First, Trent Richardson wasn't practicing.  He was getting worked on by trainers yesterday but stayed in there, though today he was held out for what the team said was precautionary reasons.  Then, the biggest news of the day came shortly after when Vick Ballard was running a simple pass pattern when he went down with a non-contact injury.  He limped off the field, received some attention from the training staff, and was then carted off to the locker room.

That was a concern, and Jim Irsay's interview with the media after practice added to the level of concern, with the Colts owner saying,

"When you see someone like Vick Ballard go down who's worked so hard to get back, it's tough, but it happens. As soon as you get to camp, those things happen. He's still young and he's got a full career ahead of him so we have to do an MRI and see exactly what it is and then go from there. But you really hope to not hear any of that kind of news."

That didn't sound good.  And shortly after practice, multiple people reported that Ballard suffered a torn Achilles, meaning he will miss the entire 2014 season.  Again, it's not yet confirmed by the team, but those reporting the news (Chris Mortensen, Ian Rapoport, and Stephen Holder) are all very good and reliable guys, so it's most likely that they're right.  All of the sudden, the Colts depth at running back and the state of the position as a whole is concerning.

We all know the struggles that Trent Richardson had last year, and we don't really need to look at them in depth here.  But he was bad in 2013, averaging just 2.9 yards per carry and just looking all around dismal in his play, not helping the team out much at all.  There are high hopes from the team for Richardson entering 2014, as he's the guy they gave up a first round pick for last year and a talented guy entering just his third season.  The hope is that with an offseason and training camp to really learn the offense and work with the team, Richardson will show significant improvement this year.  Hopefully, the offensive line is also improved this year, which could help Richardson out a lot too.

But here's the thing - we just don't know.  There's so much uncertainty with Richardson.  We can talk all we want about the hopes for him, but until we actually see if he can average more than just 2.9 yards per carry, we just won't know.  Colts fans have such a poor opinion of Richardson's 2013 season that they'll commonly say, "I'll believe it when I see it" regarding the running back.  I'm the same way.  I have all the hopes for Richardson that I already outlined, but I'm hesitant until I actually see him on the field in a game gaining more than 2.9 yards every carry.

The positive was that the Colts had a backup plan in place, and a pretty good one at that.  Vick Ballard was the team's starting back in 2012 and entered the 2013 season as the starter too - though he only made it one week before tearing his ACL in practice.  Ahmad Bradshaw was coming back too, and while he has injury concerns, when added into the group of Richardson and Ballard, he was a great complement.  Now, Ballard is gone and the only real backup plan the Colts have is Bradshaw.  To be sure, Bradshaw is talented enough to be a team's number one back, and he's produced enough to be one as well.  He has two 1,000+ yard rushing seasons under his belt and has averaged lower than 4 yards per carry in just one of his seven seasons, averaging 3.9 in 2011.  He put up the most impressive single-game performance by a Colts back last year, rushing for 95 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries in week three - but that would be his last game of the season for the Colts, as he missed the rest of it with a neck injury.  But Bradshaw has played in all 16 games of a season just once in his seven year career, and he missed 13 regular season games with the Colts last year.  He has a history of injuries.  The Colts are trying to limit his work in camp, preseason, and probably a bit in the regular season too in an effort to prevent another injury, but there are question marks about Bradshaw's health.  Not about his talent, but about his health - and that means that the Colts backup plan to Trent Richardson, instead of being a guy who was going to push T-Rich anyway for the starting spot, is now a guy who is talented but has a long list of injuries in his past.

As such, it's important to look at the other options.  Either way, the Colts aren't going to enter the season with just two running backs, so at least one guy now has a chance to step up and earn a roster spot, and perhaps two.  It appears that through two days of camp Dan Herron is next in line, as he saw significant time with the first team offense today with Richardson and Ballard not practicing and Bradshaw's reps limited.  That experience is invaluable, and truth be told Herron looked very good in the very limited time he played last season for the Colts, rushing for 33 yards on 5 carries (6.6 yards per carry) and catching 1 pass for 57 yards.

Zurlon Tipton, an undrafted rookie out of Central Michigan, also saw some significant work today and, like Herron, looked well doing so.  Tipton is a guy who I liked when the Colts first signed him and I think he could be a valuable guy to keep around as a short yardage and goal line back.  With Ballard's injury, I think that we might see Tipton make a push for a roster spot too.

Lastly, Chris Rainey is also in camp with the Colts at running back.  He played in 16 games for the Steelers in 2012 but played in just 2 for the Colts last year.  Rainey's best chance at making the roster will be as a kick returner, but at the same time that could help his chances even more if he's tied with another back in terms of running the ball - the Colts would then keep the guy who could help in multiple ways.  Rainey will definitely get his chances too.

I especially like Herron and Tipton as guys fighting for a roster spot and who might be able to help the team out, but let me throw this possibility out there, phrased a bit differently: let's say Herron and/or Tipton make the roster, and after a few games Bradshaw is hurt and Richardson is still averaging 2.9 yards per carry (two what it's, sure, but two realistic ones)?  Do you feel comfortable with either Dan Herron or Zurlon Tipton taking on a large role in the offense or perhaps even starting?  Because that's what the third running back position for the Colts will need to be capable of.  Remember, Donald Brown entered the season last year third on the Colts depth chart and ended up being a life-saver for the Colts.  I really liked Brown as a third running back.  Herron, Tipton, or Rainey?  I'm not convinced yet.

So what do the Colts do from here?  Do they sign another guy?  Make a trade for a running back?  Let it play out for now with the guys they have?  I'm not sure what's best - although after last year's trade, I wouldn't mind them ruling that option out for now.  I don't have the answers.  I'm not sure anybody does right now, and that's why injuries can be so damaging to teams in the NFL.  The Colts entered the day with a very good running back core of Trent Richardson, Vick Ballard, and Ahmad Bradshaw - three guys who can and have started in the NFL.  Now, just hours later, the position is one of the biggest concerns the team has and a real question mark.

The pressure is on Trent Richardson, that much is for sure.  Previously, we knew that if Richardson struggled the Colts would have Ballard to turn to as a starter, someone who is reliable and could carry the load.  If Bradshaw stays healthy that would have been an added bonus.  Now, however, there's not that safety net.  Richardson has to produce in 2014 - there's really no other option.  None.  Whoever the Colts add at the position will be at best the third back and likely won't be a guy who's really going to push Richardson for the starting job.  Trent Richardson can't average just 2.9 yards per carry again this year.  Donald Brown isn't walking through that door to have a breakout season and play a crucial part to the Colts - Brown is in San Diego playing with the Chargers now.  Ahmad Bradshaw isn't going to be able to carry the load, because at 28 years old entering his 8th season in the league and with a history of injuries, the Colts wouldn't think about shouldering him with that large of a load.  Dan Herron, Zurlon Tipton, and Chris Rainey all have a shot to make the roster and could help out the team, but they aren't going to come in during a crucial game and play a huge role.  And anybody the Colts bring in will be a new addition with limitations that will keep him behind Richardson and Bradshaw unless they both get injured.

Trent Richardson has been great with the media and hasn't made excuses for his performance last year - even though he could have with his injury, his adjusting on the fly, his learning a new playbook, etc.  He hasn't made those out to be excuses - he simply knows he needs to be better this year.  But while he won't have the excuses this year to begin with, even if he did the Colts wouldn't have room for them.  Because with the injury to Vick Ballard, the running back position for the Colts is a big concern.  There really is only one good option for the Colts right now, and that is Trent Richardson stepping up and playing well.  There's no way around it - while it was important before, now it's clear that Trent Richardson absolutely must step up in 2014.  He must.