Coming out of the 2018 spring training program, there are early indications of progress and setbacks at numerous positions for the Indianapolis Colts. During the summer break period of the off-season, we will take a look at each position on the Colts roster as compared to where it was at this time a year ago and try to project how the roster will look in September.
We continue this project by focusing on a running back room that is still a work in progress.
Frank Reich and the Eagles Running Back Committee
No conversation about the Colts backfield situation is complete without a reference to Frank Reich’s tenure with the Philadelphia Eagles. Arguably, no team in the NFL relied more heavily on a running back committee approach in their offense than they did. Included in that group was bruiser LaGarette Blount, former feature back Jay Ajayi, and hybrid scat backs Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood, and Corey Clement. Here is the breakdown of each back’s statistical role in the offense.
Blount - 173 Car — 766 Yds — 4.4 YPC — 2 RushTD — 8 Rec — 50 RecYds — 1 RecTD
Ajayi - 70 Car (7 Games) — 408 Yds — 5.8 YPC — 1 RushTD — 10 Rec — 91 RecYds — 1 RecTD
Clement - 74 Car — 321 Yds — 4.3 YPC — 4 RushTDs — 10 Rec — 123 RecYds — 2 RecTDs
Smallwood - 47 Car (8 Games) — 174 Yds — 3.7 YPC — 1 RushTD — 13 Rec — 103 RecYds
Sproles - 15 Car (3 games) — 61 Yds — 4.1 YPC — 7 Rec — 73 RecYds
While injuries played a role in having a total of five running backs involved in Philadelphia’s rushing attack in 2017, different types of backs were featured in the offense. For example, if the scat backs are taken together, they accounted for 136 Car — 556 Yds — 4.09 YPC — 5 RushTDs — 30 Rec — 299 RecYds — 2 RecTDs. If you were to project the breakdown in carries across all three roles in the Eagles backfield a season ago, controlling for injuries and mid-season acquisitions, you would get a pretty even split.
If this characteristic of the offense was of Reich’s design, Indianapolis could see primary contributions out of numerous running backs throughout the entire season. The team may very easily see three running backs with rather large work loads each week — depending upon availability. Also, when receptions are thrown in, scat backs could be more prominent in the offense overall.
Placing Colts Backs in Similar Roles
Indianapolis has a running back room that features a number of players with similar attributes to the Eagles group.
Robert Turbin would fill the bruising back role, third down and short yardage, and get more goal lines carries like LaGarette Blount did for Philadelphia. Christine Michael would be his primary competition for that role as another back with some experience carrying a relatively heavy load and the body to bang around inside the tackles.
Marlon Mack would likely be asked to serve a broader role in the mold of a Jay Ajayi with Jordan Wilkins developing behind him.
Hybrid Scat Backs
Nyheim Hines clearly plays the hybrid scat back role and will likely play a larger part in the passing game than the rest of the backfield. Behind him on the roster is Josh Ferguson who plays a similar role.
Projecting the Colts Backfield is Difficult
While Hines, Mack, and Turbin are all front-runners to be on the 53-man roster in the regular season, there are certainly legitimate question-marks about how the unit will fare. Additionally, who will make a final roster spot is harder to determine. Wilkins would seem to have a bit of an edge as one of Ballard’s 2018 draft picks but Michael has NFL experience and Ferguson could be coveted in support of Hines in his role.
Of all the backs, Turbin is most ready to carry a heavy load. He has been devastating in short-yard and as a third down back for two straight seasons. He is a solid pass blocker who Andrew Luck can trust in his (assumed) return to the field and isn’t afraid to catch passes out of the backfield on occasion either. Assuming his elbow injury has completely healed, there is reason to believe he can play a big role.
The only trouble with Turbin is that he is not particularly well suited to carry the mail on early downs or as an every down back. He is not a speedy prospect who will regularly break off big plays and doesn’t present the kind of hybrid threat Reich likes to feature in his offense. Behind him are players who are undoubtedly talented but who also come with a lot of questions.
Marlon Mack is certainly a threat to break off big plays, especially bouncing the ball to the outside. Is he comfortable taking on a heavier load between the tackles in his second season in a pro style offense? Can he develop as a pass protector enough to earn the trust of his quarterback and coaches? Some players take these steps and others don’t. Fans will have to wait and see with Mack.
Nyheim Hines is certainly an exciting prospect to add to an offense that looks similar to the one Frank Reich employed a season ago for the Eagles. He has long speed to break big plays. He shows that he wasn’t afraid to run inside the tackles in his senior season in college. He is surprisingly more willing to block in the passing game than his size would suggest. Oh yeah, he played wide receiver for much of his career until moving to running back full time as a senior. Talk about an offensive weapon, right?
Except that Hines is also a rookie who will be taking his first NFL snap this season. How he transitions against a higher level of competition and how his body will hold up to a longer season of abuse is unknown.
The biggest sleeper out of this group could be Jordan Wilkins. I’ll be honest, he was completely off of my radar heading into the draft but when the Colts selected him, my research yielded some pretty positive discoveries. Among them is that Wilkins is able to make players miss with twitchy change of direction at the second level. He tends to run more inside the tackles and has the size to hold up. He is deceptively fast because he takes longer strides.
Wilkins is a blue collar players with the right attitude to play his position. He is certainly a sleeper prospect and could either but cut, have a spot on the practice squad, or work his way into a rotational role as the season progresses.
Christine Michael has been a preseason and training camp warrior throughout his NFL career. He is a player who seems always on the verge of breaking out and into a bigger role. Unfortunately for Michael, his body fails him too often. Injuries have derailed an otherwise promising career and at 27 years old the odds are against him.
Josh Ferguson has not been able to put it all together in his young career. At 25 years old he still has a chance to do so but he is definitely on the bubble and will need a strong off-season showing to make his way onto the roster. Kerwynn Williams was a similar prospect who carved out a bigger role for the Arizona Cardinals last year but it took a major injury to David Johnson to give him that chance.