With the kickoff of the Colts’ 2018 training camp just days away, we’re taking a look at some of the camp battles that you should keep an eye on. Yesterday we covered the battle for the right guard position. Today we’re going to dig in on the running backs and have a look at what could be an interesting group.
To begin with, this battle is different than several of the others. Frank Reich favors a running back by committee approach, which means a couple things. First, taking a Colts running back early in your fantasy draft is a risky and probably fruitless endeavor which will cause you significant anger and frustration. Second, there may not be an option to be the “primary” back in this offense.
With that said, there will certainly be competition to get more snaps, and even in a committee approach, Reich will not be ignoring obvious talent and production just for the sake of spreading out the workload. That means that each of these backs has something to prove heading into camp.
Despite the running back by committee mentality of Reich, Colts fans and analysts alike have pretty readily given the edge on number of carries to Marlon Mack. The second year player showed promise in his rookie season, delivering some of the most exciting plays the offense produced in 2017. He had struggles catching Jacoby Brissett’s 5-yard fastballs and struggled in pass protection, but all signs pointed to the fact that in the hands of a competent offensive coach, he could be an asset.
The news of his torn labrum and shoulder surgery has a pretty big impact on his standing in this competition. He missed all of OTAs and minicamp thus far, and if he is not healthy to start training camp it will give the other backs an opportunity to show what they bring to the table.
Mack still has a great deal of upside. He is elusive and has incredibly smooth cutting ability. His savage stiff arm of Jadeveon Clowney might have been the most enjoyable individual play all of last season. If Andrew Luck can get him involved in the screen game and the offensive line improves in the way it should, he has the opportunity to have a break out season. That all depends upon him being healthy, though, and right now that is a question mark.
Nyheim Hines joins the team with a significant feather in his cap. Versatility is a big deal to coaches, and Hines has it. He can play from the slot, out of the backfield, and as a deadly return man with home run abilities every time the ball is in his hands. His first two seasons at NC State were spent largely working as a slot receiver before picking up running duties later.
The obvious weakness for Hines is his small stature. It is because of this that some believe he will struggle to be more than a small-time roleplayer or a gimmick guy. Training camp will be the first of many opportunities for Hines to quiet that noise. He has drawn comparisons to Alvin Kamara and even Darren Sproles as far as the kind of skill set he brings.
In the hands of Chuck Pagano, Hines would have been wasted. Using a back with his talents takes a creative coach. Fortunately for Hines, his head coach is Frank Reich, not Chuck Pagano. It would surprise me to see Hines take on the bulk of the carries, but it wouldn’t surprise me a bit to see him play a significant role in the offense and on special teams right from the jump. With Marlon Mack’s health in question and Robert Turbin facing a 4-game suspension, he’ll get plenty of opportunity to make a case for playing time.
Jordan Wilkins is the Colts other rookie hoping to carve out a significant role for himself in a crowded young backfield. Fortunately for him, his skill set is different from that of the other two. Wilkins is a bigger back whose lateral agility, balance, and great vision define his running style. He is a patient runner who drew comparisons to a poor man’s Le’Veon Bell. Colts fans would certainly not be upset if he turned out anything like Bell’s production.
Our own Zach Hicks wrote about him here, and emphasized that Wilkins is accomplished as a pass blocker and receiver as well. That will matter a lot, because keeping Andrew Luck upright is the primary objective of this front office. If Wilkins can prove himself as the back who can do that consistently well, it gives him a definite and hard to shake role on the offense.
Robert Turbin finds himself the odd man out in a room full of younger backs. Turbin has had success working as a third down back and short yardage specialist, but might struggle to get a lot of playing time without an outstanding camp.
Since joining the Colts, Turbin has done little more than play the role of the heavy back on 3rd down. He has done it well, posting a 52.6% conversion rate in 2016, but even that season he only managed to contribute 343 yards from scrimmage and will be 29 by season’s end. Facing the prospect of a 4-game suspension due to the use of PEDs, it seems like Turbin will be up against the longest odds to secure any kind of meaningful spot on the roster.
Next time on training camp battles, wide receivers.