Assessing Colts’ needs in NFL draft: Running back

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EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - DECEMBER 05: Robert Turbin #33 of the Indianapolis Colts runs for a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the New York Jets during their game at MetLife Stadium on December 5, 2016 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – No one should question what’s driving Chris Ballard these days.

It’s the April 27-29 NFL draft.

“We want to be a great drafting team,’’ the Indianapolis Colts’ first-year general manager said. “We want to have a sound structure and foundation in place where we’re producing players every year for the Colts.

“You have to. You have to produce three or four players that are going to help you every single year.’’

The Colts hold seven selections in the seven-round draft, all in the first five rounds. Between now and the draft, we’ll examine some of the team’s more pressing areas of need.

Today: Running back

  • Projected starter: Frank Gore.
  • Top backup: Robert Turbin.
  • Depth: Josh Ferguson.

Key stats: 

Since his arrival in 2012, Chuck Pagano has preached the importance of the Colts effectively running the ball. Well, we’re still waiting. No one expects Indy to pound the football, not with Andrew Luck under center. And not with Frank Gore on the downside of a Hall of Fame-caliber career. But everyone should expect more efficiency when Luck hands off. Over the past five seasons, the Colts are averaging 3.91 yards per attempt, 28th in the NFL. It dips to 3.7 when you exclude Luck’s 5.0 average on 286 rushes/scrambles. That’s simply not good enough. Neither is their 101.2 per-game average, which ranks 24th over the last five seasons.

We all applauded Gore last season for ending the Colts’ eight-year drought of non-1,000-yard rushers. He earned every one of his 1,025 yards. But the fact remains he’s averaged 3.9 and 3.7 yards per attempt in his two seasons in Indy, the two lowest per-carry yields of his 12-year career. The blame is twofold: the offensive line has lacked consistency in run blocking, and Gore lacks the long-distance burst he had early in his career.

It’s well past time for the team to back up Pagano’s talk.

  • Level of concern: High.
  • What about: Dalvin Cook, Florida State; Christian McCaffrey, Stanford, D’Onta Freeman, Texas; Joe Mixon, Oklahoma.
  • More about McCaffrey: Some might question whether the 5-11, 202-pounder is an every-down NFL back. Can he withstand the beating running backs take at the top level, or will he be a Reggie Bush-type who’s more of a situational option? But no one should question McCaffrey’s productivity and versatility. As a sophomore in 2015, he was the only FBS player to lead his team in rushing (a school-record 2,019 yards on 337 carries) and receiving (645 yards on 45 catches). He set a single-season NCAA record with 3,864 all-purpose yards and generated 15 touchdowns. McCaffrey had a “down’’ season in ’16 as he battled a lingering hip injury, but still churned out 1,603 yards and 13 TDs on 253 rushes and added 310 yards and three TDs on 37 receptions. He’s the son of former long-time NFL wide receiver Ed McCaffrey and has been working out during in Denver under the guidance of former Colts’ wideout Brandon Stokley.
  • More from McCaffrey: He’s widely considered the third-best back in the draft, behind LSU’s Leonard Fournette, an expected top-10 pick, and Cook. He considers that a sign of disrespect. “Yeah, definitely. I play with a chip on my shoulder always. I feel like a lot of people don’t give me credit for my skills and talents. That’s just the way it is. But I also don’t really care too much. I don’t feel like I’m crazy disrespected. I have a chip on my shoulder at all times. That’s been my whole life.’’

Final word:

We’re on board with the Colts drafting a running back. Gore is a free agent after ’17 and it’s hard to imagine him returning for a fourth season. Turbin yearns to be a starter, but that’s doubtful in Indy. The prevailing question: How soon is soon enough to bring in Gore’s successor?

The Colts never have shied from taking a running back in round 1: Edgerrin James (4th overall in ’99, and the team’s career rushing leader); Joe Addai (30th in ’06) and Donald Brown (27th in ’09). Assure us Cook or McCaffrey will provide James-like impact and we’ll listen to restocking the position with the 15th overall pick.

However, history tells us you can draft a reliable back – even a top-tier one – early, late and in between. At the risk of bogging you down with facts, we’ll give offer a couple.

Twelve runners cracked the 1,000-yard mark last season. Yes, Dallas first-round draft pick Ezekiel Elliott led the league as a rookie with 1,631 yards, but the list also included former IU standout Jordan Howard (round 5 and the 150th overall selection by the Bears in ’16), who finished 2nd with 1,313 yards; Jay Ajayi, a fifth-round pick of Miami; and undrafted LeGarrette Blount. The average draft position of the 12: middle of round 3.

Of the 12 playoff teams last season, only one was led in rushing by a first-round pick (Dallas with Elliott). Eight of the leading rushers were taking in round 4 or later.

Finally we offer Adrian Peterson, the seventh-overall pick by the Vikings in ’07. His Hall of Fame-caliber career has included seven 1,000-yard seasons and seven Pro Bowl selections. But his team has reached the playoffs just four times and won only one game.

That’s not a knock on Peterson. It’s a cautionary tale for investing so heavily in a running back.

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