Colts’ camp preview: Running backs
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The wait is nearly over. Months of speculation – how much progress did general manager Chris Ballard actually make in his offseason upgrade of the Indianapolis Colts’ roster? – will give way to some type of reality.
Players report Wednesday for the start of training camp at Grand Park in Westfield, and then we’ll get some answers.
“Let’s just wait until training camp, get everybody out there, be at full strength,’’ coach Frank Reich said.
Between now and then, we’ll take a look at some positions of interest.
Today: Running back.
Projected starter: Marlon Mack.
Backups: Robert Turbin, Nyheim Hines, Jordan Wilkins, Josh Ferguson, Christine Michael.
Frank Gore’s relocation to Miami in the offseason signaled a major shift in one phase of the Colts’ offense. No longer will the running game revolve around one player.
“You’re not going to have a bell cow, so to speak, a guy that’s going to carry the load,’’ new position coach Tom Rathman said.
That’s primarily because no one has done that – be a feature back – at the NFL level. The Colts anticipate the backs-by-committee approach because they have no other option.
In three seasons and 48 regular-season starts, Gore was consistency personified. He averaged 261.3 carries per season: 261 in ’17, 263 in ’16, 260 in ’15. That’s 16.3 attempts per game, which was in line with his career average (16.4).
The Colts’ rotation heading into camp includes veterans Turbin, Mack, Michael and Ferguson. Not one has even sniffed the role of feature back. Turbin and Michael have rushed 20 times in a game once each, and Turbin’s rare heavy load came back in 2012. Using Gore’s per-game standard (16.4) for comparison purposes, Turbin has shouldered at least 16 carries once and Michael six times.
Rathman coached Gore six years in San Francisco. He realized the value of having one back he could rely on, but also understood the rarity of that one back.
“You just don’t make them like that,’’ Rathman said. “We’re trying to work with the young guys here, and it is a young group with the exception of Turbin.’’
Turbin, 28, is the old man of the group followed by Michael (27). Mack is 22 and Ferguson 25. Hines (21) and Wilkins (24) are rookies.
“We’ve got a lot of different styles and I think anytime you have a lot of different styles, you want to try to utilize that.’’
If any player emerges as a quasi-bell cow, it would be Mack. The 2017 fourth-round draft pick was the team’s second-leading rusher (358 yards), but too often he was flash or failure. Of Mack’s 93 attempts, seven (7.5 percent) picked up at least 15 yards while 30 (32.3 percent) resulted in no gain or lost yardage.
It bears mentioning questions follow Mack and Turbin into camp. Mack missed the entire offseason while recovering from surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder.
“He’s going to have to (play) catch up,’’ Rathman said. “He’s a good player. It’s going to be tough. Best players are going to be out on the field.’’
Turbin, meanwhile, has been suspended for the first four games of the regular season for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing substances policy. He is allowed to participate in camp practices and preseason games, but that’s it.
The four-game suspension costs Turbin $235,294 of his ’18 base pay.
High on Hines:
Ballard waited until the fourth round to address the backfield, but is confident he added an explosive, versatile player in Hines.
“He’s got real speed,’’ Ballard said. “He’s a returner. Our offensive coaches were excited about him, about the role he’s going to be able to play. He’s played both slot receiver and running back, so he’s going to be able to play some multiple roles for us.’’
Last season at North Carolina State, the 5-9, 198-pounder led the ACC in all-purpose yards per game (143.3), including a team-best 1,112 rushing yards on 197 attempts (5.6 yards per rush). Hines’ all-around skills have been compared with those of long-time NFL standout Darren Sproles.
“I’ve done it my whole entire life,’’ Hines said. “I did it in high school. I did it in college. I love to do it. And in this league, against professionals, anything they ask me to do, I’ll do it.
“I’m living the dream so whatever they ask me to do, I’ll do it.’’
The other rookie, Wilkins, also is coming off a solid final collegiate season. He led Mississippi with 1,011 rushing yards on 155 attempts (6.5).
Turbin yearns to shed his “situational back” reputation, but that’s unlikely. He’s too valuable in short-yardage and around the goal line. Over the last two seasons, he’s a league-best 12-of-12 in converting third-and-1.