INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The first step has been taken, but leading where? That’s what the next few months will determine.
Before Frank Reich addresses the latest edition of his Indianapolis Colts in April, Chris Ballard and his personnel staff must make the necessary additions and adjustments to a franchise that reached the playoffs following a three-year absence. That means utilizing every option at their disposal: re-signing their own pending free agents, procuring talent on the free agent market, the NFL draft and the post-draft signing frenzy.
Before we get to that, we’ll take a position-by-position look at the Colts. More to the point, we’ll take a look at how they got to where they are – coming off a 10-6 record and a first-round playoff win – and what needs to be done to take them further in 2019.
TODAY: Running backs
Starter: Marlon Mack
Backups: Nyheim Hines, Jordan Wilkins
Tom Rathman entered his first season as running backs coach with more questions than answers. His meeting room included a veteran who was suspended for the first four games (Robert Turbin), an intriguing ‘back who played his rookie season with a shoulder injury that kept him out of the offseason work (Marlon Mack) and a pair of rookies (Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins).
“They all need to have work. I don’t think anybody’s refined at this point,’’ Rathman said during the summer. “Right now it’s just seeing what they are, what they can do, how they move, their change of direction, how they take instructions.
“I don’t think you’ll be able to tell anything until you get into training camp and you put the pads on.’’
Once the pads were on, Rathman oversaw a group that took authoritative steps every week. Turbin, the short-yardage specialist, never was a factor and was released in mid-November. Mack fought through early foot and hamstring injuries and established himself as someone capable of being a feature back. Hines and Jordan appeared in all 16 regular-season games and shared seven starts.
The byproduct: one of the Colts’ more reliable running attacks in recent memory. Mack blended a bounce-it-outside tendency as a rookie with a willingness to run between the tackles and get extra yards with an impressive burst. The 2017 fourth-round draft pick averaged 4.7 yards per attempt, became the first Colt since Joe Addai in 2007 to rush for at least 100 yards four times and set a team playoff record with 148 yards in a first-round win at Houston. He averaged 75.6 yards in 12 regular-season games, which extrapolates to 1,210 yards over 16.
Hines’ background as a receiver enabled him to serve as one of Andrew Luck’s options in the passing game. His 63 receptions were third-most by a Colts rookie and trailed only the Giants’ Saquon Barkley (91) and the Falcons’ Calvin Ridley (64) among NFL rookies, and his 739 total yards from scrimmage ranked eighth among rookies. Among players with at least 60 carries, Wilkins’ 5.6 per-carry average (336 yards on 60 attempts) ranked second among all running backs.
No. No. And no. Regardless the baseless rumors and speculation that undoubtedly will grow as free agency approaches, the Colts aren’t a possible landing spot for Le’Veon Bell. That’s not Ballard’s position; there’s a little thing called tampering in the NFL. That’s our position, but one based on listening to Ballard’s approach to building a roster and the importance he places on cultivating the proper locker room environment.
“We will explore every avenue,’’ Ballard said, “and if we think from a free-agent standpoint that we are going to get one of the high-priced (players), we have a very strict guideline that he’s got to fit. He’s got to fit into the locker room. He is going to earn the salary that he’s making, not only with his play but with his impact and his presence within the locker room.’’
We’ve learned to never say never when it comes to the Colts pursuing high-profile, high-impact talent. But in this instance, we expect Ballard and his personnel staff to perhaps kick the tires on Bell, then move on.
Moderate. It’s never a bad idea to invest a mid- or late-round draft pick in a running back. That holds true even with the youthful nature of the Colts’ returning group.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.