With the kind of widespread team change that has occurred in Indianapolis following the 2011 NFL season, fans are presented with the dawning of a new era and reason to track the team's progress as it moves into the future with a clean slate. A new general manager, coaching staff, scouting staff, franchise quarterback, and major player turnover all make what Colts fans knew from 1998 to 2010 -- 2011 being the albatross -- no longer relevant.
In order to assess the state of the franchise in the summer, before games have been played in a new offensive scheme, defensive scheme, special teams arrangement, and with a lot of players new to Indianapolis, I will do my best to analyze the 2011 team roster at each position and compare it with those who will fill the roster -- or who may fill the roster -- in 2012. Readers are invited to chime in with their opinions, provide their own insights, and help educate the Colts Authority staff and community with any knowledge or insight about specific players and positions in this series.
2011 - Joseph Addai, Donald Brown, Delone Carter (FBs Excluded)
Joseph Addai is widely recognized as a true member of the Indianapolis Colts. The team won its first Super Bowl in Indianapolis his rookie season and he rushed for over 1,000 yards in both of his first two seasons. His football IQ was fantastic, helping make him one of the most versatile running backs in the NFL, and particularly adept at protecting Peyton Manning as a blocker in the backfield.
Unfortunately for Addai, he was unable to stay healthy in three of his last four seasons in Indianapolis -- including his most consistently productive year since 2007 (2010). Relying on Addai to be the primary back at 29 years old and after significant drops in both carries and production made him expendable at the end of the season, particularly with a new offensive philosphy and quarterback.
Donald Brown has encountered some struggles in his NFL career that set back his ability to be a major contributor on the ground or in the air. His first two seasons were particularly bad as a run blocker and he seemed lost too often with the first team offense.
2011 marked a "breakout" year for Brown, however, as he generated 645 rushing yards on 134 carries for a 4.8 ypc average. He also caught 16 passes for 86 yards and totaled five touchdowns. For some reason, even when Brown was having success running the football, the Colts did not give him a lot of opportunities. The score differential certainly played into some of the decisions but there was a feeling that Brown deserved to get more opportunities than he he was given -- a theme that went back to 2010 when he had 9 carries in the final two games after a 14 carry 129 yard performance against Jacksonville.
Delone Carter entered his rookie season with arguably unfair expectations. Some slated Carter as a rookie of the year contender. His 101 carries for 377 yards and a 3.7 ypc average, along with three lost fumbles, were not going to get it done. He will need to make noticeable progress heading into his second season if he hopes to have a chance to justify his early supporters.
2012 - Donald Brown, Delone Carter, Vick Ballard, Mewelde Moore, Darren Evans, Deji Karim
One thing Donald Brown has going for him entering his fourth season is that he enters summer as the top running back. A starting spot is his position to lose. On top of that, he serves to benefit from upgrades along the offensive line, including linemen who are either larger, more proven run blockers, or both. The new offensive philosphy suits a running back who likes to hit a hole, get to the second level, and make players on the second level miss.
It is absolutely a make or break year for Brown, however, as the increased emphasis on running the football should serve to increase his carries. Increased carries give him more opportunities to break long runs and generate offensive production. If he fails to do so, Carter and rookie Ballard will be waiting for their chance to shine.
Carter possesses the kind of running style general manager Ryan Grigson targeted with rookie Vick Ballard. If he can also possess more secure hands in his second season and continue developing in a more run focused offensive front, he could prove to be solid depth. His major hiccup could come with his competition against Darren Evans and Vick Ballard for what could be one "power back" spot on the roster. That could be determined by Mewelde Moore's performance in training camp.
Vick Ballard is another power rushing prospect who is most comfortable getting up a head of steam between the tackles. His transition from second gear to high gear is impressive, making him dangerous in the second level up the middle of the field. His initial burst after he takes the handoff is not good enough to be super dangerous on outside runs most of the time, often placing him in a third down or power running scenario with big play potential.
Mewelde Moore has 9 years of NFL experience, most recently with offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. He is a utility back with solid hands, good field vision and football IQ, and could be considered a poor man's Joseph Addai as a blocker and runner although he has not had Addai's production and has likewise seen his production drop off over the last couple of seasons.
His most important function over the summer and heading into training camp will be as an experienced veteran and leader for the younger rushers as they get acclimated to Arians' offensive system. It's a no-brainer signing with the promise of yielding a valuable addition to the depth chart in the backfield if the younger players do not pan out.
Darren Evans enters his second off-season with the Colts, following a productive preseason of 25 carries for 96 yards. While Evans failed to separate from himself from the pack enough to make the regular season roster he did get called up to the roster two weeks during the regular season and stayed with the team on the practice squad.
He is another strong runner between the tackles who would have very likely been a much more highly touted prospect had he not torn his ACL in 2009 -- his sophomore season at Virginia Tech. Evans is certainly a long shot to make the roster again in 2012 but he has a chance to capitalize on his experience in 2011.
Finally, Deji Karim has been brought onto the roster to provide some competition for the return game. He is not a realistic competitor to get carries, although he did get a few opportunities last season -- they were not productive. His only chance is to prove himself as the most talented returner and hope to convince the coaching staff and Grigson to retain him for his skills in that facet of the game. Over the last two seasons he averaged 24 yards per kick return.
Statistics will say that the Colts retained their leading rusher and most promising prospect in the backfield, Donald Brown. The eye will also say that he made noticeable progress in 2011 and that a restocked offensive line with a greater emphasis on the run could be the chance he needs to truly breakout as a legitimate starting NFL rusher. The addition of Moore indicates that a veteran presence with experience in Arians' offensive scheme was a priority and promises to aid in the development of the young rushers who have a chance to break onto the regular season roster and into a more productive offensive role.
The questions regarding how Carter and Evans will progress after their alternate experiences in 2011 and how Ballard will transition into the faster NFL game will answer the rest. If Carter takes a step forward and Ballard can match or exceeed Carter's production, there is reason to believe that day one 2012 the Colts backfield has more talent than the 2011 version. Even if it is not, the youth in the backfield along with the change in the offensive scheme warrants reason for fans to like the direction the team is going on the ground.
The run game will be better because the O-line will be better. Our offensive line has been terrible for years. They couldn't run block and last year proved what I said all along: They couldn't pass block either. Manning hid that deficiency by getting rid of the ball quickly. The group we have in camp now is an upgrade over last year, even though they haven't played together.
Got to love the competition this year. It's Brown's job to lose of course. I wonder if it makes sense to keep both Carter and Ballard since they both basically bring the same thing to the table. Moore brings needed experience, I can't see Karim making the team unless he tears it up with the returns. Pretty rare on our team. I think Evans will have to fight for a spot on the PS again, but I'm rooting for him.