Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Position analysis: Running backs

Joseph Addai in 2007: 261-1072-12 rushing, 41-364-3 receiving

Kenton Keith in 2007: 121-533-3 rushing, 13-77-1 receiving
Clifton Dawson in 2007: 30-64-1 rushing, 2-15-0 receiving, 1 special-teams tackle
Luke Lawton in 2007: 5-13-0 rushing, 4-29-1 receiving, 8 special-teams tackles, 3 special-teams assists
Justice Hairston in 2007: no stats (1)

Free agents

I never believed the rumor that Bill Polian really wanted Laurence Maroney in 2006 and settled for Addai (5112, 214, 4.40 in 2006) after the Patriots grabbed Maroney. Though a case could be made that Maroney is a more natural runner, Addai is a much more complete back — a better receiver and a far, far better pass-blocker (2) — and possesses a personality that better fits the Colts' ideal.

That said, I think Addai is a really, really good back, but not quite a great one. He does everything you want well, but doesn't play to his timed speed and has no truly outstanding attributes. (3) But that's okay. The Colts' offense is so high-powered that a highly competent back like Addai can produce like a superstar.

The one caveat with Addai has been durability. Although he hasn't had any serious injuries in his to seasons as a pro, Addai was frequently hobbled at LSU.

Luckily, the Colts have a talented No. 2 back. In fact, Keith (5110, 207, 4.44 in 2001) had a better per-carry average last year than Addai — 4.40 yards to 4.11 — and he was stuffed less often and had a much higher percentage of runs that led to first downs. He's a slashing, creative runner with explosive cuts who can spot a crease and plays bigger than his size would lead you to believe.

So why isn't Keith starting? Well, he's an incomplete back. What stands out most obviously is that he's a lousy receiver. Addai caught 83.76 percent of passes thrown his way last season — about average for halfbacks. Keith? Just 56.52 percent. (4) And he didn't do much with the passes he caught, averaging 5.92 yards per catch (8.88 for Addai) and 5.85 yards after the catch (8.63). He also has a rep for fumbling. Although he only put the ball on the ground once last season, he did it a lot when he played in Saskatchewan. And, although he's not the worst pass-blocking halfback in the NFL, he's in the bottom quarter or so.

While Keith may not have the qualities the Colts are looking for in a starting back, he's a quality No. 2, and is especially valuable late in games when the Colts move into ball-control mode. (5)

Lawton (5115, 237, 4.55 (6) in 2004) doesn't even pretend to be a complete back. Dude is a fullback. Although he was a feared runner and receiver at McNeese State, his lack of speed and agility means that if he gets the ball in the NFL, it's on a gadget play or an emergency dump-off. His value is more as a blocker and special-teams guy.

Harvard alum Dawson (5095, 214, 4.54 in 2007) is a skilled back, but in limited playing time last year indicated he may not have the initial quickness to carve out a niche in the NFL.

Hairston (6006, 210, 4.58 in 2007) is an interesting story. A young prospect at Rutgers, he got in trouble and landed at Central Connecticut State (7) where he powered through 1-AA defenses like a cannonball through marshmallow. As a senior, he rushed 277-1877-20, including an NCAA record 197 yards in a single quarter, despite having every single eye in the stadium on him. The Patriots drafted him in the sixth round (8), but he suffered an injury in the summer, was placed on injured reserve and eventually reached an injury settlement with the team and was released. The Colts put him on the practice squad and thought enough of him to invite him back this season.

I saw him play at Rutgers and this kid has great instincts, but his lack of deep speed — as well as my deep-seated distrust of halfbacks taller than me — make me wonder if he's a serious candidate to make the roster in September.

What I'd do
Barring injury or a rash of fumbles, I think Addai and Keith will hang onto the top two spots. The other guys will have to fight for jobs. While Lawton is a useful player and fan favorite, players with his skills are not rare as evidenced by the fact that he's been cut eight times in his NFL career. Dawson may be lacking the necessary stuff for the NFL, and Hairston is a long-shot of the lottery ticket variety.

I think the Colts would be well-served to invest a pick in a back with receiving and blocking skills to serve as No. 3 or —perhaps eventually — serve as the primary backup to Addai.
I really like South Carolina's Cory Boyd, but I think his character problems might prevent him from being a Colt. Morgan State's Chad Simpson is a similar player with a less blemished resume. The glut of backs in this draft could easily push a talent like him to the fifth round.

1. Not even preseason stats.
2. There's no comparison, Addai looks like a guard compared to Maroney.
3. His two best attributes are pass-blocking and a nose for the end zone — nice skills to have.
4. You can say that the sampling is too small to be significant, but I watched him for years in the CFL and can tell you he has subpar hands at best.
5. Many people like a big pounder in the fourth quarter, but I prefer a speedy slasher. If you are a tired and disillusioned defender, it's harder to chase a player like Keith than it is to bring down a plodder like, say, Ron Dayne.
6. I've seen him play — that McNeese State pro day timing of 4.55 must have been downhill, or maybe down a cliff. I think a 4.75 is more realistic.
7. America's oldest public university!
8. Patriots' vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli is a CC State grad.

No comments: