Should the Indianapolis Colts Draft a Running Back in the First Round?

The Colts have had backfield issues for a while now. Should they spend high in the draft in order to fix them?

It’s no secret that the NFL has been sprinting full speed toward the most wide-open passing attacks imaginable in the last twenty years or so. Inadvertently, the league is trying to render the rushing game completely obsolete, as they open the throttle on a style of play that is much quicker, conserves time better, and -- frankly -- is more efficient than rushing the ball.

In your local museum next year, there may be an exhibit entitled “The Extinction of the Once-Noble Halfback”.

The Indianapolis Colts are one of the biggest perpetrators of this environmental offensive shift, but they’ve been on the hunt to improve their running back position for some time now. Trading their first-round draft selection in 2013 for the ineffective Trent Richardson didn’t work out, but rumor has it that they are considering selecting a top-tier running back at 29th overall.

Should the Colts grab Todd Gurley or Melvin Gordon with their highest pick, or should they wait it out for a cheaper option somewhere?

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Before we get into the relative merits of where to select a new running back, and if they should go fishing in free agency or make a move in the draft, let’s make this very clear at the outset: the Colts absolutely need a new lead back. Last year, they cobbled together a unit primarily consisting of a guy named “Boom” (Daniel Herron) and the last player alphabetically in the NFL (Zurlon Tipton).

To illustrate this point further, let’s look at our signature metric here at numberFire, Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP is a measure of how a player (or unit) affects his team’s chances of scoring, thus giving a fuller picture of the game on the field. NEP is even contextualized for down and distance, so we get a real sense of “clutch” impact more than a box score can give.

When we examine playoff contenders for the past two years -- since the Colts made their ill-fated Richardson trade -- the 2014 Colts are by far the worst rushing team that made the playoffs in terms of Adjusted Rushing NEP (adjusted for strength of opponent). The situation was bad before, but it’s only trending downward.

Let’s take a look at the depth of this futility in terms of NEP. The table below shows the Colts’ backs in 2014 who had more than 60 carries on the season, and their positional ranks in Rushing NEP and Reception NEP among the 67 backs with at least 60 carries. Remember, also, negative Rushing NEP isn’t unsurprising; rushing is much less efficient than passing and this is reflected in the scores. How bad is it?

PlayerRushesRush NEPPer RushRec NEPRec NEP/Target
Ahmad Bradshaw91-4.67 (30th)-0.05 (37th)32.85 (4th)0.62 (2nd)
Dan Herron78 -2.69 (23rd)-0.03 (30th)2.32 (53rd)0.09 (59th)
Trent Richardson160-13.95 (52nd)-0.09 (49th)11.55 (22nd)0.34 (25th)

So, their best back for running purposes was a street free agent -- Herron -- who couldn’t catch the ball worth a lick. Their high profile, young trade piece -- Richardson -- was absolutely atrocious running the ball and just mediocre in the receiving game. And their best all-around back -- Ahmad Bradshaw -- went down with his second season-ending injury in two years, is entering his age 29 season in 2015, and now faces charges for felony marijuana possession.

But, hey, there’s always still Zurlon Tipton. Right?

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I think it’s fairly evident that the Colts need a new running back from somewhere. With a series of draftniks pegging them to be a candidate to break the hoodoo on first-round runners this year, should they invest such high draft capital in the running back position?

Aside from the obvious concern about spending two of their first-rounders in the last three years on a rusher, they also have a series of other issues on their team. 2014 saw the Colts with their first defensive showing by Adjusted Defensive NEP in the top half of the league since 2009, and they only ranked 16th. They also may need to invest in more offensive line pieces to protect their young franchise quarterback in Andrew Luck; by Pro Football Focus, the Colts were 26th in pass blocking and 15th in run blocking in 2014.

I did a study last spring on the value and success rate of late-round running backs in the NFL Draft, compared to higher draft picks, and found the following: “If there was a point that the natural riskiness of wear-and-tear of the running back position, the maximization of draft value, the likelihood of panning out, and still finding elite upside all met, I believe that the data shows this to be either the second, third, or fourth rounds.”

The table below shows this, in the terms of percentage of backs drafted in these rounds who reached at least replacement-level (100th running back in Total NEP in 2013; 0.00), elite production (top 10 in Total NEP in 2013; 35.47), and non-factors (those who never even played a single snap in the NFL).


Simply, the value just isn’t there to spend a first-round pick on a running back in the draft, when you can get a back with nearly the same probability of success multiple rounds later. This isn't even considering the position's short shelf life in the league and riskier hit rate than other positions, which should also be a major concern for NFL general managers.

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So, what should the Colts do? Fortunately for them, this offseason has a stacked free agent running back class, and they could just as easily plug the hole behind Luck with Justin Forsett or DeMarco Murray as they could with Gurley or Gordon. A veteran presence might actually do them well, as extra leadership would help stabilize a young, but perennially playoff-contending team. For what it’s worth, Forsett ranked seventh in Total NEP among all backs with at least 60 carries in 2014, and Murray ranked 13th.

In the draft, I’ve seen many mocks allow such top offensive line talent as offensive guard A.J. Cann fall to the Colts’ pick, or even highly athletic offensive tackle from Oregon, Jake Fisher. If not this position, it’s entirely possible one of the top college defensive tackles in the country could be a Colt by the end of April.

In such a deep running back class, it would be a panic move by the Colts to grab a running back in the first round. Instead, they need to be patient and find a value in the middle rounds, where the upside matches the cost.

That’s smart football.