NFL Nation: Donald Brown

INDIANAPOLIS -- A common phrase used by the Indianapolis Colts last season was: power running game.

They had do-everything quarterback Andrew Luck, but they insisted on a being a run-first team. The only sign of that working happened in their Week 3 victory over the San Francisco 49ers. Injuries and lack of running game from Trent Richardson and Donald Brown forced the Colts to basically become a no-huddle offensive team by the end of the season.

They started the season mixing in some two-back sets. They ended it basically using one-back, one-tight-end, three-receiver sets.

Luck
New season, new mind frame from offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton.

"We’re going to be a score-first team," Hamilton said. "We’re going to do whatever we need to do to score one more point than our opponent."

Don’t kid yourself; Hamilton won't allow Luck to drop back in the pocket and fling the ball downfield -- even if he does have plenty of weapons at his disposal -- 50 times per game. The Colts will still run the ball, which is why they have three backs they think will carry the load.

But as Hamilton said, it’s all about scoring more points than the opponent, and that likely will end up being with Luck doing what he does best: using his arm.

The Colts threw the ball 582 times and ran it 409 times last season.

"Our mentality has not changed; we have to be physical at the point of attack. We have to try and knock people off the ball and wear them down physically," Hamilton said. "We have to have a sense of balance and still have a physical mentality, make up going into games so we can wear our opponents down how we see fit."

Hamilton had an opportunity to leave the NFL to become the head coach at Vanderbilt, but he decided to return to the Colts because he believes in the product they have in the organization. He’s back for Year 2 as an NFL offensive coordinator, and instead of being forced to dig deep into the playbook to find plays to suit their offensive personnel, Hamilton should have a cupboard full of healthy players next season barring any setbacks with their return from injuries.

By Week 7 last season, the Colts were without tight end Dwayne Allen, guard Donald Thomas, running backs Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw and receiver Reggie Wayne for the season. Those players were replaced by Jack Doyle, Weslye Saunders, Hugh Thornton, Brown, Richardson, Da’Rick Rogers and Griff Whalen.

No offense to those players, but that’s a drop-off for Hamilton, who at times made some questionable play calls to work with.

Things should be different this season for him and the Colts.

"Not only do we have some guys that are proven playmakers in the National Football League, but we have an opportunity to build on what we accomplished last year and hopefully take that next step," Hamilton said. "It’ll be great to have Reggie, Dwayne and all those guys available to see if we can go out and accomplish our ultimate goal.

"The toughest part [of last season] was making sure that we had the packages available to accommodate the personnel changes that were made from week to week. When I say personnel changes, I’m talking about the attrition, the attrition that we had to deal with. Other than that, it wasn’t tough. When you have Andrew Luck, that really gives you an ability to adapt to whatever the circumstances are and have a chance to be successful."

Chargers offseason wrap-up

May, 23, 2014
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» NFC Wrap: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South » Grades

With free agency and the draft in the rearview mirror and training camp just a couple of months away, we assess the San Diego Chargers’ offseason moves.

Best move: Some NFL analysts panned San Diego's signing of running back Donald Brown to a three-year, $10.4 million deal in free agency. Critics surmised that San Diego had more pressing needs on defense and the Chargers could get a cheaper alternative through the draft. But by signing Brown, Chargers general manager Tom Telesco locked up a known entity that will lessen the load for workhorse Ryan Mathews, particularly if San Diego advances deep in the playoffs for a second straight season.

[+] EnlargeDonald Brown
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsDonald Brown, 31, adds depth to a Chargers backfield that already includes Ryan Mathews.
Brown also protects the Chargers should Mathews or Danny Woodhead not come back after the 2014 season. Both are set to hit free agency in 2015. Finally, with as much as head coach Mike McCoy likes to run the ball, the Chargers cannot have too much depth at running back and actually drafted Marion Grice in the sixth round to further bolster that group.

Riskiest move: There is no doubt cornerback Jason Verrett has the skills and mentality to be an effective cover cornerback in the NFL. Still, drafting a smaller cornerback when the trend is to use bigger players on the perimeter is a risky proposition for the Chargers. That Verrett is coming off shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum and will not be ready to practice until August could leave San Diego looking at a slow transition for the TCU product. That is not good news for a defense that needs immediate help in the secondary.

Most surprising move: Perhaps the most surprising move is one San Diego chose not to make by passing on bringing in a big-name receiver in free agency and waiting until the seventh round to select Baylor speedster Tevin Reese. Receiver was considered a need position for the Chargers heading into this offseason. But as a seventh-round pick, Reese is not guaranteed to make the final roster. So perhaps the Chargers believe Vincent Brown will finally play up to his potential in 2014 and Malcom Floyd can return healthy from a serious neck injury that cut short his 2013 season. The Chargers need a consistent deep threat to emerge opposite second-year pro Keenan Allen.

Double-digit sack guy needed: Corey Liuget led the Chargers in sacks for the second year in a row with 5.5 in 2013. That can’t happen again in 2014. Someone from among a group of edge-rushers that includes Dwight Freeney, Melvin Ingram and Jeremiah Attaochu must emerge as double-digit sack guy for this team to generate a more consistent pass rush and help a young secondary.
NFL general managers gather their smartest people each winter to analyze rosters, assess options and formulate a plan for the offseason marketplace. In 2014, at least, they made quick work of the running back position.

By now it's no surprise to hear or read about the plummeting value of running backs. No one wants to pay them premium salaries or even spend a first-round draft pick on one. To this conversation, I'd like to add an obvious and clear representation for why.

The information in the fancy line graph, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information, is similar to the type of analysis NFL teams use. It shows, in pretty stark terms, how running back production drops off after the age of 27. (Hat tip to ESPN.com editor Brett Longdin for generating the graph.)

 
The red line represents all running backs who have played at least four NFL seasons since 2001, with a minimum average of 75 carries per season. Overall, we see their careers peak at age 27. Afterward, their rushing totals drop by 15 percent in one year, 25 percent in two and almost 40 by the time they are 30.

Most decision-makers -- whether their background was in scouting, accounting or anything in between -- saw that trend as a bad investment. As with any business, they reserve premium contracts for projected growth in production, not a decline.

For comparison's sake, the graph also includes the receiver position (in blue, minimum average of 50 receptions over the same time period). You'll see some fluctuations, but even at age 31, the composite receiver produced a near-identical yardage total as he did at age 27. In other words, it's reasonable to expect a high-level performance into a receiver's early 30s.

Peterson
Peterson
Running backs get no such benefit of the doubt, nor should they from a strict business sense. Even Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson, one of the league's best players at any position, contributed to the curve at age 28 last season. It's true that he had the fifth-most rushing yards (1,266) in the NFL, but he also missed two games and overall fell 40 percent from his 2,097-yard effort in 2012.

That line graph, along with a season that produced its fewest total league-wide rushing yards (57,795) in six seasons, led us to the eye-opening 2014 offseason. Keep in mind that age 27 is the essential point where most players, under the current collective bargaining agreement, become free agents for the first time. At their first opportunity for a payday, the league already views them to be beyond their prime.

As of this week, teams have 177 running backs under contract. Of that group, 128 (72 percent) are 26 or younger. I counted only eight runners over the age of 29. Meanwhile, there was an obvious link between the handful of mid-20s running backs who did receive multiyear contracts this spring: None have been four-year feature backs.

The Detroit Lions will pay Joique Bell (27) the eighth-highest salary for a running back in 2014 ($4.3 million). He has 248 career carries, an average of 62 per season.

Toby Gerhart (27) will receive $4 million from the Jacksonville Jaguars. He has averaged 69 carries per season. Donald Brown (26) also will get $4 million from the San Diego Chargers after totaling 551 carries in five seasons, while Ben Tate (25) will get $3.25 million from the Cleveland Browns after totaling 421 carries in four seasons.

And that's pretty much the list. What about Knowshon Moreno, who is 26 but has 845 career rushes? He got a one-year deal from the Miami Dolphins. Maurice Jones-Drew? He's 29 and has 1,804 career carries. His contract with the Oakland Raiders guarantees him $1.2 million for 2014. He'll earn $2.5 million, assuming he makes the team.

It's fair to expect the trend to continue expanding to the draft. NFL teams didn't draft a single running back in the first round in 2013, and at the moment, ESPN's Scouts Inc. doesn't project one to be selected in the first round this year, either. (Their highest-rated runner, Ohio State's Carlos Hyde, has a mid-second round grade Insider.)

The message is clear: Running backs of this generation picked, well, the wrong generation to be running backs. Teams want them young, cheap and fresh -- and the data makes it difficult to argue their point.

The latest on DeSean Jackson, CJ2K

March, 31, 2014
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Took a rare, two-day respite over the weekend, so let's bring you up to speed on what's going on with the New York Jets:

As of now, they don't appear to be pursuing DeSean Jackson. If they are, they're doing a nice job of keeping it quiet. There was no contact between the Jets and Jackson's agent during his first 24 hours of his free agency, according to multiple reports. Am I surprised? Yes and no.

Jackson
Johnson
Despite some definite interest within the organization (we know owner Woody Johnson likes him and he's not alone), Jackson doesn't seem to be a fit in John Idzik's rebuilding plan, mostly because of character concerns, potential cost and the fact that they already have a big-money wide receiver on the books, Eric Decker. It's also a receiver-rich draft. That said, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, who coached Jackson with the Philadelphia Eagles, has endorsed the talented receiver -- and his opinion carries some weight. (See Michael Vick.) For that reason, I thought the Jets would at least make a due-diligence call.

Could they be lurking in the weeds, waiting for Jackson's asking price to drop? In the world of free agency, it's never over until the player signs on someone else's dotted line, so I wouldn't say the Jets are completely out of it. That the owner is interested (you know, the guy who signs the checks) leads me to believe there's still a chance. Of course, if they really wanted him, I think they would've tried to get him in the building ASAP. Jackson will visit the Washington Redskins on Monday; he reportedly is drawing some interest from the Oakland Raiders and Buffalo Bills. You already know how I feel about Jackson: Despite his talent, he's not a fit for the Jets.

There's also some Chris Johnson chatter on this snowy Monday morning. The Tennessee Titans are expected to trade or release the former 2,000-yard running back before the start of off-season workouts next week. I heard some rumblings a couple of weeks ago about the Jets' potential interest in Johnson, mentioning it Saturday in my Twitter mailbag. The NFL Network took it a step further Monday morning, saying the Jets do have some interest.

This might surprise some people because running back is thought to be one of the Jets' strongest positions, but take a closer look. There are deficiencies in the backfield, mainly no home-run threat and durability questions. Chris Ivory was a beast late in the year, but he's never played a full season. Mike Goodson has the kind of speed they need, but he's coming off ACL surgery and still facing charges from last year's arrest. Bilal Powell is a solid No. 2, entering the final year of his contract.

There was some buzz about the Jets' interest in running backs at the scouting combine, and I was told they were high on Donald Brown and Ben Tate in free agency. The chatter faded away, but there apparently was a stealth pursuit of Brown. The Jets made a bid, the New York Daily News noted Monday, but they lost him to the San Diego Chargers.

Johnson would be a nice addition because he's still fast, only 28 and would command respect from opposing defenses. But don't get your hopes up just yet. The conservative Idzik likes to flirt with the big names, but more than not, it doesn't progress to the serious stage. You also have to wonder why Johnson would be interested in the Jets, where he'd probably be part of a two- or three-man committee.

One last note: Linebacker Nick Bellore, one of the Jets' top special teamers, signed his one year, $1.4 million tender.
IRVING, Texas -- While we have discussed the long-term futures of Tyron Smith and Dez Bryant with the Dallas Cowboys this offseason, one player we have not touched on much is DeMarco Murray.

Murray is scheduled to be a free agent after this season. He was named to the Pro Bowl after rushing for 1,124 yards and nine touchdowns, and catching 53 passes for 350 yards and a touchdown. When Murray has played well and been given a chance to carry the ball, the Cowboys have won.

Murray
But running backs’ values have dropped dramatically in the past few years. If they aren’t Adrian Peterson, they don’t get paid the mega deals. And the guys that have been paid in recent years, like Ray Rice and Maurice Jones-Drew, have taken a downturn.

In 2008, the Cowboys signed Marion Barber to a seven-year deal worth $45 million that included $16 million in guarantees.

Those days are long gone.

The best free-agent deals for running backs so far have been to Donald Brown and Toby Gerhart, who received three-year, $10.5 million deals from the San Diego Chargers and Jacksonville Jaguars, respectively. Brown has never rushed for more than 645 yards in a season. Gerhart has never rushed for more than 531 yards, though he was playing behind Peterson.

Knowshon Moreno is joining the Miami Dolphins on a one-year, $3 million deal after rushing for 1,038 yards in 2013 for the Denver Broncos. Rashad Jennings received a three-year, $10 million deal from the New York Giants after rushing for 733 yards last season with the Oakland Raiders.

Murray had his best season in 2013, but he missed two games and has yet to play a full season. But his advisors have to see how the market is going for running backs. There wasn’t a running back taken in the first round last year. The top running back chosen in 2012, Trent Richardson (No. 3 overall), was traded to the Indianapolis Colts last season.

Murray will make $1.406 million in 2014 as part of his rookie deal.

The Cowboys could lock him in for another three seasons at a good number and still have plenty in reserve for Smith and Bryant.
Andrew LuckElsa/Getty ImagesWith an improved running game, the Colts won't have to rely on Andrew Luck to save each game.
ORLANDO, Fla. -- It was one of those moments that could easily send chills up your spine or cause you to break out in goose bumps as the words came out of Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano's mouth early Tuesday morning, as the sun was still making its way up in Central Florida.

The Colts have a quarterback -- a pretty a darn good one, I must say -- who has consistently proven in just two short seasons that he has everything it takes to lead a team that has dealt with on- and off-the-field adversity.

Arm? Check.

Mobility? A hidden talent of his.

Mental toughness? There's no question he has that.

The results prove it. Twenty-two regular-season victories. An AFC South division title. A playoff victory.

Enter Pagano.

"From a mindset standpoint, it all starts with running the ball and stopping the run," the coach said in between sips of his coffee. "We do have a great quarterback, with a great arm and he has weapons to throw to. Certainly we understand that and we know that."

Pagano also added that they'll continue to emphasize running the ball, "until they run me out of there."

The Colts will run the ball, especially with three running backs -- Trent Richardson, Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw -- who have all been starters at some point in their careers. But don't be mistaken about what Pagano said, Luck will still drop back in the pocket and fling the ball downfield more than he hands it off. That's their best chance to win.

There are legitimate question marks about the Colts' top three running backs next season.

Ballard is coming off a torn ACL. Bradshaw needs to prove he can stay healthy. Richardson, well, simply put, he's still a work in progress after being traded to Indianapolis early last season.

The Colts tried to run the ball in 2013. But the thought of them having anything close to a ground game came to a halt in Week 3 when Bradshaw's season ended because of a neck injury. Richardson and Donald Brown simply didn't get the job done -- partially because of offensive line problems and partially because of a lack of production from the two running backs.

That left Luck using his arm to bail the Colts out of deficits. They threw the ball 582 times compared to 409 rush attempts last season.

The NFL is a copycat league. What the Colts and 27 other teams saw was the final four teams playing -- New England, Denver, Seattle and San Francisco -- all mixing in the run to go with their talented quarterbacks.

The Colts experienced it firsthand, as the Patriots ran for 234 yards against them in their AFC divisional playoff matchup -- a 43-22 loss.

A successful run game is what Indianapolis wants. Not Luck strapping on his cape to lead the Colts back from constant double-digit holes.

Also, Luck could have his best arsenal of weapons to throw to in his young career with the addition of receiver Hakeem Nicks to go with fellow receiver T.Y. Hilton, tight end Coby Fleener and the hopeful healthy return of receiver Reggie Wayne and tight end Dwayne Allen. Throw in a consistent running game -- cross your fingers the offensive line can block better -- and it's the type of offense that will allow the Colts to be successful.

"We're not going to try to do things to make us lose," Colts general manager Ryan Grigson said. "...All that matters at the end of the day is that you make the playoffs and if you can win in the playoffs. We don't want to make it all on Andrew. We want to give him help with our stable of running backs and [with] our offensive line creating those lanes to open up the play-action pass, so it takes the pressure off of him."
SAN DIEGO -- With the signing of running back Donald Brown and middle linebacker Kavell Conner in free agency, San Diego Chargers general manager Tom Telesco used his familiarity with the Indianapolis Colts' roster in the recruitment of his former players.

Conner
Brown
Brown, signed to a three-year, $10.5 million deal, was a first-round draft choice by Indianapolis in the 2009 draft during Telesco's tenure in the Colts' personnel department. Conner was a seventh-round selection by Indianapolis in the 2010 draft.

Both players said that familiarity with Telesco, along with an opportunity for increased playing time, helped sell them on signing with the Chargers.

"He was Bill Polian's right-hand man," Brown said about Telesco. "He's a big reason why I came to Indianapolis, and also a big reason for why I'm here now. So I'm very thankful for that, along with the Spanos family and Coach [Mike] McCoy for having faith in me, and bringing me in."

Brown said he met Ryan Mathews at the team's facility Thursday. Asked about carving out a role among a productive running back group that includes Mathews and Danny Woodhead, Brown said he'll do his best to fit in.

"That's my job, to complement those two," he said. "It's going to be a three-headed monster. And I'm very excited to work with those guys. I respect the heck out of them. And I think they're two great ballplayers. The more weapons we have on offense, the better we're going to be as a team. And that's the ultimate goal. That's why we're all here."

Although Brown believes he can be a starter in the NFL, he is more concerned about winning games.

"That's not my goal," Brown said. "My goal is to help the team, help the offense any way I can win games. I don't care if I start a game. It's about finishing strong and helping the team anyway you can."

Along with Telesco, Brown has familiarity with players on San Diego's roster from his days in Indianapolis, including edge rusher Dwight Freeney and defensive end Lawrence Guy. Brown also played college ball at Connecticut with defensive end Kendall Reyes and developed a relationship with running backs coach Ollie Wilson during the draft process in 2009.

"We hit it off real well during the draft process back in 2009 when I came out here for a visit," Brown said about Wilson. "So we're just picking up where we left off. So I'm excited to work with Coach Ollie, and obviously work with Ryan and Danny."

Along with Freeney and Guy from his days in Indianapolis, Conner also played with current Chargers Crezdon Butler and Marcus Gilchrist at Clemson.

"After I signed, both of them shot me a text message welcoming me to their city," Conner said, smiling. "It's definitely going to be good to reunite with those guys."

Conner said playing physical in the run game is a strength, along with making contributions on special teams. He expects the learning curve to be quick because the Colts run a similar defensive system under head coach Chuck Pagano, the older brother of Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano.

"There's a lot of carryover from Indy, which is very convenient," Conner said. "I'm just looking forward to getting into it, getting into the playbook and getting adjusted."
INDIANAPOLIS -- You can look at the Indianapolis Colts re-signing running back Ahmad Bradshaw to a one-year contract in a number of different ways.
  • The Colts are determined to have the power running game offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton wanted last season.
  • Bradshaw
    The Colts need assurance in case Trent Richardson struggles again next season.
  • The Colts need assurance just in case Vick Ballard doesn't regain his form after tearing his ACL early last season.
  • The Colts simply want to have a lot of competition for carries in the backfield next season.
  • Former first-round pick Donald Brown won't be back.

I'm going with all five.

You would like to think Richardson will look like the running back the Colts envisioned when they acquired him Cleveland last September. You would like to think that Ballard will get back to being the player that rushed for 814 yards during his rookie season in 2012. You would like to think Bradshaw can stay injury free.

If, and I mean a big if at this moment, all three players are effective, the Colts will have a nice trio in the backfield. Competition for playing time will also be intriguing. Only time will tell if those things will happen.

“It's the best players play,” Colts general manager Ryan Grigson said last month at the scouting combine. “Iron sharpens iron. We're still going to beat the drum on that. You guys will get tired of hearing that, but that's just how we roll and how our head coach rolls. We're going to try to have the most competition at each position group and whoever wins that spot is going to be the starter and it's who is going to get us to that next level, which is Super Bowl XLIX and that's the mindset. You're either all in or all out.”

Bradshaw seemed to be a longshot to return to the Colts at the end of last season. But the two sides started having conversations in recent weeks leading up to the start of free agency.

Bradshaw was limited to only three games last season because of a neck injury that caused him to have surgery. It only took those three games for him to be the Colts' most effective running back. His 95 yards against San Francisco in Week 3 were the most yards by a Colts' running back in a game last season.

I talked to Bradshaw in the locker room late in the season and he said he felt good enough to play. That obviously wasn't possible at the time because he was already on the injured reserve list.

Now he's back and ready to compete for carries in the backfield.

Top free-agent roundup: AFC South

March, 10, 2014
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With the 2014 free-agency period starting at 4 p.m. Tuesday, here is a look at top free agents in the AFC South as compiled by reporters Tania Ganguli, Paul Kuharsky, Michael DiRocco and Mike Wells. The top seven free agents are on defense, led by cornerback Vontae Davis of the Colts. Running back Maurice Jones-Drew, a fixture in Jacksonville for the past eight years, is looking for a new team. Is this the end of Antoine Bethea's run in Indianapolis?

1. Vontae Davis, Colts CB: Indianapolis needs a top cornerback to help a defense that finished 20th in the league last season. Davis has shown he has the talent to be one of the top cornerbacks in the league. He just needs to work on his consistency.

2. Alterraun Verner, Titans CB: A smart, aware corner with a knack for getting to the ball, he just lacks top speed and size.

3. Antoine Bethea, Colts S: A reliable player, having started every game he played during his eight years with the Colts. Finished with at least 100 tackles in five of those seasons.

4. Earl Mitchell, Texans NT: Solid player at the point of attack and has shown the ability to get consistent penetration. He had 48 tackles and 1.5 sacks last season.

5. Bernard Pollard, Titans S: Played well as an in-the-box safety and provided the sort of standard-setting leadership the Titans lacked previously. Update: Signed one-year, $2 million deal to remain with Titans.

6. Darryl Sharpton, Texans LB: Led the Texans with 87 tackles but is not as good in coverage as he is against the run.

Smith
7. Antonio Smith, Texans DE: He is more of a run-stuffing defensive end than a pass-rusher, although he did record five sacks in 2013.

8. Ben Tate, Texans RB: He led the Texans with 771 yards rushing. He has been somewhat injury-prone but has produced when needed as Arian Foster's backup.

9. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars RB: Jones-Drew started 15 games and led the Jaguars with 803 yards and five touchdowns rushing. He also caught 43 passes (third on the team) for 314 yards. He got off to a slow start then battled through ankle, hamstring and knee issues and averaged a career-low 3.4 yards per carry.

Brown
10. Donald Brown, Colts RB:
Brown was the Colts’ third running back twice in 2013 only to end the season as the starter. He has the speed but was too inconsistent during his five seasons in Indianapolis.

11. Garrett Graham, Texans TE: He’s not Owen Daniels, but he can line up tight or as a flex tight end. He came into his own as a receiver last season with 49 catches for 545 yards and five TDs.

12. Ahmad Bradshaw, Colts RB: A neck injury limited Bradshaw to only three games last season. It took just those three games for him to show he was the Colts' most effective running back.

13. Ropati Pitoitua, Titans DE: A giant, run-stuffing end who would be a solid, flexible piece in the hybrid front. Update: Signed 3-year, deal for $9.6 million to remain with Titans.

14. Adam Vinatieri, Colts K: The 41-year-old Vinatieri was 35-of-40 on field goals and a perfect 34-of-34 on extra points in 2013.

15. Samson Satele, Colts C: Was released by the team on March 6 after a disappointing 2013 season. He has started 98 of 102 games during his seven-year career.

Free-agency primer: Colts

March, 7, 2014
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» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Key free agents: CB Vontae Davis, S Antoine Bethea, K Adam Vinatieri, RB Donald Brown

Where they stand: The Colts have the fourth-most salary-cap space ($41 million) in the league. They solved one of their issues when they signed inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson on Thursday to start alongside Jerrell Freeman, Erik Walden and Robert Mathis. Davis is the most important player to re-sign with having to acquire a new starting center next in line after Samson Satele was released on March 6. The Colts re-signed punter Pat McAfee to a five-year deal Friday. The 41-year-old Vinatieri believes he can kick for several more seasons. Expect the Colts to look to add depth at receiver to give quarterback Andrew Luck another target to go with receivers T.Y. Hilton and Reggie Wayne and tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen.

What to expect: The Colts should be able to work out a deal with Davis, who was inconsistent last season but has the talent to be one of the top cornerbacks in the league. Don't expect the Colts to go with a rookie or second-year player as their starting center. The position is too valuable for them to go that direction with their franchise player, Luck, taking the snaps. New Orleans' Brian De La Puente and Green Bay's Evan Dietrich-Smith are both free agents. Denver receiver Eric Decker is an ideal receiver to go with Hilton and Wayne. The Colts and Decker have mutual interest, but he may be out of their price range if he wants to be paid like a No. 1 receiver. Hakeem Nicks and James Jones are also free agents the Colts could pursue. Acquiring a veteran guard is a better option than drafting one, because Indianapolis has the talent to take another step in the AFC next season. Decker's teammate in Denver, guard Zane Beadles, is a free agent.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Former Indianapolis Colts general manager and current ESPN analyst Bill Polian has grades for each player scheduled to hit the free agent market on March 11.

Here’s are the grades Polian gave for each of the Colts’ key free agents:

Antoine Bethea: A

Donald Brown: B+

Pat McAfee: B

Vontae Davis: B-

Adam Vinatieri: C

Here's a breakdown of what each letter grade is worth financially.

A: $6+ million AAV (annual average value), 3+ years guaranteed money

B: $2-6 million AAV, 2 years or fewer guaranteed money

C: $2 million or less AAV, 2 years or fewer guaranteed money

D: Minimum salary, 1 year contract

I was a little surprised Polian had Bethea graded higher than Davis, and I was surprised Davis was also graded lower than McAfee and Brown.

One other noted free agent is offensive lineman Mike McGlynn. Polian gave McGlynn a D. He lost his starting job at guard momentarily but was still a better center than Samson Satele. This should help you put into perspective how low McGlynn graded out, receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey was given a C. Yes, Heyward-Bey, who went from starting the season as the Colts’ No. 2 receiver to ending the season on special teams, graded out higher than McGlynn.

Click here for an explanation of the grading system.

Colts will not use franchise tag

March, 3, 2014
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To no one's surprise, the Indianapolis Colts will not use the franchise tag this year. Teams have until 4 p.m. Monday to use the tag.

Cornerback Vontae Davis was the top candidate for the Colts to use the tag on, but it would have been an expensive one if they had decided to go that route. The franchise tag for a cornerback is $11.8 million.

Davis has potential to be one of the top cornerbacks in the league, but he needs to be consistent. He played well enough at times to look like he was on his way to earning a huge payday last season. But he countered the strong play by having some stretches where he wasn’t focused and he struggled.

The Colts can still work out a long-term contract with Davis and their free agents before their contracts expire March 11.

Davis, safety Antoine Bethea, punter Pat McAfee, kicker Adam Vinatieri and running back Donald Brown are the top players heading into free agency for the Colts.

The Colts used the franchise tag on McAfee last year.

Colts GM unsure on starting RB in 2014

February, 25, 2014
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Will the Indianapolis Colts' 2014 starting running back be Trent Richardson? Will it be Vick Ballard? What about re-signing Donald Brown and making him the starter?

That question has been asked almost as much as who will the Colts target in the draft and free agency.

The answer?

There is no answer at the moment, and there may not be one until training camp or even up until Week 1.

It's not that the Colts are keeping it a secret. They don't have an answer, either, because the two running backs under contract -- Richardson and Ballard -- are both dealing with injuries.

Ballard tore his ACL in practice early last season, and Richardson had a shoulder procedure after the season ended. Richardson isn't expected to miss any of the offseason workouts, and the goal is to make sure Ballard is ready for training camp at the end of July.

Ballard rushed for 814 yards during his rookie season in 2012. The main reason the Colts acquired Richardson is because Ballard suffered the knee injury prior to the Week 2 game against the Miami Dolphins. Richardson ran for a disappointing 458 yards last season.

“At any point in time you'll know how we do things with the Colts, it's the best players play,” Colts general manager Ryan Grigson said. “Iron sharp as iron. We're going to try to have the most competition at each position group and whoever wins that spot is going to be the starter and it's who is going to get us to that next level, which is Super Bowl XLIX and that's the mindset. You're either all in or all out."

Who starts won't mean much if offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton has his way. He wants to have a two-headed attack in the backfield. There are few teams in the NFL -- Minnesota is one of them -- that can rely on just one running back to carry the load.

Richardson had a team-high 157 carries last season and Brown had 102 attempts.

Richardson going back to school

February, 5, 2014
Feb 5
2:40
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INDIANAPOLIS – Indianapolis Colts running back Trent Richardson will spend the offseason with the mind frame that he’s in school.

Learn, learn and learn the playbook some more. That will be his mentality as he knows the critics are still there and he knows the excuse of not knowing the Colts’ offensive system can no longer be used.

[+] EnlargeTrent Richardson
Pat Lovell/USA TODAY SportsColts running back Trent Richardson will spend his offseason trying to regain his form from 2012.
Richardson spent too much time thinking when he took the handoff than running with the type of speed and force that made him the No. 3 overall pick in the 2012 draft.

“Learn the system, not just memorizing it,” Richardson said. “Learning the whole concept of the system. There's a difference between having it memorized and feeling comfortable with the system. I’m going talk to a lot of veteran players, talk to Adrian (Peterson), talk to (LaDainian Tomlinson) , talk to Emmitt Smith to make sure I’m the best I need to be next year.”

The Colts went from pulling off the biggest trade of last season when they acquired Richardson from the Cleveland Browns for a first-round pick to currently having the move favor the Browns after Richardson only averaged 2.9 yards a carry. The thought of the dynamic duo of Richardson and quarterback Andrew Luck has yet to come together. Richardson ended up losing the starting running back position to Donald Brown on Dec. 1, 2013.

Colts general manager Ryan Grigson defended the trade during his season-ending press conference last month. It is too soon to call Richardson a bust because he got acquired during the middle of the season. He needs a full offseason of OTA’s, minicamp and training camp before a better evaluation can be given on him.

“This is more a problem of not being in the system long enough for me,” ESPN NFL analyst Herm Edwards said as part of the top 50 offseason questions. “He's clearly got talent. But getting traded in the middle of the season is tough for any player, and his offensive line in Indianapolis wasn't very good this season. Indianapolis also needs to mix up the game plan with Richardson more when he's in the game. Too often, he would come into the game and it would be obvious the Colts were handing him the ball. He'd get hit behind the line.”

Richardson will split his offseason between Indianapolis and his hometown of Pensacola, Fla. He won’t be on the pretty beaches of Florida building sandcastles with his kids. He’ll be on the beach running sand hills and training with his old school coach.

“I’ve got a big motivation for next season,” Richardson said. “My big thing, I want to contribute to the team. As far as putting on a big show every weekend for the team, the city, the fans, I’m going to do whatever it takes. That’s a lot of motivation for me.”

Indianapolis Colts season wrap-up

January, 15, 2014
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2:00
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Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 8
Preseason Power Ranking: 10

Biggest surprise: The questions were valid. Was linebacker Robert Mathis' production a product of having sack-machine Dwight Freeney playing on the other side? Could Mathis still be an impact player without Freeney? Mathis silenced the naysayers when he led the league in sacks with 19.5, including seven strip sacks. Mathis didn't hide the fact that he wanted to quiet the doubters. What made his season even more special is that he did it without much help elsewhere, as the Colts had only 42 sacks as a team. Mathis is one of the front-runners to be the league's defensive player of the year.

Biggest disappointment: Safety LaRon Landry was supposed to have the same kind of impact Bob Sanders had when he played for the Colts. That's why general manager Ryan Grigson signed him to four-year, $24 million contract. Landry was good when he was able to come up with the big hits or touchdown-saving tackles, but it was too often that he ended up whiffing on a play. The plays on which he missed running back Jamaal Charles on a touchdown run in the regular-season game against Kansas City and New England's LeGarrette Blount on his touchdown run last weekend are two examples that quickly come to mind. It also doesn't help that Landry missed four games because of injury this season.

Biggest need: Help on both lines -- offensive and defensive -- should be at the top of Grigson's list during the offseason. The Colts are set at offensive tackle with Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus. Donald Thomas will be back to take one of the guard spots after he missed most of the season with a quad injury, but the other guard spot and center could use upgrades. The Colts need a defensive tackle who can clog the middle of the line.

Team MVP: This is a no-brainer. Quarterback Andrew Luck was mentioned as a league MVP candidate at one point in the season. The second-year quarterback overcame injuries to five key offensive starters -- including future Hall of Fame receiver Reggie Wayne -- to cut his interceptions in half, increase his completion percentage and throw the same number of touchdown passes despite 52 fewer attempts. Take Luck out of the lineup and the Colts would have won maybe six games this season.

 

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