Breakout Player to Watch: Vick Ballard
As we power through the summer toward training camps, Chris Burke will highlight players that interest him this season for various reasons. This week, he's looking at three players poised to take a leap in 2013.
Unless you want to compare him to, say, Alfred Morris (1,613 yards rushing) or Doug Martin (1,454), Indianapolis running back Vick Ballard turned in, by most measures, an impressive rookie season. Ballard led the Colts in carries with 211 and in yards rushing at 814. By the time Indianapolis hit the postseason, with fellow RB Donald Brown on injured reserve, Ballard was the Colts' unquestioned go-to guy in the backfield -- he had 22 carries in a playoff loss to Baltimore.
All that in mind, maybe it's unfair to ask or expect more from the 2012 fifth-round pick. That might not stop the Colts from doing either.
"Vick Ballard can be the featured guy," Colts GM Ryan Grigson said back at the NFL combine. "We all feel very comfortable with Vick Ballard ...[he] obviously proved himself."
Simply entering the season as the No. 1 back puts Ballard in position for a statistical boost. Ballard averaged just 5.8 carries per game and a measly 13.4 yards from Weeks 1 through 5; over the Colts' final 11 contests, those numbers bumped to 16.5 and 67.9, respectively. Those averages, extrapolated out over a full season, put Ballard at nearly 1,100 yards.
A couple other numbers to consider:
• 627: How many passes Andrew Luck threw in 2012, the fifth most of any quarterback in the NFL. Given that Luck finished with a mediocre 54.1 completion percentage and fired 18 picks, the Colts would love to bring that number down in 2013, to a level that allows them to balance their offense. Which means more run plays.
• 2: Ballard's rushing touchdown total in 2012, three behind Luck and one back of sparsely-used Delone Carter. Lest anyone think that Ballard cannot be a goal-line presence, look no further than his college career -- Ballard racked up 19 rushing TDs for Mississippi State in 2010 and another 10 in 2011.
At 5-foot-10 and 220 pounds, Ballard has the size to succeed near the goal line, even if he doesn't break as many tackles as the Colts would like (he averaged a middle-of-the-road 2.5 yards after contact last season).
• 1,330 and 1,530: Stepfan Taylor's yardage totals in 2011 and '12, respectively, when new Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton was calling the plays for Stanford. The 1,330-yard outburst from Taylor came with Luck at the helm, and three other Cardinal players topped 250 yards rushing that season.
Hamilton's arrival will push the Colts into more of a West Coast-style offense, a change that almost guarantees more focus on the run game. Hamilton even told the National Football Post just this week that he wants Indianapolis to be a force on the ground.
"A good example of how you should try to make the transition is what my former head coach has been able to do at the 49ers, to take our offense at Stanford and [two] years later end up in the Super Bowl by doing the things we believed in,” Hamilton told me. "That’s being efficient and controlling the football but at the same time making big plays down the field in the passing game. That’s been somewhat of my motto."
The West Coast offense should utilize Ballard and the Colts' backs more as pass-catchers, too. (Ballard finished last season with 17 receptions.)
Brown will have a role in that -- shy of an Adrian Peterson-centric offense, NFL teams need at least two reliable backs to get through the season. Carter and 2013 seventh-round pick Kerwynn Williams may work their ways into the mix, as well, especially if the Colts opt to use Ballard on first and second downs, then turn to a faster option in passing situations.
Barring a drastic change in the depth chart during training camp, though, Ballard will head into Week 1 alongside QB Andrew Luck in the starting lineup. And he could develop into an underrated producer once there.
How underrated? Well, just for discussion's sake, Ballard was the 31st running back taken in Sports Illustrated's offseason fantasy mock draft (on shelves in our annual Fantasy Football magazine soon), behind such players as Baltimore backup Bernard Pierce, oft-injured Chargers starter Ryan Mathews, rookies Le'Veon Bell and Eddie Lacy, and unproven Jets back Chris Ivory.
Ballard has a very realistic shot to soar past the production of any player listed there -- his 67.9 yards-per-game average in his final 11 outings would have been a top-20 mark were it not for his lack of carries in games 1 through 5.