Vick Ballard Will Emerge as a Top Running Back in 2013
The 1974 Pittsburgh Steelers drafted four men within 125 picks who eventually earned Hall of Fame honors.
Round one netted them circus-catcher Lynn Swann. The second round saw them pick the mangled-fanged terror known as Jack Lambert. In the fourth round, Swann's partner-in-crime came in the form of John Stallworth. This impressive quartet was rounded out in round five by ill-fated iron man Mike Webster.
Other teams have had good, even great, draft years. None, however, have touched the sheer eliteness of Pittsburgh's '74 haul. But that's virtually an unreachable gold standard anyway.
While not quite on that worldly level, the 2012 Indianapolis Colts seemed to fare quite well with their mining of amateurs.
After taking pro-ready quarterback Andrew Luck first overall, the Colts gifted their new king with a pair of rooks at tight end. Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener (802 yards, 5 TDs combined) are only scratching the surface of what they can do as a tandem.
Following Allen in round three was wideout Ty Hilton, whose 861 yards and 7 touchdowns make him a probable heir apparent to Reggie Wayne when the veteran retires.
While that's an impressive enough of a foursome to call the Colts' 2012 class a indisputable success, there's one more puzzle piece that gets overlooked a bit.
He's a fifth-round selection, taken 170 overall, who had a quality 2012 season. He ran for 814 yards, and took over as the starter in Week Six against the Jets. He scored the winning touchdown in an overtime battle with Tennesee, on an awing corkscrew dive over the goalline.
Despite showing quite a bit of upside, Vick Ballard doesn't seem to draw the attention that other running contemporaries do.
ESPN.com's fantasy football section ranks Ballard merely 32nd among running backs. In the few mock drafts I've participated in, other pickers would select players upward of 20 or 30 spots after Ballard, as if the running back had some form of leprosy.
But Ballard is far from an afterthought. Instead, he's a running back poised to make a big dent in 2013, and beyond.
1. Ballard's 2012 Production Was Better Than Most Realize
Through Ballard's first five games played, he rushed just 29 times for 67 yards. His first start against the Jets netted just 8 carries for 25 yards. The Colts, having lost 35-9, understandably abandoned the run.
Ballard averaged 3.86 YPA on the season, on 211 carries. That YPA average ranks him 29th overall among players with 100+ carries.
But take away those first five games, and focus on just the last eleven. Over that stretch, Ballard ran for 747 yards on 182 carries, for a much improved 4.10 average. That average would actually rank him ahead of Arian Foster and Steven Jackson in 2012.
Though Ballard had only a single 100-yard game (105, at Houston on December 16), he topped 4.2 YPA six times during the season.
2. Ballard Routinely Outpaced Expectations
Ballard produced seven performances in which he ripped off a higher average per attempt than defenses surrendered, including three times against AFC playoff teams. Here's a look at those seven games:
|Date||Opponent||Opp. 2012 Run YPA||Ballard's Att/Yds||Ballard's YPA|
Ballard averaged 17 attempts per game during those last eleven games plus the playoff game vs. Baltimore. In three of those games, he didn't hit his average attempts.
Ballard averaged 16.5 attempts per game during his final eleven regular season games, in which he had the 4.10 average. A full season with those numbers gives him 67.7 YPG, and 1082 yards for the year.
With 1082 yards, Ballard would have ranked forteenth in rushing yards, instead of twenty-first.
3. Ahmad Bradshaw's Injury History Makes Ballard the Workhorse
Bradshaw missed four games in 2011 and watched his numbers dip to 3.9 YPA and 659 yards. He bounced back last season, though he did miss two games.
The two-time Super Bowl winner increased his totals to 4.6 YPA, and 1015 yards. It was just the second 1,000-yard season of Bradshaw's career.
But Bradshaw has often shared the workload. He came up in New York's "Earth, Wind, and Fire" backfield with Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward (DJ Ware became the poor man's Ward after 2008). Bradshaw provided the speed to Jacobs' burly push.
Ballard weighs considerably less than Jacobs' 255 pounds of low-gravity fury. But at 219, he can supply enough power to complement Bradshaw's elusiveness.
But as noted, Bradshaw's dealt with injuries. He's had screws placed in each foot, as recently as January for the right foot. For many reasons, the Giants generally held him out of practices during the week, in order to avoid wearing down his already frayed body.
Indy's offensive line isn't quite up to the level of the Giants' high standards. So expect Bradshaw to struggle a bit. Because of Bradshaw's injuries, new scenery, and a contract that is more incentive-laden than guaranteed, Ballard will be leaned on more heavily.
4. The Colts Offensive Line Will be Better
Ahh, but Bradshaw could flourish behind the adjustments Indy made to its offensive line. By that definition, Ballard is setting up nicely for a quality sophomore year in the pros.
Hugh Thornton, a third-round selection this year, has a knack for pushing defenders off the line, giving Ballard room at right guard, where Thornton replaces Mike McGlynn.
Five-year veteran Gosder Cherilus displaces Winston Justice at right tackle. Cherilus started 71 games in Detroit, and was always a better pass protector than run blocker. Bu he improved there in his contract year last season.
Donald Thomas has had a whirlwind career, and ended up playing for both the Dolphins and Patriots last season. The Colts will use to him to replace disappointments Joe Reitz and Jeff Linkenbach at left guard. Like Thornton, Thomas boasts a natural hole-opening drive that will create middle lanes.
Add to this underrated center Samson Satele and the improving Anthony Castonzo, and this is certainly the best the line's looked since Peyton Manning's final game with the team.
In 2012, the Colts scored more than 7 points in a first quarter only once. Also, Luck was sacked 41 times. Having Cherilus as a more reliable book-end, along with better interior protection, will allow for the Colts to methodically work their opponents, and thus run the ball more.
5. The Schedule is Favorable
Statistics from 2012 aren't a precise diagram for how 2013 is going to shake out. However, it's a little encouraging for the Colts offense that seven opponents this coming season gave up 4.2 YPA or more last season.
Among their foes: Kansas City (4.50), Seattle (4.49), Arizona (4.33), Oakland (4.28), St. Louis (4.25), and two rounds with Tennessee (4.22), whom Ballard whipped good, as evidenced by the chart above.
When you consider how Ballard did last year with a theoretically weaker line, against teams like New England and Houston that are usually effective at stopping the run, this is a great sign.
All of those foes, save for Seattle, struggled at times on offense last season. so Indianapolis should find it easier to rock them with body blows, in the form of runs, throughout the game.
Bottom line, anyone who's thinking of passing on Ballard in fantasy football is fooling themselves. For ESPN to rank Ballard as an eighth-round talent (behind Bradshaw, no less) is absurd.
Vick Ballard is going to break out in 2013, and he'll be more than a supplement to the Colts' great 2012 Draft: he'll be one of the impact players.
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