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Colts need young RB, and draft class has much to offer

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Chris Ballard’s “To do’’ list is extensive and features a definite defensive slant.

The Indianapolis Colts’ first-year general manager is committed to adding speed and toughness to a defense that a year ago was one of the worst in franchise history. There are no difference-makers, primarily pass-rush threats who can compensate for deficiencies elsewhere. The entire linebacker corps needs rebooting. There are holes in the secondary.

But while it’s understandable everyone would take a tunnel-vision approach with the defense, let’s not forget another area of concern.

Frank Gore can’t play forever. In fact, the veteran running back who has built a Hall of Fame resume over the past 12 seasons could well be heading into his final year with the Colts, if not the NFL.

Gore turns 34 in May. That’s middle age to everyone who doesn’t use his body as a battering ram. To an NFL running back, it’s ancient. It’s beyond comprehension Gore has started 92 consecutive games, the NFL’s longest active streak among running backs.

The Colts – or another NFL team – might have to forcibly pull the jersey off of Gore’s back to keep him from playing, and that will happen sooner, not later.

Now’s the time for Ballard to plan for life after Gore, and resume the franchise’s annual quest to provide quarterback Andrew Luck with a viable running game. Since Luck’s arrival in 2012, the Colts’ running game has been a bottom-feeder, ranking 27th, 29th, 22nd, 20th and 22nd.

The timing couldn’t be better to find Gore’s successor and the player around which the ground game will revolve.

Lucas Oil Stadium once again is serving as the center of the NFL universe, and the 300-plus players on hand for the NFL Scouting Combine includes a deep pool of running backs. At least a half dozen are worthy of first-round consideration: Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, Clemson’s Wayne Gallman, Tennesse’s Alvin Kamara, Texas’ D’Onta Foreman.

The Colts have never shied away from investing a first-round pick in a running back: Edgerrin James (4th overall in 1999) Joseph Addai (30th in ‘06), Donald Brown (27th in ’09). Despite the aerial exploits of the Peyton Manning-led Colts during the 2000s, Manning insisted James’ presence made everything possible.

Some early mock drafts have slotted Cook to the Colts, who hold the 15th overall pick. He possesses game-breaking skills as a runner – 4,464 rushing yards and 46 TDs at Florida State – and also is an accomplished receiver out of the backfield.

And it must be noted Cook had a formal interview with the Colts.

What Ballard and Indy must decide, though, is whether it’s wise to invest their most valuable asset – a first-round draft pick – in a running back when every level of the defense cries out for immediate help.

Not surprisingly, Dallas coach Jason Garrett leads the camp that insists using a top pick on an elite running back makes sense. The Cowboys used the fourth-overall pick in 2016 on Ezekiel Elliott and the Ohio State running back led the NFL in rushing as a rookie and was second in total yards from scrimmage.

“We value running backs,’’ Garrett said. “The runner matters and that’s something we’ve believed in for a long time. A couple of years ago when DeMarco Murray was our running back, he had a huge impact on our football team. I was fortunate to play with Emmitt Smith for eight years. I know the impact he made with this organization.

“Great runners make a big difference. They make the offensive line better. They make the quarterback better. They make the receivers better.

“I understand the arguments about shelf life and maybe you can find running backs later in the draft. But if you have an opportunity to get a great football player who’s a running back, he can have a big impact on your football.’’

Lobbying to the contrary was Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff.

“I’m a firm believer that you can get running backs throughout the draft,’’ he said. “You don’t have to go as high as the first or second round. You can go in the mid-round and you can also get (college free agents) out there if they fit within your system and you utilized them properly.’’

Over the last five drafts, only six running backs have been taken in round 1: Elliott by the Cowboys last year; Todd Gurley (10th overall to the Rams) and Melvin Gordon (15th to San Diego) in 2015; and Trent Richardson (3rd to Cleveland), Doug Martin (31st to Tampa Bay) and David Wilson (32nd to the New York Giants) in ’12.

A few tidbits to chew on as the Ballard and the Colts debate whether to strike early in the draft to address their running game, or bide their time.

  • The last 20 NFL rushing champions are a top-heavy lot. Thirteen were turned in by first-round picks, including 11 taken with a top-10 pick.
  • But over that stretch, only two rushing champions have helped deliver their team to the Super Bowl: Seattle’s Shaun Alexander in 2005 and Denver’s Terrell Davis in 1998.
  • In the last five seasons, running backs have eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark 61 times. First-round picks have accounted for 19 (31.1 percent). Players taken in round 4 or later have accounted for 18 (29.5 percent). The average draft position: 81.6, or roughly the middle of the third round.

Whatever the decision, the April 27-29 draft offers a variety of options for the Colts or any team in need of a quality running back. That includes the Minnesota Vikings, who must reload with the pending departure of Adrian Peterson.

Vikings general manager Rick Spielman was asked if this year’s draft was one of the strongest at running back.

“I would say it is,’’ he said. “I don’t remember this amount of running backs coming out . . . there’s a significant amount of talent at that position.’’

So, it’s a good year to be in the market for a running back?

“If you need one,’’ Spielman replied.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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