INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Without tipping his hand on how his Indianapolis Colts might invest the third overall pick in the April 26 NFL draft, Chris Ballard revealed one of the clear options.
What are his thoughts on Penn State running back Saquon Barkley?
Ballard, overseeing his second draft as the Colts’ general manager, smiled.
“Good player,’’ he said. “I mean, we’re all watching the same TV. I mean, the guy’s a good player. He’s a good player.’’
And Barkley, polished and an every-down homerun threat, would immediately address a gapping hole in the Colts’ backfield. With Frank Gore no longer in the mix, there’s no viable feature back on the roster. Not Marlon Mack. Not Robert Turbin, Josh Ferguson or Matt Jones.
Perhaps Ballard fills Gore’s void through veteran free agency with Isaiah Crowell or Chris Ivory or Doug Martin.
Perhaps he addresses the situation in later rounds. Remember, a pair of third-round rookie running backs made seismic contributions last season: Kansas City’s Kareem Hunt led the league in rushing while New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara was named Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Or perhaps Ballard follows the recent lead of several teams and inserts a transformational running back – Saquon Barkley – into an Andrew Luck-led offense. The last three drafts have seen four running backs snatched up with top-10 picks: Leonard Fournette (fourth overall in 2017), Christian McCaffrey (eighth in ’17), Ezekiel Elliott (fourth in ’16) and Todd Gurley (fourth in ’15).
How high is too high to take a running back in today’s pass-happy NFL?
“Look, I learned early, if you think a guy has got a chance to be a difference-maker at any position, it doesn’t matter,’’ Ballard said. “You take him. You take him.’’
The Colts haven’t shied from using a first-round pick, frequently an early one, on a running back. Since 1994, they’ve restocked the position with four blue-chip players: Marshall Faulk (second overall in ’94), Edgerrin James (fourth in ’99), Joseph Addai (30th in ’06) and Donald Brown (27th in ’09).
Barkley very well might be that rare talent. The Cleveland Browns could make him the first running back taken first overall since Ki-Jana Carter in 1995, or he could slide to the New York Giants at No. 2 or the Colts at No. 3.
That ‘What if?’ scenario isn’t occupying much, if any, of Barkley’s time.
“I really don’t look to much into that,’’ he said Thursday at the NFL Scouting Combine. “Something I believe in and something I learned at Penn State is you’ve got to control what you can control. If you get focused on that stuff, you take away from yourself.
“I love competing, but I don’t care if I’m drafted 1, 5, 72 or the last pick. I’m going to come in with my head low and ready to work.’’
A possible alignment with the Luck and the Colts, Barkley admitted, would be a “good fit.’’
“Any team that picks me, I feel I can adapt,’’ he said. “Andrew Luck is a great quarterback. Obviously he didn’t play last year because of injuries, but if you look at the seasons before, his success speaks for itself.’’
Barkley carries 232 pounds comfortably on his 6-0 frame, and considers himself a versatile, three-down back. He exited Penn State a year early after piling up 3,843 rushing yards and 43 touchdowns and adding 1,195 yards and eight TDs on 102 receptions.
“I can do it all,’’ he said without a trace of arrogance. “I’m very confident in myself. I feel like whether the ball’s on the 99-yard line or the 1-yard line, I find a way to get into the end zone.
“I can go over the top of you. I can get you with speed. I can get you with some wiggle. I can go through you.’’
Growing up, Barkley idolized Detroit Lions Hall of Fame back Barry Sanders. He frequently cued up Sanders’ highlights on YouTube.
“That guy was spectacular,’’ he said. “That was a great guy I looked up to growing up, not only on the field but off the field. The way he carried himself. He was humble.
“When he scored touchdowns, he gave the ball to the refs. He’s carrying cups for his offensive linemen. I think that’s what a running back should be about. I try to model myself after that.’’
Barkley routinely peruses video of some of the NFL’s premier running backs, the Le’Veon Bells, Todd Gurleys and Ezekiel Elliotts.
“I want to try to take part of their game an add to mine,’’ he said.
However, first and foremost Barkley is committed to being the best Saquon Barkley he can be.
“I’ve never wanted to be like anybody,’’ he said. “That’s one thing my dad told me growing up: Never want to be like someone, be the next you.’’
Whenever his name is called April 26 – again, it will be early – Barkley will be fulfilling a dream hatched at an early age. Reaching the NFL always has been in his sights.
“My football dream started when I was around 7 or 8,’’ he said. “My dad’s been telling me I’ve been saying I wanted to play in the NFL since I was 2. I was a New York Jets fan growing up. My dad said I used to sit there at a very young age and watch football with him and tell him, ‘I’m going to play for that team some day.’
“I’m living the dream now. It’s awesome. I’m hoping to fulfill that promise I made to my mom when I was a little kid and buy her a house one day.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.