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Spotlight: Donald Brown

posted by Jason Wood on Aug 6th


Jason Wood's thoughts

Is Donald Brown fantasy treasure or fool's gold? Entering August, Donald Brown has an average draft position of RB35 (87th overall) - which makes him one of the latest projected starters to come off the board among running backs. It's tempting to simply argue that any possible starting RB is worth more than an 8th or 9th round pick, but that would be lazy analysis. What we need to decide is:

A) Is Donald Brown the starter?
B) Will he have to split carries?
C) Can Brown produce at a high level?
D) Is the upside worth the cost versus the other options available at the same time in your draft?

Is Brown the starter?
Brown is being given the opportunity to earn the starting role, but it's unfair to say he has a stranglehold on the job. The Colts underwent a massive overhaul in the offseason, including a new GM (Ryan Grigson), head coach (Chuck Pagano) and offensive coordinator (Bruce Arians). That means Brown's status as a former 1st round pick means next to nothing. The new regime will play the guys that earn the jobs in camp. The good news, for those handicapping the situation, is that head coach Chuck Pagano likes what he's seen of Brown in the early going:

"Donald is an every-down back," Pagano said. "He is doing a tremendous job and he is having a fantastic offseason. He understands, especially on third down as far as protections go and all of those things. Nothing is going to be more important than protections."

Will he have to split carries?
Most teams in the league have trended toward a shared backfield approach, so I wouldn't count on Brown netting 20+ carries per game even if he's everything the new coaches hope for. What fantasy owners need to see if an indication that Brown will have the most touches. If he can get 15-18 touches per game, he stands a good shot at outperforming his ADP. Looking at the other backs on the roster:

  • Delone Carter - The 2nd year back had fumbling issues last year and doesn't have much wiggle, but he's getting looks as a powerful short yardage and goal line option in preseason workouts
  • Mewelde Moore - The 30 year old veteran spent four seasons in Minnesota and then four seasons in Pittsburgh, and was never more than a part-timer and 3rd down specialist
  • Vick Ballard - The 5th round rookie is an important player to watch because he was GM Ryan Grigson's guy. He'll get opportunities to earn a role, but scouts are mixed on whether he has feature back abilities
  • Darren Evans - A street free agent and not someone that poses a threat to Brown's role

Can Brown produce at a high level?
Brown was selected in the 1st round of the 2009 draft and thought to be the heir apparent to Joseph Addai. Yet Brown struggled to displace Addai particularly due to a lack of effectiveness in blitz pickups. He averaged a paltry 3.6 yards per rush and finished with just 281 yards rushing. In 2010, Brown got chances to start as Addai dealt with injuries, but the 2nd year back failed to make a mark. He ended up with just 497 yards and 2 TDs, averaging less than 4 yards per rush again. Last year, as the Colts struggled without Peyton Manning, Brown improved across the board (645 yards rushing with an average 4.8 yards per rush and 5 touchdowns) - but that was still not enough to forecast stardom. We just don't know how good Donald Brown can be at the NFL level - and he HAS TO have a strong preseason to justify his sleeper status.

Is the risk worth the price?
Brown is being drafted 87th overall, near the likes of James Starks (78th), Stevan Ridley (79th), Ben Tate (84th), Peyton Hillis (86th), and DeAngelo Williams (89th). In the case of Starks and Ridley, they too are unproven and playing for teams that are going to throw the ball a ton. In the case of Tate and Hillis, they've been productive starters but are now clear cut number twos behind elite runners. In the case of Williams, he has to share carries with not only another runner (Jonathan Stewart) but his quarterback (Cam Newton had 14 rushing TDs last year). Is Brown more intriguing than this lot? It all depends on what you're trying to accomplish.

Positives

  • Donald Brown has a clear path to becoming the main ball-carrier for the Colts, but is being drafted in the same range as clear cut backups and members of RB committees
  • Bruce Arians is a seasoned offensive coordinator with great history of success
  • Last year the light switch appeared to finally go on, as Brown became an effective blocker and delivered a strong yards per rush and TD conversion rate in spite of the Colts general offensive woes

Negatives

  • Brown is a product of the former regime, so there's no guarantees he'll be given a long leash if he struggles early
  • The Colts are rebuilding and aren't going to be competitive in many games this year -- the team could be forced to pass early and often
  • Even if Brown wins the job, there's a chance he could be part of a committee where another back (e.g., Delone Carter) gets the short yardage work while another (e.g., Mewelde Moore) gets the 3rd down role

Final thoughts

Donald Brown is intriguing. Every year there are a number of running backs that have question marks and fall into the middle rounds, but end up with strong fantasy seasons. Brown has a clearer path than many of the other backs going in the mid rounds, because he enters training camp as the starter and needs only to keep his job versus winning it from others. But the Colts have so many question marks. A rookie quarterback, rookie tight ends, a completely reshuffled offensive line, new coaches, a new system, a young and unproven defense switching to a 4-3 front...and on and on. It's next to impossible to think Indianapolis can be competitive this year, which is generally not a recipe for a breakout RB. I'm in favor of taking the risk because of the upside, but make sure you're not drafting Brown as a starter -- he should be your 4th running back in 2RB/Flex leagues and no more than your RB3 in 2RB leagues.


Quotations from the message board thread

To view the entire Player Spotlight thread (there's a ton of fantastic commentary in there), click here.

sgcolin said:

Delone Carter proved nothing last year, and Mewelde Moore is a speciality back who will only eat into potential passing game totals a bit. I'll admit I don't know anything about Vick Ballard, but nothing suggests to me that he could take over.

The team, theoretically, should run the ball plenty with a rookie QB to ease his load. Brown is the best back on the roster, never fumbles, and is a lock for early down work to start the year. If he performs, he'll get plenty of carries. I'm sure we've all heard the stat about taking out the 80 yard run he had last year (YPC drops from 4.8 to 4.2), and nothing in his past is too inspiring, but by the time the 7th round rolls around is there any running back you'd rather have? Going around him are Hillis, Spiller, Tate, Ridley, Stewart, and DeAngelo Williams. None of them have close to the established role and guaranteed touches that Brown has. He's not a sexy pick, but he's a good one.

Instinctive said:

Based on Brown's ADP and expected workload, fantasy owners are severely undervaluing him this year. Anybody you can get outside the top 20+ RBs, who looks primed for a shot at 250 carries or even more, is a bargain. This type of pick is how titles are won - the only players in the same area as Brown that I have to debate picking in every mock draft are Beanie Wells and also Jonathan Stewart, who has an ADP low enough that you may be able to get him in the next round anyway. Players like Donald Brown allow you to load up early on the QB/WR/TE studs without falling too far behind the 8-ball.

karmarooster said:

His value was that he is an average RB on a bad team, but figures to be a 3-down back, and is one of the last 'starters' drafted, either before or after James Starks. He doesn't have the breakout potential to justify more than a 6th round pick in 12 team leagues, IMO.

quasta19 said:

As a Colts fan one thing I noticed last year when Brown had his best games towards the end of the season is the Colts switched their offense and added a fullback. Supposedly he had always run with a fullback in the big east and was not comfortable making his reads without one in front of him. After the draft when the Colts ended up taking Allen and Fleener they traded or cut all of their fullbacks and it appears the will be using a two tight end set primarily. I have a strong gut feeling Pagano and Grigson will be looking to give the reigns over to the back THEY drafted in the 5th round, Vick Ballard.


Donald Brown projections

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