This is the part of year when the players and management start to get tough.
With Edgerrin James an unrestricted free agent (again), the Colts will try to
diminish his value while he and his agent attempt to lionize his
accomplishments. The team contends that any competent back could put up big
numbers in the situation James is in (look at Dominic Rhodes' 1104 yards and
nine touchdowns as an emergency starter in 2001). The player and his
representatives will counter by pointing out the talents James has that can't
be replaced easily. While both sides have their points, I tend to agree with the
James camp. From the moment he showed up in 1999, he's been tearing off
shocking runs, consistently catching passes and blocking better than a feature
back should know how to. Perhaps the most compelling argument in his favor is
that since 1999, the Colts have been 72-26 (73.47 winning percentage) in games
when James carries the ball most and 5-9 (35.71) when someone else does. The
year he arrived the Colts won 10 more games than the year before.
As long as the current offense has been in place, James has been a primary
contributor. There's no way Peyton Manning's play-action fakes would work
without the threat of James' running. Manning's continued health has a lot
to do with James' blocking and heads-up receiving ability. Oh, and there's
also the team-record 9226 rushing yards he's piled up in seven seasons.
James isn't the perfect back, but he is an incredible fit for this offense and a key contributor on every play he participates in. Replacing his overall production with one player would at best be difficult and, more likely, impossible — at least in the short term.
2005 playoff stats: 13-56-1 rushing, 5-26-0 receiving
2005 regular-season stats: 360-1506-13 rushing, 44-337-1 receiving, 2/1 fumbles/lost, 1-0-0 fumble recovery
2005 preseason stats: 17-57-0 rushing, 3-13-0 receiving, 2/2 fumbles/lost, 1 tackle
2005 NFL Europe stats: None
Analysis: If you don't respect James, you just don't appreciate football. While he is nowhere near as fast as he was before the farrago of injuries hit a few seasons back, the long-haired, gold-toothed wonder from Immokalee may actually be a better back. He's running smarter, harder and bolder than he did earlier in his career and is getting tougher yards. While he no longer rips off the long-distance shockers he used to, he has become a master at picking the defense's weak spot and exploiting it with what must be annoying regularity.
In the Colts' 13-game win streak this season, the fewest yards he had was 88. He averaged 102.9 rushing yards in 14 wins last season and 33.0 in the two losses. Watching him run when he's hot is an absolute delight and he still has the best straight-arm in the business. James also helps the offense in other ways. He's a consistent, if not spectacular, receiver and may be the premier pass-blocking feature back in the NFL. He's cut down his fumbles, but still isn't a great short-yardage back (although the best the Colts have) and appears to get a bit jittery when he smells the goal-line.
2006 status: Unrestricted free agent
Outlook: There are better backs than James, but they have been rare in NFL history — let alone a particular free agency or draft crop. While he would be difficult to replace (what other back would Peyton Manning be comfortable with after the beating he took without him in 1998 and 2001?), James has to realize that his career can't go forever. While still young (he'll turn 28 in July), James is heading into his eighth NFL season and has a remarkable amount of mileage on those surgically scarred legs. When he was an unrestricted free agent last season lobbying for a long-term deal, the Colts claimed to have offered him around the league for a mere second-round pick and found no takers (the same thing happened with Seattle's überback Shaun Alexander). The fact that he's a year older would appear to cancel out James' excellent season and the two sides appear to be in the same position once again.
James would love a long-term deal and, although that would be cap-friendly in the short-term, it could be disastrous if he succumbs to injury again or his production begins to decline. Colts president Bill Polian could slap a franchise tag on him again, but that would seriously compromise a cap situation in a year when many key contributors are looking for big raises. The third option would be to trade or cut ties with James, but that's probably the most dangerous route. With the Super Bowl in smelling distance, it would be difficult to start over at one of the most crucial of positions. While Polian defied his critics and conventional wisdom in 1999 when he traded future Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk for a two draft choices, he had the fourth pick in the draft (which he used on James) and a team nobody expected anything from. The situation is markedly different now — anything less than a Super Bowl trip in 2006 would be a disappointment for Colts fans, and the team picks 30th in the draft with no James out there.
Last season, the Colts franchised James and he played his heart out in hopes of a new contract. Although anything could happen this year, I wouldn't bet on James being franchised again. The Colts are sending signals that they are more interested in signing wide receiver Reggie Wayne (and would franchise him if necessary) and save cap room for extensions for potential 2007 free agents like Dwight Freeney. Right now, the market for veteran running backs is low. Alexander — some might say the only back more complete than James and the horse the Seahawks rode to the Super Bowl — was also offered around the league for a second rounder and found no takers. Now he's looking for a contract and getting a tepid, almost insulting response from the Seattle brass. If the market for veteran backs gets low enough, James could well be back in Indy with a cap-friendly short-term contract.
2005 playoff stats: 1-2-0 rushing, 3-52-0 kick returns
2005 regular-season stats: 40-118-4 rushing, 13-88-0 receiving, 41-855-0 kick returns, 3/2 fumbles/lost
2005 preseason stats: 6-8-0 rushing, 4-25-1 receiving, 3-71-0 kick returns, 2/0 fumbles/lost, 1-0-0 fumble recovery
2005 NFL Europe stats: None
Analysis: A standout back at tiny Midwestern State, Rhodes went undrafted because of his size and because nobody ever heard of the college he went to. But he turned out to be one of the greatest unpicked free agents of all time, rushing for more than 1000 yards while filling in after James tore his ACL in 2001. He showed outstanding moves, long-range speed and surprising strength. Polian described him as having the "magic" few backs have. Since then, though, things have been a bit tougher for Rhodes. He's had his own ACL troubles and has seen his playing time reduced as James has steadily recaptured his old form. While Rhodes' statistics are still respectable, even enviable, for a No. 2 back, they aren't what they used to be and Colts fans have become quite anxious about him as he's developed a penchant for missing blitzers, fumbling, dropping passes and muffing kicks.
2006 status: Signed, $550,000 salary
Outlook: While much has been made of his 1104-yard rookie season, it should be noted that the Colts' won-loss record when Rhodes has more carries than James is 3-8 (27.27 winning percentage). That's not to say that Rhodes isn't a good back. Provided he's used as a complement to James and as a kick returner rather than as the primary ball-carrier, Rhodes has been a very valuable player. But his skills seem to have eroded as Rhodes appears much more cautious and tentative than he did earlier in his career. Many blame his ACL injury, but it seems to me that he's hasn't been quite right since Tedy Bruschi plucked the ball out of his hands in the 2004 Divisonal Championship game.
With a bit more confidence, Rhodes could turn well things around, but asking him to be a No. 1 back should James bolt might be just a bit too much. A more likely scenario is that Rhodes will be given every opportunity to be the No. 2 guy. If James leaves, Rhodes will be called the starter heading into camp, but will almost certainly cede the spot to whatever back is signed, traded for or drafted to replace the main man. To make things more complicated, the Colts owe Rhodes a $1.45 million roster bonus. If they don't pay, he becomes an unrestricted free agent. Considering the level of his play in 2005, the Colts may be looking for two top backs in the offseason.
2005 playoff stats: None
2005 regular-season stats: 7-15-0 rushing, 3-28-0 rushing, 2-39-0 kick returns, 1/0 fumbles/lost
2005 preseason stats: 14-29-1 rushing, 2-16-0 receiving, 1-6-0 kick return, 2 special-teams tackles
2005 NFL Europe stats: None
Analysis: Every team likes to have a guy like Mungro. Not only is he a hard-nosed player who can help his team in many ways — as a runner, receiver, blocker, returner, coverage man — but he's a solid citizen, a quick study and natural-born leader. He's a terrific football player, but just not the athlete his position demands. As a halfback, he chooses holes and lanes well, but just doesn't have the speed (4.59 forty) or agility to be very creative. And he doesn't have the quick-twitch burst to be a true fullback. While he's a better-than-average run blocker, he's not the kind of pass-blocker you want protecting a nine-digit investment like Peyton Manning. A heads-up kind of guy who does all the little things on special teams, much of Mungro's value isn't immediately obvious to casual fans.
2006 status: Unrestricted free agent
Outlook: Luckily for the Colts, teams tend to go for flash over substance in free agency, so it's unlikely they'll get into a bidding war for Mungro's services. I think he'll be allowed to test the market with an open invitation to return to the team in much the same capacity he's had for the past few seasons — special-teams standout and occasional offensive contributor.The rest of this article is available here for our Premium Members. Not a Premium Member yet? Then click the "7 day free trial" at the top of this page in our banner at ColtPower.com and give it a try. Find out Jerry's take on the rest of the Colts running backs and who they may turn to out of the free agent and college player pools in 2006 to restock the running back position.