A fifth-round pick in 2012, Ballard has earned the right to carry the responsibilities of a No. 1 back next season. Bradshaw, while possessing an attractive skill set when healthy, should be viewed only as a capable backup behind Ballard.
According to Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star, the Colts remain in negotiations with Bradshaw after hosting the former New York Giants running back on a visit Thursday. It's possible a deal could be struck before the weekend.
Ballard has very little reason to think his role in the Colts offense is in danger, even if Bradshaw is signed.
In fact, if Ballard had started the 2012 season as the Colts primary ball carrier, a discussion of his place as the lead back likely wouldn't be necessary now.
Note that through the first five games of last season, Ballard totaled just 29 carries—less than six a game. Predictably, he gave the Colts limited production; just 67 yards and a 2.3-yard per carry average.
That all changed once the Colts started giving Ballard a starting-level work load.
As Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated pointed out, Ballard averaged 16.5 carries and 67.9 yards over the Colts' final 11 games. He also received 22 carries for 91 yards in the Divisional Round of the playoffs against the Baltimore Ravens.
Extrapolating his 11-game numbers over a 16-game season, Ballard would have approached 1,100 yards during his rookie season.
Advanced stats also favor Ballard as a lead running back.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Ballard finished last season at No. 8 in "Elusive Rating," a measure of how well a running back creates openings on his own. PFF uses a combination of yards after contact and missed tackles forced to establish this number.
Over the entire 2012 season, only C.J. Spiller, Adrian Peterson, Doug Martin, Marshawn Lynch, Alfred Morris, LeSean McCoy and Trent Richardson were better than Ballard. The Colts back averaged 2.52 yards after contact and forced 35 missed tackles over his 211 carries.
Furthermore, if we take away Ballard's early run as a little-used backup (first five games), the rookie would jump both Richardson and McCoy to finish No. 6 in the stat, just behind Morris and Lynch. In those early games, Ballard averaged just 1.24 yards after contact and forced just one missed tackle, which somewhat throws off his overall numbers.
Obviously, the Colts coaching staff took notice.
According to Paul Kuharsky of ESPN, Colts coach Chuck Pagano has continued to call for Ballard to be the lead back in Indianapolis to start this coming season.
From May 15:
"It’s always nice to have a couple guys, a change of pace guy. But certainly at the end of the year with Donnie hurt and the way Vick came on and the way he was running, he was getting the lion’s share of the snaps. At this point, yeah, he’s sitting there as the lead guy."
While Ballard has not earned the right to hold a monopoly on the carries—especially if Bradshaw is signed—an increased focus on the run game from new offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton should produce ample opportunity for Ballard to see 15-20 touches every game.
Hamilton, who formerly worked as the offensive coordinator at Stanford, figures to put a new-found emphasis on controlling the football via the run game.
Hamilton now wants to try emulating the San Francisco 49ers offense under Jim Harbaugh, another former Stanford coach.
"A good example of how you should try to make the transition is what my former head coach has been able to do at the 49ers, to take our offense at Stanford and [two] years later end up in the Super Bowl by doing the things we believed in. That’s being efficient and controlling the football but at the same time making big plays down the field in the passing game. That’s been somewhat of my motto."
A commitment to running the football, plus the additions of tackle Gosder Cherilus and guard Donald Thomas, should allow the Colts to better control the clock with the running game.
Ballard's work as the lead runner will heavily determine whether that new emphasis has positive returns for the Colts offense.
But considering how he finished his rookie season—with nearly 70 yards a game over his last 11 regular-season games, plus 91 in the postseason—and the continued faith his coaching staff has in him to be the No. 1 back, Ballard should have everything he needs to handle his leading role.
Bradshaw may eventually be an addition with a championship resume and a skill set that fits into the Colts new offense, but he'll get slotted in as a primary backup.
Ballard has earned his spot atop the depth chart.