Donald Brown breaks downfield for a 49-yard gain against the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2010. (Michael Conroy | AP Photo)

2010 was about as rough on Colts running backs as it was on the team’s safeties.

The opening depth chart included fourth string rusher and kick returner Devin Moore, who went down for the year with a shoulder injury in the Week 4 match-up with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Second-string back, and 2009 First Round pick, Donald Brown missed weeks 4-6 with a hamstring injury. Third-string back, Mike Hart missed weeks 9-12 and 13-17 with an ankle injury. Starter, Joseph Addai missed eight weeks with a shoulder injury.

Fifth-string back, Javarris James played a significant role in four of the Colts 2010 games — which included six rushing touchdowns. Even Dominic Rhodes, former starter behind Edgerrin James, made his way back onto the roster following a full season with the Florida Tuskers of the UFL — he shattered the UFL records for rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and all purpose yards. Rhodes played significantly in weeks 15-17.

In total, the Colts had six different rushers and tallied 32 missed games between the four who started the season on the depth chart.

The ramifications for 2011 could be brighter than what a lot of folks in the mainstream media, or even loyal fans, might guess. Consider that when Javarris James carried the ball he ran hard, got tough yards, and looked like the kind of short yardage back Indianapolis has been desperate to find since a player like James Mungro was on the team in 2005. Six touchdowns on limited carries, primarily on the goal line, is not something that should be overlooked. He showed real potential and could improve moving forward.

Consider that Devin Moore looked like the closest thing to a legitimate kick returner the Colts have had since Brad Pyatt was injured in 2005. He also fought very hard when he had chances to carry the ball in preseason and is the kind of high energy player — with a humble demeanor and blue collar work ethic — that will push others in camp to do their best. If he returns in 2011, he could find a spot on the roster again as the team’s returner.

Mike Hart is another player that fans love because he runs so hard and does not give up. There is something about him that cannot be quantified by stop watches or measuring tape. He finds a way to keep moving forward after contact and had a lot of fans clamoring for a promotion to second-string over Donald Brown. He will return for another training camp after showing more to fans and coaches in regular season games in 2010 than he had at any other time in his career.

Some fans saw Dominic Rhodes’ resurgence as reason to keep him on the roster for 2011 as a reliable, knowledgeable veteran. If he can continue to stay healthy and athletically competitive, keeping him around is a real possibility. What will make his job difficult is the fact that generally, unless the team intends for him to play a primary offensive role, the backup spots are reserved for players the team hopes to develop into a bigger role in the team’s future. Paying a player that is in the twilight of his career to play a third-string role at a position may make sense in the short-term but hurt the team in the long-term.

Eyes have been focused intently on the development of Donald Brown since the Colts selected him in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft. To this point, there is little doubt that his progress and impact has been a disappointment, particularly to avid fans. However, Brown did experience some bright spots in his second season, including long runs of 49, 43, 36, and 21 yards, and an 129 yard game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 15 — including a touchdown. This late-season surge created a little bit of excitement amongst fans who thought they might be seeing the light bulb come on for Brown. Then, with the addition of Rhodes, he all but disappeared.

What is certain for Brown is that he benefited late in the season from a much improved run blocking performance along the Colts offensive line. Additionally, the Colts focused on getting him the ball in open space, including dump-off passes in the flat and stretch runs. If the offensive line can play like it did when Brown was running for long touchdowns, there is a chance his first round status will be justified in a hurry.

The final player on this list of potential 2011 Colts running backs is Joseph Addai. Those who have followed the Colts closely during Addai’s career will be able to tell you that he is the most well-rounded running back on the roster and that he was putting together his best season since his rookie year before he suffered the season-ending shoulder injury. In fact, Addai had a very solid end to the 2009 season as well. The big question is whether the Colts will choose to retain Addai, who will become an unrestricted free agent this summer.

The difficulty around the decision is that although Addai is a solid running back, a good portion of his value exists because of the way he is used in the Colts system. He is one of the league’s best pass-blocking running backs and is used in that role extensively in Indianapolis. Very few other franchises use their backs in that role primarily. He is also not one of the league’s fastest or strongest backs. At times he may be one of the league’s shiftiest backs, and may be one of the best at squeezing through tight traffic — he may also be one of the most dependable backs, in that he rarely fumbles the football. Still, in terms of market value, Addai may not demand the kind of contract that players like Ronnie Brown or Ricky Williams could demand.

This may make it easier for the Colts to retain Addai. However, the team’s history has been to let running backs go before they head into their final contract because running back performance generally drops off sharply as they approach 30 years old. Addai will be 28 in May.

Assuming that the Colts are able to retain Addai, even if it is only on a one- or two-year contract term, there is an awful lot of diverse talent already in Indianapolis.

Don’t misunderstand. The Colts do not have a marquee running back on the roster. What they have, though, is a dangerous combination of experience, utility, and potential. A combination of three or four of the guys who were on the 2010 roster, along with an improved offensive line in 2011, should be able to give the Colts an effective ground game.