INDIANAPOLIS —The Indianapolis Colts will more than likely have a new starting running back in 2018.
Head coach Frank Reich and general manager Chris Ballard on Wednesday, speaking at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indy, said the team has made the decision to move on from veteran running back Frank Gore, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent when the new league year begins at 4 p.m. ET March 14.
Gore, who will be 35 years old when the 2018 season begins, had spent the previous three seasons as the Colts' No. 1 running back. In 48 games — all starts — he accumulated 784 carries for 2,953 yards (3.8 yards per carry) with 13 touchdowns on the ground, with 101 receptions for 789 yards and six scores through the air.
Reich said the decision to move on from Gore was one intended to benefit both sides.
"I am aware that Chris and Frank did have a discussion once the season was over," Reich said, "and out of respect to Frank so he could know exactly what was going on, Chris was right up front and said that we probably would be moving on to make the roster a little bit younger at that position."
When Gore signed with the Colts prior to the 2015 season, the team was coming off an appearance in the AFC Championship Game, and he had hoped he could be the missing offensive piece needed to pair with quarterback Andrew Luck and wide receiver T.Y. Hilton to get the team over the hump to compete for a Super Bowl title.
But things haven't exactly gone to plan for Gore or the Colts, who have seen Luck deal with various injuries; he missed nine games in 2015, one game in 2016 and underwent shoulder surgery last January before missing the entire 2017 season. Indianapolis over that span compiled a 20-28 record over that span and did not quality for postseason play all three years.
Gore said at the end of the 2017 season that he was definitely returning for a 14th NFL season in 2018, and wouldn't necessarily rule out coming back with the Colts. But the quest for his first Super Bowl ring would be his No. 1 priority — even if he's playing a reduced role with that team.
It's that competitive spirit that earned Gore tremendous respect across the league, and certainly the minute he stepped into the locker room in Indianapolis.
"Just in three years, even though most of his career was in San Francisco, his three years he's left an impact on the locker room and people like I don't know if I've seen another player do," Ballard said of Gore.
Ballard said Gore "knows that we're at a point where we need to get younger" at the running back position, and conversely, "I want to give Frank a chance to go see what's out there and see if he finishes in a place where he wants to finish it."
In his time in Indianapolis, Gore has been able to climb the league's all-time rushing charts, and currently stands just 75 yards shy of fourth-place Curtis Martin. A sure-fire Hall of Famer, Reich said Gore's talents as a runner have, of course, been impressive, but his abilities to do everything else — the dirty work required of the best all-around running backs — make him better than almost anybody else who's ever played the position.
"He's a legend in my mind," Reich said. "Being an offensive guy and being a quarterback and protection kind of person who protects you is always of the essence. Frank Gore has set the standard on what backs do in protection. I remember hearing stories when I would be coaching for other teams that Frank Gore could run the protection meetings. He could make the protection calls for the quarterback.
"This guy, as far as I'm concerned, is a living legend."
So where does this immediately leave the Colts at the running back position?
The team has two major contributors — Marlon Mack and Robert Turbin — set to return in 2018; also back this offseason are Matt Jones and Josh Ferguson.
Mack, a fourth-round selection in last year's NFL Draft, certainly showed flashes as a dynamic ballcarrier in his rookie season. In 14 games, he ran the ball 93 times for 358 yards (3.8 yards per carry) with three touchdowns, while he also caught 21 passes for 225 yards and a score.
Turbin, who had become one of the league's top third-down backs the past two seasons, played in six games in 2017 before suffering a season-ending elbow injury Week 6 against the Tennessee Titans.
But Ballard also sung the praises of Jones, who was a third-round pick of the Washington Redskins in 2015 and has a rare mixture of size (6 foot 2, 239 pounds) and speed. Jones had just five carries last season for the Colts, but will definitely get a shot at earning a spot this offseason.
"We kept Matt Jones around for a reason," Ballard said. "We think Matt Jones has got potential, and we thought really at the end of the year during practice, Matt Jones was coming on really well."
Ballard could certainly choose to also add to the position via free agency, which begins in a couple weeks, or the NFL Draft, which is at the end of April.
The Colts have the No. 3-overall pick and are considered a possible landing spot for talented Penn State running back Saquon Barkley — though Ballard said there will be talent to be found at the position in each round.
"I think at running back you're going to see at all levels that you're going to have some high-end players, and then I think you're still going to see some really good players at the running back position come out of this draft third, fourth, fifth, sixth-round," Ballard said.
23 Gore, Frank RB 5-9 212lbs 34yrs 13yrs Miami (FL)