Many expected GM Chris Ballard to grab a running back in the 2018 NFL Draft. I don’t know how many expected him to wait until the fourth round to get one, though, and then get another in the fifth.
With the Indianapolis Colts moving on from Frank Gore, the only real experience in the backfield is Robert Turbin and he was largely relegated to a late-down, and short-yardage option. Now with Marlon Mack returning for his second year, and the additions of Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins legitimately vying for roles in this offense, the backfield has a ton of young diversity going forward.
Mack’s rookie season was pretty average for the most part. He struggled to catch the ball out of the backfield, which was considered to be one of his strengths coming out, and the flashes he showed of being able to run between the tackles in the preseason disappeared.
Mack fell right into the narrative that surrounded him throughout the pre-draft process a year ago. He consistently attempted to kick his runs outside in attempt to beat the defender to the edge and never really had any success otherwise. Now, Mack is a dynamic runner, but his rookie season showed just how much discipline he needs in his development.
His ability to break it any time he touches the ball is a real threat to defenses, but he won’t be hard to gameplan for if he can’t grow into a complete back within Frank Reich’s offense. Mack is not a small back, at 6-0 and 210 pounds, but he simply must be able to run the ball downhill in 2018 to begin to realize his ceiling.
Mack — at the moment — appears to be the likely starter, but now there are some very contrasting styles joining him in the backfield who offer some real potential as well.
Hines is such an interesting back to watch. He’s explosive, can catch very well out of the backfield or lined up in the slot, and despite his 5-8 frame shows no fear of mixing it up with the big uglies in front of him. He’s very fluid with his change of direction, but doesn’t waste any movement either.
He’s either setting up a defender to make him miss, putting his foot in the ground to move towards daylight or will take the shortest distance between to points and challenge the defender head-on if need be as well. Hines has sub-4.4 speed and gets from zero-to-60 in a hurry while using his vision to maximize each attempt.
One of the most overlooked aspects of a successful running back is pass protection. Hines’ technique in that regard isn’t something we can really distinguish until we see him on the field, but he is more than willing to bang with blitzers, and that goes a long way with a coaching staff.
This was supposed to be Mack. Hines is nearly five inches shorter, and is more adept to taking on defenders when necessary. They’re not the same type of runners, so don’t make that mistake. However, despite their size differences, they’re close enough to where Hines could challenge for a large share of the carries if he shows to be more aggressive than Mack in camp.
The Colts’ fifth-round pick, Wilkins, is really intriguing as well. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a back with his approach with a horseshoe on their helmet. He’s got great size, but has been labeled a finesse back.
While I don’t know if that is a great label to hold, or if it completely fits while carrying a 6-1, 216-pound frame, his style is certainly unique to what the Colts currently have in the backfield.
Wilkins is almost annoyingly patient. I just don’t know how else to say it.
He has this bounce, sometimes lateral and other times it’s backwards that he displays while awaiting a hole to open. Through the games that I was able to get a hold of, it seems as though he could be a guy who could have a large amount of carries that never get out of the backfield, yet simultaneously become a grind-it-out back play in and play out with that extreme patience paying off.
His largest issue seems to be when he sees a hole close up. That backwards bounce shows up, and without elite quickness and explosion — which he doesn’t have — he’ll get swallowed up in a hurry in the NFL.
Wilkins does have some good acceleration when he decisively hits the hole, and though he doesn’t have elite change of direction athleticism, he does possess some impressive vision. His challenge in camp will be to display that vision, prove that he can consistently gain positive yardage and remain a viable receiving threat out of the backfield.
We don’t know what we’ll see from the Colts running backs in the 2018 season. However, with a quick peak at their skill sets, the understanding that this group could be very fun is unspoken.