With all of the mysteries surrounding the Indianapolis Colts in the upcoming season, how the backfield succeeds is one that burns very hot.
Robert Turbin will miss the first part of the season due to a PED violation, which takes away the team’s third-and-short option away for a while. Marlon Mack has a lot of us remembering his flash from a year ago, but has a lot of growing and improving to do in order to become THE back. Otherwise, we see a couple rookies in Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins and a pair of backs most of us see as ‘just a guy.’
There has been some speculation that the Colts could be one team vying for a veteran getting cut when the 53s are whittled down. For the most part, we’ve heard that Frank Reich and Chris Ballard are happy with what they have. Granted most of that has been in conversation about the defense, but they’ve stated very generally several times during the offseason program.
While we all await training camp to see how some of these camp battles will play out, we understand that many of them could play out several different ways. Instead of waiting, I decided to look at who could be the starter for the Colts early on in the 2018 season. Of course who starts will largely be decided by one back outshining the others in camp, but if they see a group who could legitimately all battle for snaps some additional factors will be made.
Today, I’m focusing on Jordan Wilkins. Yes, I think most of us would agree that it’s Mack’s job to lose at this point. But, was it before Turbin’s suspension was realized? I don’t think so. While I don’t think Turbin is a 3-down back, Reich has a type.
Remember, we’re talking who will be starting the game. The committee approach is well documented, but we’re looking at a specific role for a specific time in the game, not a title.
Last season the Philadelphia Eagles showed some tendencies to using their bigger back early on in the game. In the first quarter of games, the Eagles ran the ball 114 times which was tied for the 5th most in the league. They were 8th in yards per play (4.46) and were successful too, racking up 28 first downs (4th) in the process.
Also, keep in mind that this is all while having Carson Wentz playing at an elite level in the passing game. So, we should expect Reich to have his fair share of runs involved in the gameplan. I think that much is obvious despite Andrew Luck being back in action.
But, it wasn’t just the team running the ball. It was LeGarrette Blount getting the lion’s share of those carries (51). Additionally, the Eagles — with Blount — ran a ton outside of the guards on nearly half of their first-quarter rush attempts (56). Blount received nearly a third of those and, again, the Eagles were successful.
The Eagles were 6th in attempts outside of the guards in the first quarter (56), 8th in yards per carry (4.64) and were 4th in the league with 14 first downs. So, what am I getting at? Blount is a big boy at 6-foot, and nearly 250 pounds and Turbin was the closest thing the Colts have for a ball carrier at that size. And a reminder: Turbin was running with the 1s in OTAs and minicamp.
Was this because Mack was out? We assume so, but we can’t really know.
Now, their biggest back is Jordan Wilkins. Oh — and he has great vision, patience and lateral agility by the way. He also has an uncanny ability to plant his foot and zip past the second level of the defense when he wants to kick it up a gear. It’s deceiving because you don’t see it from him all the time, but it’s there.
It’s not all about his size, but with him already sitting at 6-foot-1, 216 pounds it’s reasonable to expect a few more pounds stacking on as the season goes on. Wilkins isn’t a power back, though. He’s very much not that guy simply because he has the right size. But, for a guy who absolutely has the most patience I’ve seen from a prospect in a long time, he fits perfectly in those outside zone running calls.
In 2014, Ryan Mathews (6-foot, 220 pounds) was that guy for Reich in San Diego. Unfortunately, Reich was left with Brandon Oliver after Mathews was lost after 6 games. Mathews was successful too, despite an awful offensive line that season. He averaged 4.5 yards per carry and was on pace towards 200 carries
In 2015, Melvin Gordan (6-foot-1, 215 pounds) was drafted to be that guy. However, through the course of the season the Chargers got away from their first-quarter running as the success simply was not coming. Gordan was being touted as a bust, remember? Naturally, when the Chargers did run the ball in 2015, they stayed in between the tackles quite a bit and that could just as easily be failed playcalling.
The offensive line wasn’t much — if at all — better this season (31st/Adjusted Line Yards), and the backs were still among the worst (30th/RB Yards) according to Football Ousiders. It’s hard to generate reasonable takes on a running game that was doomed most of the year and the offense was forced to rely on the arm of Philip Rivers.
So, in 2016, Reich comes to Philly as the OC under Doug Pederson and the team struggled some with a rookie quarterback, a new system etcetera. Mathews and Reich did reunite, but there were some mixed results. They ran the ball quite a bit — using our target data— (T-12th/107 attempts), but weren’t very successful as they were 24th with an average of 3.88 yards per carry. On that same not, the Eagles were also tied for 7th in the league with 28 first-quarter rushing first downs. That’s not nothing.
And this is where you could tell the approach for the future was underway. They saw a little bit of efficiency with the running scheme, and were also attacking the tackles and the edges as a staple. They were tops in the league in first-quarter runs outside the guards (63), were less-than-impressive with 4-yard average (27th), but were again atop the league with 20 first downs.
Then, as we discussed above, the team found their piece in LeGarrette Blount, and later in the 2017 season Jay Ajayi (6-foot, 223 pounds) came to town and the system was all set. This one-two punch of big runners allowed Ajayi to clime to 5.8 yards per carry and either of them to take the ball inside or outside to achieve success.
This is clearly a point of emphasis for Reich and the running game. I don’t think he’ll overdo it in his first season at the helm, but early in the game and by a means of attacking the edges is going to be a theme. While this style will likely help Mack as well, Wilkins’ vision is unrivaled and if he shows that, plus his extreme patience in training camp, he’ll make a major impression on the offensive coaching staff.
With the Colts running scheme that’s likely to be implemented, speed is something that will become secondary to a point. The back will need to be able to pair his vision with one-cut quickness in order to feature a productive running game.
With Turbin out, or maybe even gone, the backfield became one of the most important camp battles for the team. While it was already one of the most fun to watch for this summer, the Colts can’t afford for one of them not to come out of the bunch owning those first-team reps.
Right now, I’m going with what Reich wants to do, and now knows how to help it succeed after his time in Philly. I’m going with Jordan Wilkins.