The Indianapolis Colts have gone a bit unconventional in building their running back core. Instead of drafting running backs with high picks or spending money on a running back in free agency, they have opted to build their backfield with three players who were drafted on day three of the NFL Draft. Despite their low draft status, the group has been good enough to be fourth in the NFL in rushing yards per game this season with 142 yards on the ground per game.
This philosophy to build the backfield by General Manager Chris Ballard has been the perfect blend of skill sets to build one effective unit. While they are all individually good on their own, imagine how great they could be if all their best traits were in one running back? In today’s film room, we will be looking at this talented trio of running backs and pick out the best traits from each to create the perfect running back.
Vision: Jordan Wilkins
When creating a running back, it is hard to overlook perhaps the most important overall trait. Having impressive speed and strength are great, but a running back can’t be successful in the NFL without great vision. This is why Jordan Wilkins has been so exciting in his young NFL career. Despite lacking great speed or athleticism, Wilkins has rushed for 5.8 yards per carry in over 70 NFL carries. His vision appears to be second nature as he effortlessly diagnoses the line and finds the correct gap to hit almost every single time.
While Wilkins is the clear winner here, Marlon Mack did give him a run for his money. The bell cow back has shown great improvement in this area as he progresses as a starter in this offense. Nyheim Hines, however, really lacks in this area. He has the great speed and athleticism, but he is relatively ineffective as a runner due to his deficiency in this area.
Contact Balance: Marlon Mack
One of the best developments of this young season is how much stronger Marlon Mack looks as a runner. In 2018, Mack was among the worst starting running backs in the NFL in terms of breaking tackles and yards after contact. He was simply taking what the offensive line provided for him, rather than creating his own yards. This year, however, he has shown the ability to create yards and keep plays alive. He can turn a negative play into a positive one and that is one of the major reasons why he is breaking out in 2019.
Hines is a very gifted running back and he makes his fair share of players miss in the open field, but Mack edged him out due to his strength and power in between the tackles. Wilkins is also solid in this area, he always seems to fall forward at the end of his runs.
Cutting Ability/ Agility: Marlon Mack
Another close one here, but Mack just edges out the others for the win in this category. His jump cut is deadly and he makes defenders look silly, occasionally, in tight spaces. We all remember what he did in the playoffs to Tyrann Mathieu en route to his biggest rushing performance of his career. This category also goes hand in hand with Mack creating more yards this season as he appears more confident and stronger as a runner to fight through contact and be able to put on some wicked cuts in space to make defenders look foolish.
Hines, yet again, was close in this area but the nod went to Mack due to his ability to make defenders miss in traffic and out in space more so than Hines. Wilkins is solid in this area, but he just isn’t as naturally gifted as Hines or Mack to be as special in this area of being a running back.
Open Field Elusiveness: Nyheim Hines
While agility and cutting ability favors Mack, Hines easily wins in being able to make defenders miss in space. With his go to spin move and track runner speed, defenders are helpless when they line up across from this speedy running back. He has made many notable defenders look foolish in his young career as he spins passed them for a big gain. His balance, along with natural ability, make him hard to bring down. This ability also makes him so valuable in the Colts’ passing attack as he creates yards after the catch.
Mack and Wilkins are both very solid in this area, but neither match the physical ability of Hines to beat a defender one on one in the open field. There are just too many ways he can beat you and the end result almost always favors the Colts.
Explosion/Burst: Marlon Mack
What he lacks in long speed, Mack makes up for with great burst at the line of scrimmage. This ability is so vital because it produces positive run plays more often than not. With Mack’s great burst, he is able to hide behind the Colts’ massive offensive line then explode up field when he sees a gap or crease. The ability to go from zero to 100 right out of the backfield is what creates all the big plays that we have seen from him this season.
Hines has the natural ability to be great in this area but Mack just appears on film to be so much quicker and stronger out of his cuts. Wilkins is great in this area, as he knows when to plant his foot and explode, but he just lacks the physical gifts of Mack to beat him out in this area.
Patience: Marlon Mack
While this was probably the closest battle in this whole piece, the edge has to go to Mack. His patience has grown so much as a runner to the point where he has resembled Le’Veon Bell at times this season. He understands he has one of the better offensive lines in the NFL with this team, and he can afford to be more patient in the backfield. The result is bigger plays as he is letting things develop in front of him and finding the balance of when to attack. This has been yet another great development for the young bell cow running back.
Wilkins was very close to taking this top spot as his patience and vision as a runner are outstanding. Mack just gets the nod for putting more on film and showing out more in this area. Hines again does struggle in this area as he is over eager to get downfield and attack a defense.
Pass Catching: Nyheim Hines
The easy winner in this area as Hines is the primary passing down back for the Colts. A former receiver in college at NC State, he shows the ability to find space in zone coverage and also beat players one on one in man coverage. He can also do it out of the backfield or split out wide lined up as a receiver. His athleticism in the open field makes him dangerous after the catch as well. With 81 catches in 21 career games, Hines truly is a weapon in this area of the game.
Wilkins is solid and reliable in this area even though he rarely gets the snaps to shine in this department. Mack has struggled in the past as a pass catcher although he has shown some improvement so far in 2019.
Pass Blocking: Jordan Wilkins
A very underrated ability for a running back is the ability to block in the passing game. Although the Colts’ running backs have rarely been asked to do this, especially compared to most teams around the league, Wilkins has shown the best ability in this area. He is sturdy in pass protection and keys on his defender more times than not. He has the size and physicality to deliver big time hits as well and really rock free rushers in the backfield.
Mack struggled in this area big time in 2018, but has shown some improvement this season. Hines is fine with keying and identifying his assignment, but he just lacks the overall size to sustain blocks as well as Wilkins.
Leg Drive/Strength: Marlon Mack
The final category in today’s piece is strength and leg drive and the bell cow takes it yet again. Mack has showcased power numerous times this year as he has developed into a full-time starter in this league. He runs through contact and finishes his runs much better than he did as a younger player. His strength is also on full display when he uses his patented stiff arm, sending hapless defenders to the ground with a powerful punch. Mack, overall, has really developed this area of his game.
Wilkins, like he is in almost every area, is solid, but Mack’s stiff arm puts him over the top. Hines does have surprising power for his smaller frame but Mack is far ahead in this category.
The overall point of this fun article was to highlight the areas of strength of these three talented running backs. It is quite remarkable how good of a group this trio is, considering they were all drafted on day three of the NFL Draft. Chris Ballard has done an excellent job of mixing skillsets and creating a backfield with a perfect fit that features a bell cow, a pass catcher, and a change of pace duel threat.
Marlon Mack is obviously the top dog in this backfield, as he is coming into his own as a player this year. That being said, Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins are no slouches. With their skillset and strengths, the Colts should have no problem keeping Mack fresh and healthy for this potential playoff run in 2019. The Colts may not have the perfect “running back” but they have all the skillsets required to make one with this talented trio in their backfield.