Overlooked by the All-Pro rookie campaigns by both right guard Quenton Nelson and linebacker Darius Leonard, two top-40 picks in the 2018 NFL Draft, a lightning quick Swiss army knife fell promptly onto Chris Ballard’s lap in the closing day of the draft.
Nyheim Hines, tabbed by NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein as a “better athlete than running back and better runner than receiver,” lasted 104 picks before making his way from North Caroline State to Indianapolis. In three seasons in the ACC Hines totaled 2,333 yards, 6.7 yards per touch and 14 touchdowns — 12 of which came in his final season.
Entering a locker room with fellow draft-pick Jordan Wilkins and a second-year Marlon Mack, the undersized track star had an uphill battle to find time on the field outside of special teams work. And after a shaky training camp and preseason, most were left wondering if there were any contributions he could make on the offensive side of things.
So how did Hines turn all that around in just four short months to end up with a rookie season that only six other third-day draft picks have completed since 2010? How did the back that’s “not a natural pass catcher and has dealt with drops throughout his career” (Zierlein again) finish the year with the 13th-best drop rate in the league? Let’s take a look back at the under-acknowledged rookie campaign by Indy’s No. 2 rusher.
Of the 120 running backs selected in the fourth round or beyond since 2010 (along with 24 notable* undrafted free agents), only seven have finished their rookie seasons with at least 148 touches, 739 yards and 5.0 yards per touch:
- LeGarette Blount: 200 touches, 5.0 yards per touch, 1,021 total yards
- Roy Helu: 200 touches, 5.1 yards per touch, 1,019 total yards
- Andre Ellington: 157 touches, 6.5 yards per touch, 1,023 total yards
- Thomas Rawls: 156 touches, 5.8 yards per touch, 906 total yards
- Jordan Howard: 281 touches, 5.7 yards per touch, 1,611 total yards
- Phillip Lindsay: 227 touches, 5.6 yards per touch, 1,278 total yards
- Nyheim Hines: 148 touches, 5.0 yards per touch, 739 total yards
While it’s more difficult for those like Lindsay, Howard, Helu and Blunt to keep their average yards per touch above five with 200+ carries, all of the individuals on this list led their offense in total touches expect for Hines and Ellington. The difference between 2019 Hines and 2013 Ellington? Ellington earned 27.9 percent of the team’s total rushing attempts while Hines received just 20.8 percent.
The careers from these seven have a wide range in terms of long-term success and sustainability in the league, but there’s no doubt their among the best to see immediate success despite being late-round finds.
A shaky summer turned into an inconsistent first month, but Hines showed gradual development as the season went on. Here’s how his stats broke down in terms of four-game sets:
- 3.0 yards per rush, 5.41 yards per catch, 4.3 yards per touch
- 5.41 yards per rush, 5.67 yards per catch, 5.47 yards per touch
- 2.38 yards per rush, 7.4 yards per catch, 4.47 yards per touch
- 2.17 yards per rush, 9.07 yards per catch, 5.88 yards per touch
Hines’ rushing numbers were up-and-down throughout the year, but his production in the receiving game continuously improved. Here’s head coach Frank Reich on where he saw Hines’ growth throughout the season this past November:
Confidence and consistency propelled him into a larger role as the season progressed, especially in the passing game. Despite carrying a bad rap into the draft process for his drops and ineffectiveness receiving in college, Hines finished the season with the 13th best drop rate in football last year among all qualified running backs and receivers. He was the 13th-most targeted receiver out of the backfield, and his 63 catches ranked eighth out of all running backs last year — ahead of well-respected backs like Todd Gurley, Dion Lewis and David Johnson.
While Hines’ numbers in the run-game don’t pop off the page, Indy’s offensive staff saw just as much growth in-between the tackles as their did as a pass-catcher. Offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni had this to say about Hines’ development during the season:
So ... what’s next?
With a year under his belt and a full offseason to better develop and understand the playbook, Colts’ fans should expect an even bigger season from their shifty, change-of-pace running back. With an extra year for Reich, Sirianni and Co. to expand on the playbook and get more experimental, along with the overall consistency of bringing back all the major pieces of the 2018 season, there’s no reason to believe Hines’ opportunities will do anything but expand — especially in the passing game.
Spencer Ware was brought in during the offseason to join Hines, Mack and Wilkins, but the Colts really didn’t do a ton at receiver aside from bringing in Devin Funchess and drafting Parris Campbell in the second round. When Indy was dealing with a plethora of injuries at the receiver position last October, Reich acknowledged the idea of playing Hines as more of a slot receiver.
The Colts were one of the most experimental offenses last season in terms of packages that featured tight ends and running backs, and the same should be expected in 2019 at the very least. While there should be no shortage of Hines lined up next to Luck in the shotgun, we should see a decent amount of him in pre-snap motion and sets where he’s moved out to the slot.
Should Hines continue to grow, he’ll only further cement himself as one of the better late-round finds at the running back position and play a heavy role in a rising Indianapolis franchise.