It seems like every year since Edgerrin James left, there have been questions about the Colts running game. That’s no different this year, despite a promising performance last season by the three-man committee of Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines, and Jordan Wilkins. It’s presumed that Mack will be the lead back this year, and, barring injury, he’ll likely see more carries than any of the other backs on the roster.
Likewise, most people think that Nyheim Hines will be the third down “scat back”, who will often be split out as a receiver in addition to his duties as a running back. There’s only one issue with these assumptions: Based on the data from last year, it’s entirely possible that Jordan Wilkins is a better running back than Hines, and maybe (eventually) even than Mack.
According to Pro Football Reference, these are the rushing stats for Hines, Mack, and Wilkins last year.
As you can see, not only did Wilkins lead the team in yards per attempt, he also had more rushing yards per game than did Hines, despite having fewer rushing attempts per game. Additionally, Wilkins had the longest carry from scrimmage for the Colts last year, for 53 yards. Mack’s longest rush was for 49 yards, and Hines’ was only 18. Strangely, this rush was following by a prolonged seat on the bench.
Another misconception among Colts fans is that Wilkins is not a good receiving back. Again, if we reference the data from last year, we can see that this may not be as clear cut as we assumed.
Hines appears to be the best receiver out of the backfield, based on his total yards and yards per attempt, but Wilkins looks awfully similar to Mack, in terms of total receiving yards and receptions per game. Wilkins had much less volume than did the other two backs, but a reception rate of 94.1% would seem to indicate that he’s more than capable of catching the ball when it’s thrown to him. Having a back who can not only be a threat in the running game, but also is a capable receiver, is a godsend for any offensive coordinator.
My personal belief is that the Colts offense became somewhat predictable last year when Hines was the only back on the field, since it was pretty obvious that the team was going to pass in those situations. I think Wilkins could help mix things up and keep defenses guessing.
Wilkins’ production seemed to dip later in the year, especially after Marlon Mack got healthy and regained the starting position. There were also some well-publicized “fumble issues” that Wilkins went through that seemed to land him in the dog house with the coaches. This is often referenced by critics when speculating about Wilkins’ chances at contributing this year.
Before we get too down on him, we should keep in mind that Mack himself had the same number of fumbles on the year. Granted, he did it on far more carries, but we can’t definitively say how many Wilkins would have ended up with if he had continued to get carries at the same rate as he did at the beginning of the year.
The running back room seems to be pretty set, going into the season. Mack is the starter, with Hines, Wilkins, and possibly Williams and/or newcomer D’Onta Foreman getting whatever scraps are left when Mack needs a breather. Certainly, it remains to be seen how all the backs perform in the preseason before a true depth chart can be established, but I would just caution everyone to not sleep on Jordan Wilkins, a guy whom I think could have a significant impact this year, if he gets the opportunity.