Hear me out, Colts nation! This isn’t an anti-Taylor article or anything, but I will explain in detail why I don’t think the Colts needed to trade up to take Taylor at 41st overall. Firstly, here’s the scouting report I wrote for the Stampede Blue draft guide.
Jonathan Taylor is in the perfect situation in Indianapolis for the following reasons:
- He will play behind one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, playing in their third year in the Frank Reich system.
- He gets to play behind one of the better fullbacks in the NFL in Roosevelt Nix.
- The Colts have an improved passing game with a good quarterback, a new legitimate rookie receiver and a potentially improved Parris Campbell. The passing game got better this offseason.
- He gets to play for a coaching staff and organization that clearly believes in him.
It’s for those reasons why I believe he is in a great situation and should be in a position to produce early on.
Taylor has a great combination of size, speed and athleticism. I wouldn’t call it rare since Ryquell Armstead put up similar numbers across most combine drills last season, but Taylor is more athletic than Armstead and 90% of running backs who have entered the draft over the last 15 years. He has very good vision and is clearly very experienced.
Here’s why I don’t love the pick...
Running Back Wall | Durability is a Serious Concern
The running back wall is undefeated.
The running back is the hypothetical career touches figure that, once a running back reaches, signals the end of their career. Most people put the figure at around 2400-2600 career touches. For the sake of this exercise, let’s use 2500 as the magic number. If we take the following 6 players as an example:
- Frank Gore
- Adrian Peterson
- Steven Jackson
- Emmitt Smith
- Jerome Bettis
- Edgerrin James
Here are their stats after their 2500th career touch (taken from the point after the season in which they reached the number):
- Gore — 1498 touches, 6504 yards (4.3 yards per touch), 27 touchdowns
- Peterson — 706 touches, 2969 yards (4.2 yards per touch), 15 touchdowns
- Jackson — 718 touches, 3025 yards (4.2 yards per touch), 18 touchdowns
- Smith — 2242 touches, 9219 yards (4.1 yards per touch), 67 touchdowns
- Bettis — 1056 touches, 4135 yards (3.9 yards per touch), 42 touchdowns
- James — 868 touches, 3401 yards (3.9 yards per touch), 16 touchdowns
If we take the average of those numbers you get a figure of 4.1 yards per touch. To put it in perspective, Royce Freeman, who is about to become the third string running back on the Broncos achieved a 4.3 yards per touch figure in 2019. Those 6 running backs listed are some of the greatest in the history of the game, but are pedestrian, replaceable and not effective after the 2500th carry.
Taylor has 968 career touches. That leaves Taylor with 1532 left before he hits that number and essentially becomes pedestrian replaceable and ineffective. Marlon Mack, last year’s #1 running back, received an average of 18.65 touches per game in 2019. Over the course of a 16 game season, that’s 298 touches. If the Colts give Taylor that same load, then that gives the Colts just over 5 seasons of good play from him. If the Colts want to treat him like Ezekiel Elliott and make him the focal point of the offense and run it through the bell-cow running back (which is what it sounds like), then that means he’ll get 24.25 touches per game (Elliott’s career average). If he gets that over the course of a 16 game season, that’s 388 touches. If they give him that load, then they’ll get only just under 4 seasons of effective play. If they want to treat him like Zeke and run him into the ground, then Taylor won’t even be effective by the end of his rookie deal.
Now, some of you might think “we don’t want him for more than 4 years anyways”, which is a very fair point, but if that’s the case, do you want to spend a high 2nd round pick (and a 5th round pick to trade up) for a player you’re going only going to need for one contract? I personally think that when you spend a high draft pick on a player, you have the expectation that he will be on the roster for more than 4-5 years.
Remember, the running back wall is undefeated and the greatest running backs of all time are the proof.
The History of Wisconsin Running Backs & Their Careers in the NFL
Wisconsin has essentially operated the same type of offense over the last decade and a half. They have a bruising, power running game that relies on strong blocking up front and a bell cow running back. Don’t believe me, look at the numbers. From 2011 to 2019, there have been 21 Wisconsin offensive players drafted. Of those players:
- 16 (76.2%) of those players are running backs, fullbacks or offensive linemen
- 2 (9.5%) were tight ends.
- 2 (9.5%) were receivers, both of whom didn’t last more than 4 years in the NFL.
- 1 (4.8%) was a quarterback and it was Russell Wilson... a future Hall of Famer.
If you go back over the Wisconsin offenses over the last decade, they are largely the same. Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon were two bell-cow running backs with the Badgers and both had similar roles to that of Taylor. Here’s how all three performed in their last two seasons in college:
Montee Ball — 697 touches, 4131 yards (5.9 yards per touch), 61 touchdowns
Melvin Gordon — 569 touches, 4359 yards (7.7 yards per touch), 44 touchdowns
Jonathan Taylor — 627 touches, 4509 yards (7.2 yards per touch), 42 touchdowns
Ball was taken in the 2nd round (58th overall) by the Broncos, Gordon 15th overall by the Chargers and now Taylor taken 41st overall by the Colts. Ball lasted three years in the NFL before being replaced by an undrafted running back in CJ Anderson and then fizzling out not long after.
Gordon is still kicking in the NFL, but in my opinion is not one of the best 12-15 running backs in the NFL. He has broken 4 yards per carry once in his career and if it weren’t for his numerous goal-line touches, he wouldn’t have many touchdowns. He signed a nice contract with the Broncos so the door is still open on his legacy, but as of right now, no one in their right mind would argue for him being a top 15 pick. The funny part is that he was easily outplayed by Austin Ekeler, an undrafted free agent, last season as Ekeler had 1550 yards from scrimmage. Those 1550 yards from scrimmage essentially match Gordon’s best season at 1581, but here’s the kicker, Ekeler got to 1550 in 120 less touches. Granted, Ekeler was more of a receiving back, but it’s hard to ignore that production, from an undrafted free agent no less. In my opinion, I’ll take Elliott, Barkley, McCaffrey, Chubb, Cook, Kamara, Henry, Mixon, Bell, Jacobs, (Aaron) Jones, Gurley, Conner, Carson, Mack, Ingram, Sanders and Ekeler over Gordon. There’s an argument for more players too. That means if we had a hypothetical draft of only NFL running backs, Gordon wouldn’t make my top 15 and he might not even make the top 20.
Taylor, largely was the same type of running back, but had a much better combination of size, speed and athleticism than both (especially Ball), so he has that going for him.
Are You Getting More from Taylor than you would from the Average Running Back?
This is the biggest question I have. Marlon Mack, who is only 24 years old, has put up good numbers in Indianapolis and clearly has improved each year in the offense. Take the average running back in the NFL, what figures do they put up?
In my opinion, I consider the following three players to be average NFL running backs at this point in their careers (ignoring potential):
- Marlon Mack
- Carlos Hyde
- Sony Michel
I chose them because they are in the middle of the pack in just about every major rushing category, advanced and not advanced. They also have minimal rookie contracts and/or average non-rookie contracts.
If you combine the stats of their 2019 seasons, you get these numbers:
- Per-Game Average — 16.8 touches | 71.5 yards from scrimmage (4.25 yards per touch) | 0.45 touchdowns
- 16-Game Season — 269 Touches | 1,144 scrimmage yards (4.25 yards per touch) | 7 touchdowns
So those numbers indicate the numbers you get from an average NFL running back. He gets you 4.25 yards per touch.
If you look at the numbers of upper echelon running backs, you’re obviously going to see better numbers. I’ll choose three players who I believe are in the 5-10 range of best running backs in the NFL:
Their averages from 2019 are as follows:
- Per-Game Average — 20 touches per game | 108 scrimmage yards (5.4 yards per touch) | 0.87 touchdowns
- 16-Game Average — 320 touches | 1728 scrimmage yards (5.4 yards per touch) | 14 touchdowns
You can see by the yards per touch averages that the upper echelon players get 1.15 more yards per touch than the average guys.
If you want to talk about the elite running backs in the NFL, then we’ll choose:
- Christian McCaffrey
- Ezekiel Elliott
- Derrick Henry
Their 2019 averages are as follows:
- Per-Game Average — 22.95 touches | 125.85 scrimmage yards (5.48 yards per touch) | 1.08 touchdowns
- 16-Game Season — 367 touches | 2014 scrimmage yards (5.48 yards per touch) | 17 touchdowns
So when you compare the three yards per touch figures, it’s 4.25 (average running back) vs 5.4 (upper echelon running back) vs 5.48 (best of the best running backs).
Let’s start comparing Taylor’s potential numbers versus that of those three types of running backs. Let’s use 300 touches as the benchmark figure.
On 300 touches:
- The average running back gets 1275 yards from scrimmage.
- A running back who is the median (middle) between the average running back and the upper echelon running back would have a yards-per-touch figure of 4.83, which means he would get 1449 yards from scrimmage.
- The upper echelon running back gets 1620 yards from scrimmage.
- The best of the best running back gets you 1644 yards from scrimmage.
Since we consider Marlon Mack to be an average running back, Taylor would need to be better than the average to justify being worth a high draft pick and replacing Mack. Let’s say he has a great 4 years and becomes an upper echelon running back (5-10 range), it means he’ll get you an extra 345 scrimmage yards per year or 21 scrimmage yards per game.
If he becomes the “better than average but worse than upper echelon” running back, then he’ll get you an extra 174 scrimmage yards per year or 11 scrimmage yards per game.
The new question we need to ask ourselves is: Was it worth spending a high 2nd round pick on a player who will get you an extra 11 yards per game over the guy he’s replacing? If he’s upper echelon, then it’s the same question but with 21 yards per game.
The Colts averaged 327 yards per game on offense last season. 21 extra yards per game equates to a 6.4% boost on offense. 11 extra yards per game equates to a 3.3% boost. Not to beat a dead horse, but the question you need to ask is was it worth spending a high 2nd round pick on a player who will only marginally improve your offense. Would the Colts have been better served to spend that pick on Denzel Mims (for example) to give the passing offense to new exciting weapons with high ceiling? Considering the fact that passing accounted for 60% of the offense in 2019, one (including myself) might make that argument.
Even if Taylor becomes a top 3 running back in the NFL, then you’re only getting an extra 23 scrimmage yards per game, which would equate to a 7% boost to the offense.
If you want to look at it in points and wins, then:
- Upper echelon — 6.4% increase in points which means 23 extra points for the Colts over the course of the season. With all things being equal on defense, that would mean that he adds 0.5 wins to your season total.
- Better than average but worse than upper echelon — 3.3% increase in points which means an increase of 11 points over the course of the season. With all things being equal on defense, that would means that he adds 0.24 wins to your season total.
Neither are significant figures, especially from a high 2nd round pick.
For the record, I believe that Taylor is going to be a good running back and won’t be a flop and underperform. I think he has the necessary skills plus the right pieces around him to be a better than average running back. However, if he doesn’t perform up to the level of an average running back then this is an ugly pick.
If you want to go with a running back, you might get the same amount of production out of Darrynton Evans or Zack Moss, who were taken late in the 3rd round.
What needs to be understand is that the running back position is the easiest to replace in the NFL. What that means is that you can find cheap options in free agency or prospects in the 3rd, 4th or 5th round of the draft that can give a similar boost to your offense as the guys taken in the first or second round. That isn’t the case for quarterbacks, for example. Importance is the reason why starting quarterbacks get paid much, much, much more than starting running backs.
To put things in perspective, the starting running backs in this year’s Super Bowl were both undrafted free agents who had played on at least one team before hand (in the case of Mostert, a member of six rosters or practice squads before ending up in San Francisco).
In my opinion, after breaking down the numbers, you can see how taking a running back that high in the draft might not be worth it, especially considering all the average running backs that are playing on Sundays. If Taylor exceeds expectations and becomes a top 10 running back, you’re only going to get an extra 20 yards per game from scrimmage. That figure is not worth the high 2nd round pick.
Marlon Mack vs Jonathan Taylor
College + NFL Touches
Mack - 1238 career touches
Taylor - 968 career touches
Marlon Mack is entering the final year of his contract next season. He will be a free agent next offseason and will most likely ask for a contract that pays him between 6.5 and 9M per year. That is a premium price for a player who performed like an average running back in 2019.
Taylor, on the other-hand, will be under contract for 4 years. Dalton Risner, the 41st pick in last year’s draft had a 4 year contract worth 7.142M and his 1st and 2nd year cap hits were 1.298M and 1.623M, respectively. If we bump the contract by 6% (which is the increase in the salary cap), then we’ll see cap hits of 1.375M and 1.72M in year 1 and year 2. If we do the same thing for year 3 and 4, then you get cap hits of 2.06M and 2.40M.
Let’s assume that Marlon Mack signs a 3 year contract worth 22.5M after the season. The Colts will save approximately 16.3M over 3 seasons (5.44M per season) by replacing Mack with Taylor. Even if Taylor has the exact same production as Mack, then financially, it’s a smart move for the Colts.
Running Back Wasn’t a Need
No matter which way you slice it, this was not a need of the Colts. Even after the selection of Pittman, receiver, defensive end, safety, offensive line depth and a long-term option at quarterback were all bigger needs in my opinion. Last year I was publicly upset by the passing of AJ Brown (my #1 wide receiver) by the Colts in favour Ben Benogu, in which I thought defensive end was not a pressing need at the time with Houston, Sheard and Turay all on the roster. The Taylor pick reminded me of that situation from last year, where they passed on the short-term need for the long-term answer.
We can debate Mack’s status after the 2020-21 season, but the reality is the Colts had Mack, Hines and Wilkins on the roster this year. All performed very well in the roles last season and are young enough to where they can easily get better.
Final Thoughts & Recap
As you can see, this is much more than a good pick or bad pick type of situation. There are a lot of moving parts that need to be considered.
Financially, it makes a lot of sense for the Colts. They’ll replace Mack with a much cheaper running back, who might even be better than Mack.
Stylistically, it’s a great fit for both parties. Taylor joins a team that wants to pound the rock with a fullback in front of him and has one of the best of offensive lines in the NFL.
The first big issue for me is the question of whether the Colts needed to spend a high 2nd round plus a 5th round pick to trade up 3 spots for a running back whose production could be matched by a running back who is chosen in the 3rd or 4th round, or by a free agent the Colts can sign next season.
The other big issue is the question of durability and the dreaded running back wall. If the Colts run him into the ground, then we might only get 4 seasons of good, effective play from Taylor. Is that what you want from the 41st overall pick? I don’t think most teams look at their high 2nd round pick as only a 4 year project. If they can split him with Mack next season (assuming Mack is even on the roster) and they can squeeze out 6 good seasons out of Taylor, then that’s another story.
The Colts have pressing needs that needed to be addressed and running back was not one of those needs.
If you actually read through the article then you know that I’m torn on the pick, but I definitely don’t love it. I gave Taylor a 3rd round grade so I don’t see it as very good value, but Taylor is a very good running back. He’s a perfect fit for the Colts offense and I think he’ll be a productive running back.
My personal opinion at this point in time is that Taylor is not going to hurt the Colts and probably has more potential than Marlon Mack, but I don’t think it was necessary to take him with the 41st overall pick.
At the end of the day, you want to take the player who will have the biggest impact on your team. While I believe Taylor will have a good impact, I believe there were players that could’ve been selected at 41 that would’ve had a bigger impact than Taylor considering the needs and dynamic of the team.