Without a doubt, the most surprising draft pick during Chris Ballard’s tenure in Indianapolis is moving up in the second round to take running back Jonathan Taylor. The position didn’t generate a lot of attention for the Colts heading into the draft as it was seen as the most talented and deepest offensive skill position on the roster.
Marlon Mack is coming off of a career year, where he took on a bell cow level carry load. Jordan Wilkins has been effective and efficient as a second option to spell Mack on early downs. Multi-talented Nyheim Hines plays an important role on third-downs and as a passing target.
Jonathan Williams put together back-to-back 100 yard rushing games in Weeks 11 and 12 of the 2019 season and isn’t going to be re-signed to the roster. Week 11 saw both Mack and Williams rush for over 100 yards. When a team has a third or fourth string running back stringing together 100 yard rushing performances, it’s safe to say there isn’t a huge need to address the position.
Adding full back Roosevelt Nix makes the position even more dynamic and helps to cover up for the lack of depth at tight end. One way to take some physical mileage off of the backfield is to send a fullback as a lead blocker and reduce head on collisions.
The addition of Nix and Taylor puts Wilkins on the roster bubble. Given how productive he has been and how little mileage he has on his body, don’t be surprised if he is a cut week trade target. It’s unlikely the return will be particularly exciting, given the state of how running backs are valued in today’s game, but it seems unlikely the Colts keep five running backs on the roster.
If all of these things are true, why add Taylor to the mix? Why spend the draft capital on a luxury pick at a position that has been devalued at the NFL level? Why would Ballard buck his trend of being particularly thrifty in his efforts to address the running back position?
Part of the answer to the question is the changing landscape of what the Colts are and will need to be in order to be successful. The Colts have arguably the best starting offensive line in the NFL. The unit is strong in both phases but is strongest in the ground game.
They no longer have a long-term franchise quarterback on the roster. Philip Rivers will likely finish his career in Indianapolis and has suggested that he will play two more seasons at most. Jacoby Brissett is in a contract year and is unlikely to be a longer-term answer for the Colts. Chad Kelly is more likely to be on another team’s practice squad in 2020 than he is to stay in Indianapolis. Jacob Eason is a fourth round quarterback prospect with an incomplete game — due in part to putting together only one full season of production after transferring from Georgia.
The Colts’ ownership and front office knows it has a window to take advantage of with perhaps the best offensive line that has been constructed in franchise history. It knows that relying on the passing game to setup the run, as the franchise did for over a decade, isn’t going to work. If the passing game is going to have success, the team needs to find a way to open up play-action and keep defenses on their heels. The offense must find a way to dictate the flow of the game.
One way to do that is a dominant ground game. Ask the Titans.
Speaking of division opponents, the front office knows the AFC South isn’t particularly threatening through the air. Tannehill isn’t likely to throw Tennessee to a lot of wins. Minshew will face the second-year wall that most rookie quarterbacks face now that teams have film on him and can pick apart his game. Deshaun Watson is a legitimate Tier 1 or Tier 1.5 quarterback but his front office has lost its mind and he no longer has arguably the best wider receiver in the NFL as a weapon.
The Colts front office knows that it has a young defense that is starting to take shape — with key additions on the defensive line this offseason. The linebacker group is likely one of the most talented and deepest in the NFL. There are promising youngsters in the secondary as well.
A transcendent running back behind this offensive line could be ridiculously effective. A one-two punch of rushers who have 1,000+ yard capabilities can open up a lot for Rivers or whomever takes over in the next couple of years. If the division is unlikely to run up the score through an aerial game, a stout defense and dominant running game can get a franchise into the playoffs.
How will the Titans respond when the “run the ball down your throat” mantra is turned on them? Except the Colts will have a more established NFL signal caller, better offensive line, and better defensive line — oh and the Colts will have two running backs who can handle bell cow rushing loads.
Marlon Mack has made incredible strides in his career to become more comfortable and effective running between the tackles but his game is primarily based upon patience and elusiveness. He can’t take a huge beating between the tackles and prefers to bounce plays to the outside.
Jonathan Taylor has the vision, explosiveness and second-level burst to create game-breaking plays and get the most out of what this offensive line gives him. Together, they create a ridiculously talented and diverse group that defenses won’t be particularly excited to prepare for each week.
Much effort has been made to determine whether the Taylor pick was a good idea. In “With The Next Pick” episode 4, the Colts film team shows a clip where Ballard is discussing pick 34 and appears to be waffling between selecting Pittman or Taylor. He ended up with both. What did the Colts get with Taylor?
Credit to JumpinJermers for his Fanpost and to Cover1 for an in-depth film breakdown showing Taylor’s strengths and weaknesses. This is a long film but there won’t be any football to watch for months so it’s worth the time. It’s safe to say that the Colts are getting something different with Taylor and that behind this offensive line, he could be dangerous.
Final note: One of the things that stands out most about Taylor is not on film. He is a hard working player off of the field who dedicates time to his development physically and athleticially. He has shown this numerous times in his career, including by addressing concerns coming into college about a lack of breakaway speed and questions about his ability as a pass catcher. Don’t be surprised if he works to erase some of the weaknesses in this film breakdown and don’t overlook how valuable it will be to have Tom Rathman as a position coach to make him better.