With teams still not able to properly access their facilities due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is some question about exactly if and when training camp will begin as well as what that will look like if it does. However, let’s assume that some of the early positive signs prove to hold up and we are able to resume some kind of normal. The Colts are primed to be an exciting team in 2020, and ahead of camp, we’re going to review every position group and see how they look on paper.
Today we’re going to take a look at the Colts running back room. This is a group that has the potential to be one of the absolute best in the NFL, and they’re matched with a coaching staff that wants to put them to work. So let’s take a look at the guys in this group and what makes them so exciting.
The Colts had a really solid rushing attack in 2019, finish 7th in rushing yards and averaging 4.5 yards per carry. The majority of that contribution was courtesy of Marlon Mack. Mack had a strong season, rushing for 1,091 yards and 8 touchdowns. In year three we saw his vision really make a leap and he became a guy who was willing to patiently wait on his blockers to get in place before exploding into the hole provided.
Mack’s smooth one-cut ability and his violent stiff arm are his calling cards, and he has the acceleration to get to top speed in a hurry. While he isn’t a power back, he was able to run through some tackles and on the whole proved he is more than capable of being the number one back for the Colts. At 6’ 210lbs, Mack will never be a bruiser, and his lack of production in the passing game limits his impact for the offense, but the Colts have a very good back in him, and should expect very good production in 2020.
With a very good lead back in Marlon Mack, the last thing most Colts fans expected with a second-round pick was for the team to take another running back. I’m not sure I’ve been more surprised by a single move Chris Ballard has made as the Colts GM than the selection of Jonathan Taylor. Once the dust settled though, I began to look at what exactly the Colts had added.
Jonathan Taylor is a prolific runner. He rushed for 2,000+ yards in both of his final two years at Wisconsin. At 5’10” 226lbs, he is a big, explosive runner with great top-end speed and the ability to run through contact. In a different era, Jonathan Taylor is probably a first round prospect. He is one of the top running backs in the class, and will step into a situation where he is set up to succeed.
The Colts have arguably the best run blocking offensive line in the NFL. Taylor should feast on the Colts’ opponents, and because he’ll be sharing snaps with Marlon Mack, he should be fresher and better prepared to be an impact player.
The thing that is really interesting about Taylor is his production in the passing game. At Wisconsin, Taylor wasn’t targeted as a receiver very often. In his three years there, he had just 42 receptions. His highest production in the passing game was in 2019, where he was used that way significantly more than the prior two years, catching 26 passes. He turned those 26 receptions into 252 yards and 5 touchdowns. If Taylor can become a weapon in the passing game and keep turnovers in check, he could have a really big year as a rookie.
As a runner, Nyheim Hines had a pretty uninspiring year in 2019. He rushed for 199 yards on 52 touches, mostly coming in for two-minute situations and to give Mack a breather. If it were down to only his rushing ability, there’s a real chance Hines might not be on this team in 2020.
Fortunately, Hines offers a lot more than that. First, there is his use in the passing game. Hines has a background as a slot receiver, and his hands, route running, and ability to go up for the ball reflect that. With a QB in Philip Rivers who likes to get the ball into the hands of his running backs, we should expect to see Hines utilized better in 2020 as a passing weapon. On offense, that was where he was most productive, using his track speed to make plays in the open field. He should be able to contribute in a big way in 2020 as a pass catching back.
Special teams is an added wrinkle that showed some real promise later in the 2019 season. Hines began fielding punts last season after Chester Rogers injured his knee, and the results were pretty electric. Hines returned 9 punts for 281 yards and two touchdowns. Even if he has no other impact on the roster beyond punt returns (unlikely), but can provide that kind of juice, he’ll be a critical part of the team’s success.
I am a major Jordan Wilkins fan, but this offseason there might not be anyone on the Colts roster who was damaged more by the incoming draft class. Wilkins has maximized his production despite minimal usage since he joined the team in 2018. He’s had 111 carries for 643 yards and a career yards per carry average of 5.8. As a rotational player who has largely gotten his snaps in relief of Mack, Wilkins consistently gets positive yards, finds the hole, and makes plays.
The problem for Wilkins is that he lacks elite athleticism to be a starting back. He has solid vision and balance, but he isn’t a power back and doesn’t offer the speed or burst of either Taylor or Mack. For a team like the Colts that uses a committee approach to the running game, Wilkins is ideal. He did struggle as a rookie with fumbles, coughing up the ball twice on 60 carries, although he didn’t fumble the ball in 2019. However, with the addition of Taylor, it is tough to see any way that Wilkins finds the field much in 2020 without some kind of injury.
If Jonathan Taylor lives up to the billing, this will be the best running back room as a whole that the Colts have had in my memory. Behind their bullying offensive line, the running game should nearly always be a threat for opposing defenses.
What are your thoughts on the Colts running back room?