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Colts rookie running back Jonathan Taylor needs to step up his game

New York Jets v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Bobby Ellis/Getty Images

No, this isn’t a “sound the alarm” type of article.

When you select a running back in the 2nd round and you have one of the best offensive lines in football, you need to perform. Over his first three starts, Jonathan Taylor has been underwhelming and ineffective. Before you roll your eyes, this isn’t an article declaring him as a bust, in fact it’s far from it. Even though I wasn’t a fan of the selection (which I wrote about after the draft), Taylor, in my opinion, has a two year window where he has to impress. So, three subpar games won’t hurt his longterm stock or his value. It should, however, serve as a wake up call.

Let’s look at why he’s been underperforming and why he needs to pick up his game.


The Numbers Don’t Lie

Jonathan Taylor’s Key Stats

3.8 yards per carry

2.1 yards after contact per attempt

8.3% broken tackle percentage

4.6 yards per touch

40 Attempts per Broken Tackle

Taylor’s 4.6 yards per touch ranks 49th out of all players who have at least 6 touches per game over the first three games of the season. His 40 attempts per broken tackle figure puts him in the bottom 10 of qualified rushers. His 3.8 yards per carry figure ranks him 37th out of all qualified rushers. His other two figures (yards after contact and broken tackle percentage) are well below the NFL average.

In short, the key running back numbers show that he’s below the median and mean and that he’s not performing well.

Football Outsiders ranks the Colts offensive line as a middle of the pack team in terms of their run blocking this year, so while the offensive line isn’t clicking like they should, they are playing well enough so that their running backs can perform.


The Colts have had games versus weak opponents

The overall record of the Colts’ opponents are 1-8. Those opponents have allowed, on average, 31 points a game in each of their first 3 games. Those teams allow around 4.1 yards per carry in those games, and those numbers are slightly misleading as when teams are up big (which has been the case in several of those games), the leading team tends to run a lot more and the losing team tend to play the run as they know the leading team will not pass the ball.

According to the Football Outsiders, the Vikings and Jaguars rank in the bottom 40% of the NFL in terms of DVOA, which is their measure that “measures a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent.”

The Jets are ranked 11th, but have the 5th worst defense in terms of points allowed and 3rd worst in “Yards Per Point Allowed”. They are a weak defense by many measures and clearly by watching them in their first three games, they are probably one of the three worst teams in the NFL.


He struggles running outside the tackles

When running outside of the left and right tackle, he has 18 attempts for 46 yards (2.5 yards per carry) with only one rush over 10 yards. He also only gets 1.4 yards after contact per attempt on runs outside the tackles. His speed isn’t showing and he’s not running with confidence to the outside. In college, he’s more used to running between the tackles since that’s where Wisconsin did most of their running and that’s where the strength of their offense lied, but in the NFL, Taylor will need to establish an outside running game.


His teammates are outperforming him

Jordan Wilkins and Nyheim Hines have been just as effective, if not more effective than Taylor. If we take Taylor’s number from the “The Numbers Don’t Lie” section and take the same figures from Hines and Wilkins, we’ll see that he is being outperformed by both.

Hines

3.5 yards per carry

2.0 yards after contact

7.1% broken tackle percentage

5.1 yards per touch

Wilkins

4.4 yards per carry

3.60 yards after contact

22.2% broken tackle percentage

4.5 yards per touch

Wilkins’ numbers are very telling as he sees the same type of looks as Taylor does. He sees 8+ defenders in the box 27% of the time compared to the Taylor who sees it 29% of the time. Yet, despite the same looks and the same offensive lines, Wilkins outperforms Taylor in every major category, especially in terms of breaking tackles and moving forward after contact.

According to Pro Football Focus which has an elusive rating that measures “the success and impact of a runner with the ball independently of the blocking in front of him by looking at how hard he was to bring down”, Wilkins has the best rating in the entire NFL of all runners who have played in at least 20% of their team’s total offensive snaps. Taylor, on the other hand, has a rating that ranks him 39th out of those 53 qualified rushers.

On outside runs, Wilkins has 11 attempts for 57 yards (5.2 yards per carry) with a yards after contact (per attempt) figure of 4.6. Taylor has outperformed him in between the tackles.

Hines’ numbers show that he’s a dynamic player with the ball in his hands and is more of an elusive player instead of a hard-nosed runner. The Colts have tried using him in goal-line situations when the numbers and his size show that that’s not the right move. Wilkins’ numbers show that he deserves more carries in the red-zone.

So in short, Taylor has been the best runner in between the tackles, Wilkins has been the more explosive runner and better outside the tackles and Hines has been the most versatile runner who has been the best with the ball in his hands.


Future Opponents

The Colts play the Bears, Browns and Bengals in the next 3 weeks. The Bears and Bengals rank in the bottom half of the NFL by most run defense measures and the Browns are a borderline top 10 team in that regard. The Colts, especially with more reps and more gelling should get better and they operate at their best when they establish the run and don’t rely heavily on the passing game. Taylor’s productivity will be crucial in those three games, and strong performances from Jonathan Wilkins could cause the Colts to completely split carries.


Taylor’s career is off to a slow start, but it’s not time to worry yet. The Colts coaching staff needs to get Jordan Wilkins a lot more involved in the running game and Nyheim Hines more involved in the passing game. Their success in the run game will be vital to their success on offense, so the right approach needs to be used.