In my last article “Projecting Jonathan Taylor’s Next Contract”, I hinted about writing about the monetary value of rushing yards. The initial question was whether paying an inferior running back for a lot less money was better than paying a superior running back for more money, with the logic being the downgrade won’t be too big and the extra funds can be spent on more important positions.
How Much does 1 Yard Cost?
To start, we need to plot all running backs with at least 50 carries in the NFL last season and work from there. If we chart all players who are not on rookie deals and who had at least 100 carries last season (22 players), we see a pretty obvious trend appear. We don’t choose players from rookie deals since those are cheap, non-negotiated and set contracts (with tremendous value).
As expected, the more you spend on running backs, the more total yards (rushing and receiving) you can expect to gain. How much exactly? According to the data from last season, to achieve one yard from a running back, you need to pay around $5770.
Jonathan Taylor’s Numbers
Over the past 3 seasons, had Jonathan Taylor played a full 17 game schedule, he would’ve rushed and received for:
2020 — 1663 Yards
2021 — 2171 Yards
2022 — 1551 Yards
In 2023, according to NumbersFire, he is projected to gain 1927 total yards.
If he achieves 1927 yards, that means that the Colts should be paying 11.1M to get him. In my previous article projecting his salary, I figured that after this season, Taylor would be playing under a contract paying him between 11M and 11.5M per season. So the projection makes sense for Taylor.
The Cost of an Average NFL Running Back
The toughest part of this is figuring what is an average NFL running back. When looking at the rushing stats from last season, guys who fall in the middle of the pack and average category are the following:
- Raheem Mostert — 1093 Total Yards (75 per game as a starter)
- D’Onta Foreman — 940 Total Yards (76 per game as a starter)
- Devin Singletary — 1099 Total Yards (69 per game as a starter)
- David Montgomery — 1117 Total Yards (70 per game as a starter)
All 4 are essentially in the middle in terms of rushing yards, rush attempts and WAR amongst qualified players. In terms of their contracts, their annual average value of their current contracts are:
- Mostert — $2,800,000
- Foreman — $2,000,000
- Singletary — $3,125,000
- Montgomery — $6,000,000
The average of those 4 deals is approximately $3,500,000. If we project Jonathan Taylor’s average yearly contract value at $11,500,000, it means the downgrade to an average running back would save the Colts around $8,000,000 per season.
The four of them average 73 total yards per game as a starter which is 40 less than Taylor and that adds up to 680 less yards over the course of the season. So, with 8 more million in the bank, how do you spend it?
Spending the Money
Trading away Taylor would be the ultimate scenario since they would attain a decently high draft pick plus still able to spend most of the $8 million from the above scenario (getting rid of Taylor and signing an average running back).
With or without the additional draft picks, the Colts will still need to find the most efficient way of spending the money. In this case, they need to make up at least 680 lost yards and ideally the surpass that number to create a net positive.
The receiver market is very overvalued at the moment so you won’t find too much value there and you especially won’t find a receiver in the $8 million range who will add 700+ yards to an offense. Receiving tight ends tend to fall into that same category.
If we look at offensive line, that’s where you could find some serious value. The Colts had 439 rushing attempts and 604 passing attempts last season, so in order to replace 680 yards, they’ll need to replace at least 0.65 yards per play. It means that the passing game will need to find 408 yards and the running game 272 yards. In order for the rushing game to get 0.6 yards per play better and the passing game get better by about 0.68 yards per attempt, the weakest part of the offensive line needs to be bolstered.
The clear weak point of the offensive line last season were the left tackle and right guard spots. While it’s hard to quantify exactly how much an offensive lineman contributes, we could measure it using approximate value (Pro Football Reference stat). In order to replace 0.65 yards per play, we see that the rest offense needs to improve by around 12%. For the sake of the exercise, we’ll say they only contribute to 45% of the success of the offense (5 out of 11 players). You could argue that contribute more or less, but we’ll stick with 45% for now. In order for one player, in this case an offensive lineman, to improve the offense by 12%, the Colts will need to find an upgrade at one position who is 132% better than his replacement.
If we look at Will Fries, his Approximate Value in 2023 was 3 in 9 games started (17 games played). Over the course of 17 games as a full time only starter, his approximate value would be around 5. His replacement would have to have an approximate value of 11 in order to ensure the offense ends up in a net positive situation after losing Taylor. If the Colts received a draft pick from a Taylor trade, the player they select would also add to the offense.
So as you can see, there’s a lot of chasing around that the Colts would have to do, but if done properly, they could come out well on top, especially if they do decently well with a draft pick. It’s essentially a game of filling the void. The Colts can spread the new wealth across the board and slightly upgrade 2 or 3 spots (by 2 AV each).
What to do with Jonathan Taylor?
I’ll admit... I’ve gone back on this subject week to week. My opinion changes on this a lot too; I even felt one way in one article in the past and then in another article some time later I was in a different place. In my Taylor Projection article last week, my tone was more on the get rid of him side, and while (gun to my head) it’s still on that side, I’m more 50/50 now. Of my 8 or so years on this site, the keep or dump Taylor subject is one of the more complex I’ve ever debated and I think many analysts and fans feel the same.
The main issue with running backs in generals is that it is not beneficial for you to have a lot of money tied up to them. Super Bowl winning teams win without premier, highly paid running backs. The Chiefs, Rams, Bucs, Eagles and Patriots (the last 5 unique Super Bowl champions) all had running backs by committees with the highest paid running back of the bunch making 3M. Granted, all teams have/had elite quarterbacks playing at the highest level, and have a lot of things going for them that the Colts currently don’t have, but in order for the Colts to reach the level of a Super Bowl contender, they’ll need to slowly start constructing their team like one, and paying a running back a very big contract doesn’t push the needle in that direction, no matter how good he is. The Browns had the best running back tandem over the past 2 seasons and they don’t even have a winning record, let alone a playoff appearance. Derrick Henry has been the best running back over the past 5 years; he’s performed as well as any running back can perform in today’s age and I can’t imagine Taylor performing better than Henry did during his prime. The Titans completely built their offense around him and built a nice defense led by a great head coach and although they had one nice run to the Championship round, in other years they either missed the playoffs or failed to get past the Divisional Round. What I take away from that is despite having an incredible running back, who you build your offense around (not to mention a very good defense and great coach), the best they can do in a 5 year span is an AFC Championship appearance. It’s nothing to scoff at, but it’s not a championship and they didn’t come close. It’s just not a winning formula in today’s NFL.
Why the addition of Shane Steichen hurts Jonathan Taylor & why the Eagles are a great model for the Colts
If we look back at the last 3 seasons of Shane Steichen, we see a trend appear with him and running backs; he doesn’t have a bell-cow running back who eats carries. He has, however, employed a run-first offense with his Eagles offenses being at least 50% run (amongst the highest in the NFL in both seasons). The thing is, the lead running back Miles Sanders averaged only 16 touches per game last season and 13.5 in 2021. Last season, Boston Scott and Kenneth Gainwell took around 20%. In 2021, the snaps were well split between Sanders, Howard, Gainwell and Scott. He also received a lot of rushing attempts from Jalen Hurts in both seasons.
What that tells me is that he wants to running game to be spread around amongst a few different players and he won’t just rely on one guy. This past offseason with Sanders’ contract up, the Eagles let him walk to Carolina for a 4 year, 25.4M dollar deal. The Eagles’ could’ve afforded him and could’ve kept him around, but they decided to trade for a cheap running back with a lot of upside in D’Andre Swift and rely on Gainwell and Scott to carry some of the load. To me, I see a similar fate coming for Taylor.
The Eagles are a great model for the Colts because the Colts will look to build their new offense like Philly did and hopefully get similar production from a very talented quarterback with tremendous rushing ability. The Eagles decided to put a lot of resources into their offensive line and their receivers, instead of propping up the running back room. This model led them to nearly winning a Super Bowl last season. The Colts could be going down the same path: they got the coach, they got the quarterback, now they just need to prop up the offensive line and find another receiver. Doing all that will leave the running back group left in the dust, but that strategy worked for Philly.
Jonathan Taylor will be with the Colts this season and there’s a lot of to be excited about, but also a lot of questions; will Steichan get the most out of him? Will he use him extensively? Will the addition of Anthony Richardson raise his game to another level, if and when Richardson plays? To me, it’s the number 1 storyline heading into this season.