There were three home run landing spots in this running back draft class. Clyde Edwards-Helaire going to Kansas City makes him the rookie RB1 and J.K. Dobbins has incredible upside in Baltimore, but Jonathan Taylor running behind Indianapolis’ offensive line is equally ideal.
Taylor was simply a prolific prospect. I’d bet that if we rewind the clocks back to 2012 and dropped Taylor in that draft, he would have been a top-20 pick. A loaded 2020 class combined with the NFL’s shift away from taking running backs early were the only reasons Taylor “slid” to 41 overall.
At Wisconsin, Taylor posted the most yards from scrimmage per season by any back in NCAA history (2,194). At the combine, Taylor ran a 4.39 forty yard dash at 226lbs, giving him the 10th-fastest weight-adjusted speed score by a running back all-time. Taylor also posted above-average scores in both the agility drills (three-cone and 20-yard shuttle) and tested above the 70th percentile in the broad and vertical jumps. And, yards created proved that Taylor was a highly instinctive runner.
In this rookie class, Taylor ranks third in yards created per attempt out of shotgun (5.48) and he’s first in YC/A when Wisconsin’s quarterback was under center (4.36). Taylor certainly benefited from above-average blocking relative to most college programs, but the Badgers offensive line wasn’t too big of an advantage. A.J. Dillon (1.90), D’Andre Swift (1.85), J.K. Dobbins (1.72), and Clyde Edwards-Helaire’s (1.58) offensive line all opened up more yards blocked per rush than Wisconsin (1.39 YB/A).
Unlike most college teams, Wisconsin uses a fullback on a large chunk of their running plays. In 2019, Jonathan Taylor had a FB blocking for him on 34% of his runs but he actually was more efficient without a FB (4.96 yards created/attempt) than with a FB (4.55 YC/A) on the field. Taylor’s record-breaking production definitely wasn’t all because of a strong Wisconsin scheme.
While Taylor is a decisive and efficient runner with excellent vision and footwork, he clearly isn’t a twitchy, make-you-miss-runner like Edwards-Helaire. Still, yards created revealed that Taylor’s agility is underrated. The majority of Taylor’s missed tackles came from elusiveness or speed on his charted carries:
|MT Forced/Carry - Elusiveness||MT Forced/Carry - Speed||MT Forced/Carry - Power|
Taylor’s impact on the ground certainly isn’t up for debate, but his ability on passing downs is. In this class, only A.J. Dillon ran fewer routes per game. And, in the seven games that I charted, Taylor was only asked to pass block twice. Some context is needed here, though. Wisconsin was the third-most run-heavy team in the Power 5 (59%) while Dillon’s Boston College squad ranked first (63% run-heavy). Meanwhile, teams like LSU, FSU, and Vanderbilt were passing on nearly 60% of their plays.
Wisconsin fed Taylor when they did pass, though. Taylor was targeted on 33% of his routes last year, which is the highest rate I have ever recorded over the last five years. Phenomenal pass-catching backs like Alvin Kamara (targeted on 31% of routes), Kenyan Drake (27%), and Christian McCaffrey (23%) were all heavily utilized as receivers in college and ranked top-5 in targets per route run. Taylor was efficient when he got passing looks, too. Only Zack Moss (2.4) gained more yards per route run than Taylor (2.3) in this class.
Sort of like Melvin Gordon when he came out of Wisconsin, Taylor might have untapped potential as a receiver entering the NFL. While Gordon had just 22 receptions for 228 yards and 4 TDs in his final three seasons in college (41 games), Taylor went 26/252/5 in 14 games this past year. Don’t mistake a lack of receiving production for a lack of skill.
Even though Marlon Mack has averaged over 75 rushing yards per game in back-to-back seasons, it is clear the Colts do not view him as their featured back. The Colts moved up to select Taylor in the second round and it’s worth noting that Mack will be an unrestricted free agent in 2021. It will be interesting to see if Nyheim Hines keeps his passing-down role, too. Hines has seen significantly more targets than Mack over the last two seasons, but it’s possible that the Colts just view Hines’ role as obsolete and roll a 50/50 committee with Taylor and Mack in Week 1.
With Philip Rivers entering his age-39 season, Indianapolis will be one of the most run-heavy teams in the NFL in 2020. Rivers’ skills are diminishing, but HC Frank Reich will likely lean heavily on the run and on play-action to “hide” his veteran quarterback. In fact, Reich is one of the most run-heavy coaches on early downs. Last year, the Colts were the fifth-most run-heavy team on 1st and 2nd downs (52%) behind only the Vikings (54%), Titans (56%), 49ers (57%), and Ravens (58%).
Whether or not Reich uses Jonathan Taylor as a receiver will be up for debate all offseason. Even though Mack showed he was a good receiver in college, he just hasn’t been involved in the Colts passing attack in his NFL career. Since entering the league in 2017, Mack ranks 49th among all running backs in targets (76). Nyheim Hines ranks 20th in this span with 139 targets despite playing in one fewer season than Mack.
There are two factors working in Taylor’s favor for his passing down upside, though. Taylor didn’t do much besides take 5-10 steps and turn around on his routes at Wisconsin, but it was clear they wanted to feature him as a receiver and the results were overwhelmingly positive. And, more importantly, Philip Rivers loves throwing to his running backs. Over the last three years, Chargers running backs ranked 1st (148), 6th (107), and 11th (92) in receptions. Sure, Reich rarely schemes passing looks to his backs -- he called the sixth-fewest RB screen or swing passes last season per SIS -- but Rivers’ tendency to check down could ultimately help Taylor’s receiving totals.
On the ground, Taylor’s fit with the Colts is perfect. I’ll just be excited that we get to see a talented runner behind the most talented offensive line in the NFL and let others debate the value of the pick. Taylor is the locked-in second overall pick in rookie dynasty drafts and, as a staff, we have Taylor at RB9 in our keeper rankings.
For redraft and best-ball leagues, I fear that the rookie’s hype might get out of hand this summer. There is a good chance that the Colts run a full-blown committee in 2020 as Reich alluded to in his post-draft press conference. Taylor is talented enough to eventually be a three-down back, but Mack isn’t just going to go away while Hines’ role remains a mystery. Since the end of the NFL Draft, Taylor’s average draft position sits at RB16 (26.2 overall) -- one spot behind Edwards-Helaire (RB15; 23.6 overall) in Best Ball10s.