This article is about a 14-minute read.
In a Backfield Breakdown, we will look at a team's running backs from all angles. Is there a bell-cow back on the roster? How about sleepers? What roles do we foresee from these backs?
Let's find out about the Colts right now.
Going into the 2020 offseason, the Colts backfield seemed to be in pretty good shape with Marlon Mack's and Nyheim Hines' individual strengths meshing well. Despite missing six games over the last two seasons, Mack has shown to be an effective runner -- gaining over 2000 total rushing yards over the last two seasons. Over that same span, Hines has caught over 100 balls. That's solid production from a young duo. Before the 2020 NFL Draft, it looked like fantasy players could easily project the backfield for the upcoming season.
Then, in Round 2, the Colts took the No. 6 all-time career rushing in NCAA history and the only player to gain 6000 rushing yards in three seasons.
How does Jonathan Taylor fit in the Colts backfield? Can Mack hold off the rookie and continue as the team's starter? Does Hines keep his receiving role? Is there anything for Jordan Wilkins to do?
How does this backfield shake out in 2020?
The Indianapolis Colts' offense this year will be quite different than in 2019. Last August we had the surprise retirement of Andrew Luck, creating a major void at quarterback that rippled down through the entire offense. Only Marlon Mack emerged as a real fantasy option last year, as he was the one-star player that posted solid RB2-type numbers.
Now that Indianapolis has had time to adjust to the post-Luck era, they adapted by adding veteran Philip Rivers under center and drafted two strong offensive prospects in RB Jonathan Taylor (Wisconsin) and WR Michael Pittman Jr Jr. (USC). I mention Pittman as he joins T.Y. Hilton to present two solid receiving options (along with TEs Jack Doyle and Trey Burton) that should keep defenses honest.
Looking back two years (and writing off 2019) is not a bad idea to get a glimpse of the potential future. Mack led the team in rushing both seasons, while Nyheim Hines was the third-down receiving back for those two years as well. Those roles are likely to be diminished as Taylor gets up to speed with Frank Reich's offense and starts to take over the backfield. Taylor was a top-notch workhorse at Wisconsin, scoring 50 touchdowns and racking up over 6,000 yards in his three seasons as a Big 10 Badger. Second-round draft pick running backs get work early and often, and he will push Mack and Hines for playing time as soon as he is ready.
As for their work assignments, which is the main takeaway that we all want here, I continue to follow the money. Marlon Mack is in the last year of his rookie deal and earning less than $1M, so he is a bargain for the Colts - and they are rather unlikely to extend him. Running backs are a commodity, and having a rookie learn the ropes while a veteran winds down his stay with the team is the modern method of managing an NFL backfield. The Colts' backfield will be all for Taylor by Thanksgiving (if not sooner) if all goes to plan, while Mack and Hines will be reduced to either goal-line vulture opportunities (Mack) or third-down rest (using Hines as a receiving option). As long as Taylor shows promise as both a receiver and in pass protection in September and October, it will be Taylor owners using him on a weekly basis in the second half of the 2020 season while Mack will be just a "hope for a touchdown" fantasy play.
Jeff is spot on with his assessment of the situation. While Marlon Mack has proven functional in a role, particularly given an uncertain supporting cast, the Colts didn't draft Jonathan Taylor for depth. Absent the pandemic, I think Taylor would've emerged as the Week 1 starter after OTAs and a strong preseason. But the pandemic is a reality and I suspect it'll force all teams to play it safe with rookie snap counts. Taylor, like any young running back, needs to learn the team's blocking schemes and prove to the coaches and quarterbacks he can handle blitz pickups. I have no reason to think he can't become a capable pass protector, but it may take some time into the regular season before the coaches fully trust him.
Mack's contract status may ultimately make his role stickier than some think because there's no long-term downside to giving him a heavy workload. The Colts can essentially wear Mack out and let another team worry about the consequences.
I'm modeling an approximate 50/50 split between Mack and Taylor through the first month, with Taylor gradually taking over the lead role. As Jeff opined, I see Taylor as a bellcow no later than November.
Hines' role is more a function of necessity than talent. He's a trustworthy receiver out of the backfield and has been vital for a team that lacks receiver depth. While Michael Pittman Jr is intriguing, I don't see him nor Trey Burton displacing the need for a 3rd-down running back. But Hines only had fantasy value because he got an inordinate target share, and even a 20%-30% reduction makes him waiver-wire fodder.
I liken this backfield in 2020 to the Browns in 2018. Cleveland opened with Carlos Hyde as the solid but unspectacular veteran starter early in the year but Nick Chubb's talent was undeniable, surging to the starting role by midseason. While I do not expect Marlon Mack to be traded like Hyde was two seasons ago, Mack will be more of a placeholder until Jonathan Taylor is ready for a role uptick, likely by midseason. Taylor is one of the potential league-changing players if his volume is robust to match his talent.
I echo the thoughts of my colleagues. I too believe this is Jonathan Taylor's backfield at some point this season, and it could be sooner than we think. Marlon Mack is no pushover, but the Colts invested big in Taylor and will look to harvest the fruits of his labor as soon as he is ready to accept and perform well in a larger role. Mack will be an unrestricted free agent at the conclusion of 2020 at the age of 25. He will look to land somewhere and continue his path in the NFL, as it likely will not be with the Colts. Mack will likely wind up being one of the better backup running backs in the league and if he is called upon to start, there is no reason to think he will struggle. From a fantasy sense, he is best utilized as a bench player or handcuff to Taylor.
I agree with the guys here - Mack isn't going to be able to hold off Taylor. Chad's analogy of Cleveland in 2018 (Chubb/Hyde) is a great pull and I totally agree. Out of all the rookie running backs, Taylor was one of the only ones I was seriously interested in for redraft purposes after the NFL draft, but as Jason pointed out, the pandemic has really hurt his chances to contribute early on. Having said that, he's a special player and the offensive line is going to make his transition easier. I think you have to be careful with Taylor early in the year, but I'd be shocked if he wasn't leading the backfield committee going into October.
Mack is a fine runner, and he won't give way easily, but oftentimes things are made out to be harder than they are. This is one of those cases. Mack hasn't been able to consistently stay healthy and isn't really a receiving threat. The Colts clearly thought they needed a franchise back and they got Taylor to be that guy. I don't think Mack completely fades away, but I would expect him to take a backseat once Taylor gets going.
Nyheim Hines is a wildcard in this backfield. Many feel as though the presence of Philip Rivers will automatically equate to Hines picking up more receptions. But I don't necessarily buy that logic. I think more than anything the selection of Taylor officially takes Hines off the fantasy redraft radar for all but super deep leagues. Taylor and Mack splitting up opportunities is going to relegate Hines to an even smaller role than before as he rotates in on third downs and picks up the scraps. Along those same lines, Jordan Wilkins is the odd man out. I doubt he gets cut because he's a decent player, but he won't be relevant without some cluster injuries in the backfield.
I think the analysis of Jonathan Taylor taking over later in the season is spot on. This situation reminds me of how as rookies Joe Mixon was blocked by Jeremy Hill and Nick Chubb was blocked by Carlos Hyde. By November, that turned out to be laughable. This all sets up to unleash Taylor, who is behind one of the top offensive lines in the NFL, down the stretch of the fantasy season and into the playoffs, when it matters the most. As a roster construction point, this year could present opportunities for veterans to hold jobs longer than we think. Like Marlon Mack, Mark Ingram II and Damien Williams are players commonly thought to be losing their jobs to rookies. I think Taylor is better than J.K. Dobbins and Clyde Edwards-Helaire, while Ingram and Williams are better than Mack, creating an opportunity for them to hold their jobs at least until Taylor takes over in Indianapolis. If you are going to take a shot on a rookie like Taylor, Cam Akers, or D'Andre Swift in drafts, incorporating a player like Ingram or Williams in your draft plan can leave you with roster options if rookies take time to develop this season.
The best thing about the Indianapolis Colts offense for the past few years has been its offensive line. This is a nasty, physical group that can win as a gap-blocking unit in the NFL on a regular basis.
Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Buffalo, and Philadelphia have units that are comparable in this respect. The Rams switched the gap because opposing defenses overplayed the outside zone until the stubborn Sean McVay finally realized he had to adjust about 10 months too late. The Washington Football Club has been running a lot of gap-blocking because Adrian Peterson has the frame and motor of a '57 Chevy in a demolition derby filled with fiberglass subcompacts.
Not including that Colts, that's six teams that run a lot of gap blocking. There are two spectrums of running styles that work optimally with this blocking:
The quick and decisive back with top-end speed (Chris Johnson back in the day) whose momentum-generated power breaks tackles in the box when he can get a nice runway into the hole.
The big and powerful back who is just nimble enough to set up this one crease the line is marshaling its resources to create and then bull through reaches, wraps, and hits. And if he has a clean shot, he's fast enough to reach the secondary and take opponents for rides of 10-15 yards. Think Jerome Bettis.
The best backs for this scheme are a blend of both. Rookie-year Leonard Fournette had top speed and pile-driving power. You might not find a better gap runner in history than Peterson in his prime.
Marlon Mack is the quick-and-decisive runner. He excited many at USF because of his speed, intensity, and vertical receiving ability. However, he was like one of those toys with the key to wind it up and it only went in one direction. There was no decision-making nuance to his game until he spent a couple of years with Frank Gore, another great gap runner that the league used as its teaching tape for its young backs (and still does).
Mack has become a competent NFL runner behind an excellent line. However, he lacks anything more than momentum generated power and he's not particularly creative. Jonathan Taylor is much closer to that Frank Gore-Adrian Peterson sweet center that combines the best of both spectrums of effective gap runners.
Taylor has excellent footwork, breakaway speed, big-back contact balance, and elite power. Taylor created more scrums that generated 5-7 yards (and sometimes more) than any college back I have watched. Mack might "sparrow" or "pigeon" some red-zone touches but with Taylor's skills, there's no way he can be a vulture.
He's also a creative runner who can diversify the Colts playbook with more zone plays that Mack does not run well but Jordan Wilkins does. This can make the scheme less predictable long-term.
As Jason mentioned, this year could be an acclimation period for Taylor as a pass protector. It was by far his worst skill at Wisconsin. When the desire and effort were present, Taylor was promising. All too often, he made egregious errors because those two components were missing.
Taylor also has a bad track record with ball security. While both are correctable, there could be an extended acclimation period due to COVID-19's impact on practices. Former lineman Ross Tucker and I were having a conversation about this earlier in the week. There's a level of muscle memory that linemen must generate when it comes to executing blocks that cannot be discussed but practiced in the same way that musicians have to rehearse an ensemble part in order to get a feel for the relative intonation, volume, and rhythm of their fellow players.
As the ballcarrier, backs also need to develop that timing with the line. So I expect this to be a bigger deal for Taylor with pass protection.
However, as a runner, Taylor has a superior feel to Mack right now. I expect Taylor to be the lead back within 4-6 weeks, and I wouldn't fault you for thinking 3-4.
You may want to run Mack into the ground, but you don't sign Rivers to a one-year deal without the plan to win-now. Taylor gives them the best chance to do so.
Of course, if Taylor falters with pass-pro, ball security, or an injury, Mack is competent enough to be an upper-middle-class version of Melvin Gordon III in fantasy leagues even if the difference on the field as a runner is more notable to the team.
Hines will be the two-minute and no-huddle option. He can run gap plays as needed but the Colts hope not to need him. Think Duke Johnson Jr on training wheels.
The only back with the vision, power, and contact balance to Taylor on this squad is Wilkins. Breakaway speed is the only thing Wilkins lacks as a ballcarrier. After Week 6 (the latest), expect this to be a Taylor-lead backfield with Mack earning the occasional series. But if the Colts run more zone, it's possible Wilkins overtakes Mack as the substitute.
Taylor is the most talented ballcarrier of the 2020 class with J.K. Dobbins not far behind. I have no problem taking Taylor this year as a starter to lean on--even if I have to wait a month for it to happen.
There isn't much I can add to how great Taylor is, and how perfectly he fits the Colts' scheme and offensive game plan. While there may be a ramp-up period, as the guys alluded to, Taylor has the profile you can ride to a championship in the second half of the season.
I like the idea of taking Taylor in Round 3 as part of an RB-RB-RB start. With this type of roster build, you're in no trouble if it takes a while for Taylor to get going, but if/when he emerges as the every-down back, he'll slot into your flex spot and potentially put your team over the top.
I wouldn’t hesitate to grab Marlon Mack later on, especially with how this season is likely to disadvantage rookies. Sure everything points to Jonathan Taylor being the starter by the end of the year, but we have seen numerous examples of rookie running backs taken where Taylor was in the draft or higher in recent years, not living up to expectations. In the last five years Rashaad Penny, Ronald Jones II, and Derrick Henry for one reason or another did not produce as rookies with not one of them finishing inside the top 40 rankings. Everything is sunshine and roses about Taylor’s prospects in the NFL, but hindsight can be cruel.
That said, I do like Taylor as a prospect and he lands in the perfect situation, except for the presence of a reliable, system proven running back who has the trust of the coaching staff.
Nyheim Hines should continue his change of pace, third-down role with maybe reduced effectiveness.
While Taylor's prospects have been outlined here, let's look at this on a purely value-based system. Taylor is being valued from a fantasy perspective as if there is a normal season. This season expects to be anything but normal, with Taylor having just five weeks of practice to get ready and learn the system. The other thing is we have no idea how the season is going to play out, there are scenarios in which practices could be limited this season which would only further limit Taylor's ability to supplant Mack. Finally, there are some things that could keep Taylor off the field and most concerning is ball security as he fumbled 18 times over his three seasons at Wisconsin which Marlon Mack has fumbled just twice in his three seasons in the NFL.
All said, while this could turn into Taylor's team, I'm avoiding him as there is not enough value for where he is currently being drafted, and if Mack slides in the draft a little bit, I'll be glad to take them. I want early-season production this year knowing that opportunity will open up later with the craziness that will surely unfold with COVID-19.
Coming into this conversation at the tail end, there isn't much to cover that hasn't been said. I will add a dose of value and reality that Devin touches on above. Look, I am 100% bought into Jonathan Taylor the back, the prospect, the player. In dynasty leagues, I'd grab him everywhere I could. It's a great scene with the nasty offensive line and young, improving defense and a creative offensive-minded play-caller and coach. I'll add that a common "shortcoming" for Taylor is perceived to be his receiving skills. Pass protection aside, I've seen enough of Taylor in that limited work to have full confidence in him as a pro. In time, I believe he'll be moved around, line up outside the backfield and the team will utilize his outstanding speed to put pressure on defenses in a multitude of ways.
Back to pumping the brakes and breathing value and reality into the discussion. For redraft leagues, there is just enough risk or concern to give me pause at drafting him at or near his ADP. Marlon Mack is a very credible running back who has improved each year, doesn't fumble, provides stability and he's not going to be phased out of the offense quickly or even this year perhaps. He could wind up being the DeAngelo Williams to Jonathan Stewart, who was also an incredible talent that was inexplicably forced to wait while being overdrafted annually until Williams actually missed time.
At ADP, I'm usually passing on Taylor, even though I would love to have shares of him and I'm confident in his career arc and the likelihood of being a successful back and RB1 in time. Mack is often available 10-to-20 picks beyond his ADP and that presents a pretty solid investment to round out your backfield as an RB4. As Devin noted, Taylor's Achilles Heel is fumbling. That can be fixed, but he coughed it up A LOT near the goal line. Ask any Badger fan about that. They could usually get over it because they were still rolling over most of their competition, but if/when that happens in the NFL I think it could have a much different consequence for Taylor and the Colts. Neither has the same cushion or comfort to allow for that kind of sloppiness.
As for Nyheim Hines, he muddies the picture because of his potential to be a James White or Danny Woodhead type. He shouldn't get too many carries, but if he is on the field in a majority of passing downs, two-minute offensive situations or similar, it creates even more of a likelihood that Taylor is not worth his ADP.
The wild card here that could lift Taylor above his ADP could be a potential treasure chest of rushing touchdowns. That's definitely in the range of outcomes, but if he coughs it up just one time too many, look out.