INDIANAPOLIS – It’s imperative the running backs room is tight and teeming with trust.
Jonathan Taylor’s immediate future depends on it.
The Indianapolis Colts’ second-round draft pick – a ridiculously prolific running back out of Wisconsin – has maximized what has been a virtual, Zoom-driven offseason. He’s mixed that with on-field work in Arizona, although much of that has been solo since the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly reduced players – rookies and veterans alike – traveling and gathering for more extensive work.
Now, he’s in Indy and involved in the players-only, Philip Rivers-led workouts.
“Shoot, this is one of the first times you’re able to get together, and so far, it’s just been staying safe and working out,’’ Taylor said Tuesday on a Zoom conference call. “Now you get a little fun being around some of the guys you’ll be working with throughout the season.
“I had to take advantage of this opportunity.’’
It hasn’t been all work, however. There’s the not-so-minor task of finding a suitable residence in Indy, and he’s looked to his new position teammates for help. That’s where Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines, Jordan Wilkins and others have been instrumental.
None are part-time realtors, but they know the lay of the land.
Taylor hasn’t hesitated to reach out to his new ‘mates.
“Asking them about the surrounding area and towns,’’ he said. “Especially in time like this it’s kind of hard to find a place when you’re not able to actually physically go to that place and check it out.
“I just hate going off pictures. I actually want to feel the vibes inside the potential place that I’m going to be staying at. Those guys have definitely been helping me out.’’
That has spilled into Taylor’s assimilation into the offense and the running backs room.
“They’ve been helping me out,’’ he said. “You’re only as strong as your weakest link, so coming in as a rookie and trying to make sure that I’m trying to push my limits to new heights to equal the NFL level because I know it takes a room.’’
The Colts never hesitated when given the opportunity to add Taylor to their offensive mix. In fact, in the second round of the April draft, Chris Ballard traded up from the 44th overall spot to the 41st to ensure he wouldn’t miss out of what he described as a “unique talent.’’
“Anytime a unique talent starts to fall a little bit,’’ Ballard said, “at that point we’re like, ‘Man, we need to go get the player.’ There’s nothing worse on draft day than all of a sudden you say, ‘This guy is really going to make us better and help our football team,’ and then he goes the pick in front of you.’’’
Ballard and Frank Reich saw a player too good to pass up, even if that position wasn’t necessarily one of the Colts’ most pressing needs. Remember, Mack generated a career-best 1,091 rushing yards last season and turned 24 in March. However, he’ll be an unrestricted free agent at the end of 2020.
The plan: make one of the NFL’s best running attacks even better. The Colts ranked 7th a year ago, and their 2,130 yards were their most since 1988. That stronger emphasis on running behind one of the league’s premier offensive lines included 471 attempts, 5th-most in the NFL and the franchise’s most since ’95 (478).
The challenge: being creative enough to make certain Mack and Taylor each get enough carries.
While the Colts would seem to have a potent one-two punch with the veteran and the rookie, Reich respectfully disagreed.
“I heard someone else say it and I thought it was a good phrase so I was taking ownership of it,’’ he said with a smile. “That it was not a one-two punch but the one-one punch. I’d like to think I coined that phrase when I was talking about Marlon and Jonathan. I probably didn’t, but in my own mind I did.
“I see it as a one-one and I see that on many fronts . . . the way we substitute and get everybody involved, the role-playing thing is really accentuated, very important.
“So I like to see one-one.’’
That’s fine, but Mack and Taylor are feature backs at heart. They’re used to getting into a groove and carrying the bulk of the load, and certainly being the guy in the backfield when it matters the most.
Reich was quick to text Mack as the Colts were drafting Taylor. Mack responded with a “Let’s go, man. Let’s go win.’’
But facts are facts.
In his 14 games last season, Mack handled 247 of the team’s 408 rushing attempts (60.5 percent). He averaged 17.6 attempts and 77.9 yards per game.
Taylor? He’s been the personification of workhorse back.
In three seasons at Wisconsin, the 5-10, 226-pounder – let’s not forget his 4.39 40 was tops among backs at the NFL Scouting Combine – handled a withering 926 carries: 299, 307 and 320 last year. No Badger had more than 96 carries in any of Taylor’s three seasons, although he occasionally was given a series off.
“I shared time in college if you look at it,’’ he insisted. “There were times when we had Garrett Groshek in for an entire series. We even had Nakia Watson in for an entire series. Then there were times when we’re in ’21-Pony,’ me and Groshek are in at the same time.’’
Still, it was Taylor’s backfield. In 41 games, he averaged 22.6 carries and 150.6 yards per game. He had at least 25 carries 21 times.
That’s how you pile up 6,174 yards, which ranks 6th all-time among FBS backs. Add his final two seasons at Salem High School, and Taylor has rushed for 10,067 yards and 100 touchdowns in his last five competitive seasons.
Why others might worry about the Colts’ ability to effectively divvy up the rushing attempts, Taylor shrugs.
“You don’t count the reps,’’ he said, “you make the reps count. Whenever you’re in, you’re on. Make sure you’re 100%.
“You’re a professional now. I know when my mother’s at her job, she likes to do everything correctly to a T and be responsible. I’m take the same approach here. I’m making sure I’m on at all times because it’s my job now.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51