INDIANAPOLIS – The Indianapolis Colts report to Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield July 26 for the start of training camp.
Between now and then, we’ll take a position-by-position look at a team that must rebound from its crushing loss in Jacksonville and return to a serious playoff contender.
Today: running backs.
Starter: Jonathan Taylor.
Backup: Nyheim Hines.
Depth: Deon Jackson, Phillip Lindsay, D’Vonte Price, CJ Verdell, Ty’Son Williams.
How high is up?
The bar’s been set. Good luck reaching or exceeding it in year 3.
That’s what Jonathan Taylor faces as he heads into 2022 as the unquestioned engine that drives the Colts’ offense. Yes, the NFL is a passing league. But Chris Ballard and Frank Reich believe there’s more than one way to make a deep run in the postseason and, if things fall in place, challenge for a Lombardi Trophy.
“There’s a way to win every game,’’ Ballard said. “Y’all might not agree with it, but you find a way to win a game. If that means we’re running it, that’s what we do. If it means throwing it 60 times a game, then what’s what you do.
“Do I think you need to throw the ball to win? Yes, I do. Absolutely. But do I think Jonathan Taylor can be a major focal point? Absolutely. The guy’s special, man. Guy’s special. The guy is tremendous and I don’t think we’ve seen the best of him. I think he’s going to continue to get better.’’
Again, Taylor has established a rather lofty standard for himself and the Colts’ running game since entering the NFL as a 2nd-round pick in 2020.
He led the league with a franchise-record 1,811 yards last season and tacked on a league-best 2,171 yards from scrimmage. His 18 rushing touchdowns led the NFL and were a franchise record, and his 20 total TDs tied for the league lead.
Taylor has piled up 2,980 yards in two seasons. Only Hall of Famer Edgerrin James had more (3,262 in 1999-2000) in his first two seasons as a Colt. James is the only player in franchise history to post consecutive 1,500-plus yard seasons, and he did it twice (1999-2000, 2004-05). Taylor can join him.
Bet against him at your own risk. In his short time in Indy, Taylor not only has flashed unique skills – finding the crease, eluding tacklers at the first and second levels, speed to run away from everyone – but also the proper temperament.
Whatever he’s done, he believes he could have done more. He’s a tireless worker and a stickler for detail.
“One of the biggest things is you go back and look at everything you did well, you look at everything you didn’t do well and then you look at how the season went and you’re like, ‘How can I improve in areas that I didn’t? How can I stay sharp in areas I excelled in order to ultimately get that end goal that we want,’’’ Taylor said. “At the end of the day, everyone can have spectacular seasons and we still fall short of our ultimate goal.
“So, what can I do in order to make those one or two plays that I didn’t make that were right there on my fingertips? Could those have changed the course of the season?’’
Good luck nit-picking over Taylor’s 2021. He averaged 5.5 yards on his 332 carries, another franchise mark for a player with at least 100 attempts. Taylor led the league in rushes for at least 20 yards (14) and turned in the two longest of the season: an 83-yarder against Houston and a 78-yarder against the Jets. And let’s not forget his 76-yard catch-and-run for a TD at Baltimore. He accounted for 107 rushing first downs. Cleveland’s Nick Chubb was a distant second (61).
It didn’t take Matt Ryan long to gain an appreciation for his newest feature back.
“He’s a beast. He’s an absolute beast,’’ he said.
Taylor first appeared on Ryan’s radar when Ryan was preparing for a week 17 meeting with Buffalo. He knew the Colts ran at will against the Bills in mid-November, and was curious how that unfolded. What video review revealed was Taylor gouging the Bills with 185 yards on the ground and a club-record five total TDs.
“I got a chance to take a peek at what he did last year and he’s special,’’ Ryan said. “I really do think he’s special. I think he runs the ball extremely well, he’s got great vision, great balance, good speed, good power, catches the ball well out of the backfield, willing in pass protection.
“I’ve been around a long time (and) you don’t get backs that do all of that very often and when they do, they’re game-changers.’’
Whatever Taylor accomplishes in 2022, he’ll do so with a bull’s-eye on his back. And he knows it.
More from Hines?
Nyheim Hines remains one of the NFL’s top No. 2 backs. It’s debatable whether his 5-9, 196-pound frame could hold up as a feature back over a 17-game season, but his complementary skills are undeniable.
“When he’s involved more we usually do really well offensively,’’ Ballard said.
Added Reich: “We all know Nyheim is a playmaker and we want to feature him.’’
Thus far, though, Hines’ involvement in the offense has been hit-and-miss and the high points have occurred in alternating seasons. He was a major factor as a rookie with Andrew Luck in 2018 (148 touches, 739 yards from scrimmage) and in ’20 with Philip Rivers (152 touches, 862 yards), but provided lesser impact with Jacoby Brissett in ’19 (96 touches, 519 yards) and last season with Carson Wentz (96 touches, 586 yards).
The four-year pattern calls for a heavier workload for Hines.
Reich joked if he was involved in a fantasy league, he’d “consider drafting Nyheim.’’
It only makes sense for Reich and coordinator Marcus Brady to maximize their offensive playmakers, and that includes Hines. He’s proven to be a reliable fill-in when Taylor needs a break. He’s averaged 4.5 yards on 145 carries when sharing the backfield with Taylor, and averaged a career-best 4.9 last season.
Hines’ true value, though, are his versatility and ability to create issues with defenses in the passing game. His production dipped last season (57 targets and 40 receptions, both career lows), but he generated career-highs with 63 receptions in ’18 and ’20.
With the arrival of Ryan, the expectation is for Hines to seriously challenge his career-best receiving numbers (63 catches, 482 yards in ’20). Might he reach 70? Or 80? The franchise record for catches by a running back: 86 by Marshall Faulk in 1998.
And then there’s this: Hines’ 210 catches are tied with Edgerrin James for the 2nd-most by a Colt back in his first four seasons. Faulk had 211.
Hines’ background at North Carolina State included stints as a wide receiver and track star, and the Colts haven’t been shy about tapping into his wideout skills. He occasionally spends time working with the receivers during the offseason, and that was the case again this summer.
“We’ve done that before, probably a little more during this OTAs,’’ Reich said. “Just wanting to see, test his limits. How much can he do?
“We always try to get him involved in the pass game anyway, but get him a little more work at receiver during a time when this is more of a pass camp.’’
Being more involved is just fine with Hines.
“It is good to hear and I’ve heard it a lot,’’ he said. “I’m not a starter and I know that and I know my role.
“So, try to get in where I fit in and hopefully I exceed expectations and I just have more opportunities.’’
By the numbers, Part I
As we mentioned, the NFL is a pass-heavy league. But as we also mentioned, the Colts are built to lean more on their run game than most other teams. In Reich’s four years as head coach, his offense ranks 8th in the league in scoring (26.1 points per game) by operating on a 56%-44% pass-run ratio. It’s 54-46 with Taylor in the backfield the past two seasons.
That approach has the Colts ranking 5th in rushing since 2018 (128.9 yards per game, 4.6 per attempt). With Taylor as the tip of the spear, the run game is averaging 137.5 yards per game and 4.7 per attempt.
By the numbers, Part II
Taylor has rushed for at least 100 yards in 13 of 32 regular-season games. That’s 5th-most in franchise history and trails James (49 in 96), Eric Dickerson (24 in 61), Lydell Mitchell (16 in 81) and Faulk (14 in 77).
It’s worth noting Taylor has cracked the 100-yard mark in 12 of his last 21 games.
By the numbers, Part III
Taylor is in position to join elite company. Since 2006, only one player has rushed for at least 1,500 yards in consecutive seasons. That would be Tennessee’s Derrick Henry (2,027 in 2020, 1,540 in ’19).
And it’s worth noting 10 of the 15 players who have hit 1,500 yards in back-to-back seasons are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. James is the only player to do it twice.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.