WESTFIELD – Nyheim Hines’ initial reaction is to look down and sort through the playbook in his mind.
OK, where do I line up this time?
Matt Ryan steps in front of the huddle, looks at his wristband and barks out the next play.
Hines briefly drops his head ever so slightly.
“I’m just bending over, thinking,’’ he said. “Matt will say a play and I just have to have a picture of the play in my head.
“I’m closing my eyes and I have a picture of it in my head. As soon as he says the play, I’m like, ‘OK, you’re here.’’’
We’re talking about the Indianapolis Colts multi-dimensional running back, so he could here, there, essentially anywhere.
When Frank Reich and coordinator Marcus Brady still are in install-mode during the offseason or training camp, Hines makes certain to have a notepad with him.
“Anything I’m not comfortable with, I literally draw,’’ he said. “I draw every play, every concept and every place I could be so based on the personnel and the formation, I know exactly where I’m at and there’s no hesitation.
“You have to know where you are and basically have to know the whole offense.’’
During one recent series of plays at Grand Park Sports Campus, Hines was lined up:
- in the backfield, the lone back. He ran a wheel route to the left, got a step on cornerback Isaiah Rodgers, secured a pass from Ryan and beat Rodgers with a dive to the pylon for a touchdown.
- alongside Jonathan Taylor in a two-back set. That didn’t last long as Hines was sent in motion to the right. He appeared to be Ryan’s first option on a pass play, but tight coverage forced Ryan to go elsewhere.
- again in the backfield with Taylor. He shifted into the left slot, but came back to the right, took a handoff from Ryan and turned the corner on a sweep.
- split out wide left. He ran a go, got behind rookie safety Nick Cross and pulled in a nicely thrown pass from Ryan for a TD.
- as part of bunch formation to the left.
- in the right slot in one-on-one drills. He used his sprinter’s speed to zip past cornerback Alex Myers. Ryan hit him in stride for what would have been a TD.
Here, there, anywhere.
“As far as his versatility, he can do it all,’’ Brady said, “and we try to make a conscious effort of moving him around, getting him in the slot, getting him in the backfield, giving him new things to continue to work on and develop and try to see how much we can actually expand that role for him.
“He’s an elite player for us and he’s going to be very valuable.’’
Hines has been an interchangeable component for the offense since the Colts selected him in the 4th-round of the 2018 draft: Running back, slot receiver, wideout. He’s also their top punt returner, one of the NFL’s best.
“I’m happy to have the opportunity to be all over the place,’’ Hines said. “Shoot, there are some plays I’ve been waiting for three or four years and I may have gotten once or twice.
“Whatever position they put me in, just execute. I hope that’s what I’ve been doing and hope to continue to do. Just keep going.’’
No one should question Hines’ value to the offense. 11 months ago, the team’s appreciation manifest itself in the form of a three-year, $18.6 million extension that included $12 million in guarantees. The $6.2 million per-year average ranks 12th among running backs, and the 11 ahead of him essentially are feature backs.
Whenever general manager Chris Ballard considers the makeup of his offense, he routinely points out his core playmakers. That’s Taylor, Michael Pittman Jr. and Hines.
“I do feel my value,’’ Hines said.
The Colts, though, have had trouble consistently maximizing that value and tapping into that versatility over his four-year career.
It’s well-documented Hines has experienced more involvement and productivity in alternating seasons: impactful as a rookie in ’18 (148 total touches and 739 yards from scrimmage) and again in ’20 (152 and 862), not so much in ’19 (96 and 519) and ’21 (96 and 586).
That fluctuation, coupled with the arrival of Ryan during the offseason, convinced Reich to joke he’d draft Hines if he was part of a fantasy football league.
“We all know Nyheim is a playmaker and we want to feature him,’’ he said.
That’s been reinforced during camp.
Hines obviously gives Taylor a breather when necessary, but seldom seems to get one himself. He finishes virtually every practice by sticking around for 5-10 minutes to work on his punt-return game.
“Yep, been doing that for five years now,’’ he said. “I actually catch punts and in the regular season I also run sprints.
“You can’t get bored with the fundamentals and the basics.’’
To make certain that doesn’t happen with other parts of his game, Hines will go through positional drills with the running backs and position coach Scottie Montgomery one day, then do the same the next day with the wideouts and position coach Reggie Wayne.
“I’ve done that before,’’ he said. “Last OTAs (in ’21), that’s how it was. This isn’t my first year working with the receivers and it probably won’t be my last year doing it.
“It’s just mixing it up and staying sharp.’’
Watching Hines being so active in the passing game this summer reinforces the expectation of that being the case beginning with the Sept. 11 opener at Houston.
He’s had 63 receptions – career highs – in those alternating seasons with Andrew Luck and Philip Rivers, but was limited to 57 targets and 40 catches last year, both career lows, with Carson Wentz.
The guesstimate for this season with Ryan? 70? 80?
Only two Colts’ running backs have cracked the 80-catch plateau for a season: Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk (86 in 1998) and Joe Washington (82 in ’79). His 210 receptions already rank 8th in club history among running backs.
Are 80 catches a realistic goal?
“Very possible. Very possible,’’ Hines said with a smile. “If I get that many, I think I’ll break a couple. Get in the right position, catch the ball and do what I do in space and hopefully make somebody miss and help this team win with a couple of breakaways.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.