INDIANAPOLIS — Athletes don't often come as decorated as Jonathan Taylor.
He's dominated everywhere he's been and accomplished an amount of success most athletes only dream of, and he's only just now reaching the professional level.
Last Friday night during the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft, the Indianapolis Colts kept track of Taylor as their pick at No. 44 overall drew closer. Finally, they could no longer risk losing out on him, and they traded their second and fifth-round draft picks to the Cleveland Browns in order to move up three spots and make sure that he would become a Colt at No. 41 overall.
"I mean look, he is a unique talent, and anytime a unique talent starts to fall a little bit – at that point we were like, 'Man, we need to go get the player.' We knew there were other teams behind us that could've coveted him... But we got two picks away and we decided to go get him," Colts general manager Chris Ballard told reporters after selecting Taylor. "So to me, he is too unique a talent. There is 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."
Coming from a storied program like the University of Wisconsin that has had a seemingly endless line of productive running backs, Taylor arguably stands at the top.
In three years, Taylor carried the ball 926 times for 6,174 yards (6.7 avg.) and 50 touchdowns to go with 42 receptions for 407 yards (9.7 avg.) and five scores through the air.
He was just the seventh player in FBS history to rush for at least 6,000 yards, and was the first player to ever do it in just three seasons. He ranks sixth all-time in FBS history in rushing and is second all-time in the Big Ten, trailing only fellow Badger Ron Dayne and his 7,125 yards.
Taylor is the only player in FBS history to rush for at least 1,900 yards in three consecutive seasons, is just the third player in FBS history with multiple 2,000-yard rushing seasons, and his 6,174 yards are the most by an FBS player in any three-year span.
Given his average of 2,058 rushing yards per season, if Taylor would have stayed at Wisconsin for his final year then it's safe to say he would've smashed the 952 yards needed to become the FBS' all-time leading rusher.
For his efforts, Taylor won the Doak Walker Award twice — which is given to the top running back in college football — was twice named an unanimous First-Team All-American, and twice earned the Ameche-Dayne Big Ten Running Back of the Year Award. He also finished among the top 10 in voting for the Heisman Trophy all three years of his career.
Taylor arrived in Madison as a star football player and track athlete in high school back in his home state of New Jersey.
Along with breaking the state's single-season rushing record as a senior with 2,815 yards on the gridiron, Taylor won back-to-back New Jersey state titles on the track in the 100 meters as a junior and senior among other numerous wins, and was named the South Jersey Times' Boys Track Athlete of the Year as a junior and senior.
Now, Taylor is looking to make his mark in the NFL on a team that has a storied history of running backs, featuring Hall of Famers Edgerrin James, Eric Dickerson, Marshall Faulk and Lenny Moore.
A TRUE EVERY-DOWN BACK
Between his size, speed and toughness, Taylor is the ideal early-down back. However, his still-developing abilities as a pass-catcher and pass protector can make him a true workhorse, every-down back.
Whether it's picking up six yards up the middle on first down, pushing the pile on 4th and inches, getting downfield on a screen pass or picking up the free blitzer to buy the quarterback more time on 3rd and long, Taylor is the man for the job.
Those responsibilities grow much larger at the professional level, and Taylor is well aware of the challenge in front of him with the Colts.
"I definitely do, especially getting to play with a legendary quarterback like Philip Rivers," Taylor said after getting drafted about his abilities on third down with the Colts. "I'm definitely going to be ready to go learning a plethora of routes, plethora of protections to make sure that if and when Mr. Rivers needs me, I'm there and ready to go."
It starts with Taylor's powerful frame, measuring in at just over 5-10 and 226 pounds. He's not too tall to where he's an easy target, and is able to keep a relatively low center of gravity. His filled-out frame gives him the power to absorb hits and run through tackle attempts.
One big question about Taylor as a prospect was his long speed, but then he led all running backs with a 4.39 in the 40-yard dash at the Scouting Combine and put those concerns to bed. His 40 time along with his above-average scores in the vertical (36") and broad jumps (123") proved he has the explosion to break out for the home-run play.
Taylor is a very aware runner who shows patience and follows his blockers, and he also has quality vision and almost always sees the cutback lane.
While he doesn't offer a ton of wiggle because of his size, he is agile. He mixes in a blend of cut moves and doesn't just go down. Taylor also has a pretty effective jump-cut that gets him to where he needs to go.
He has plenty of power, running behind his pads and will lower his shoulder to power through traffic. Taylor runs with force and will power through arm tackles and low-tackle attempts, as he has good balance and keeps his steps up high. With his thick legs churning even through contact, he buys extra yardage and is a "fall forward" runner.
"Definitely, that's something that Coach Settle (Wisconsin running backs coach John Settle) always kind of instilled in us. He said he was going to build us from the ground up," Taylor said in regard to keeping his feet moving. "One of the biggest ways to get hurt in any level of football is by stopping your legs from moving. So whenever you feel contact there's no need to stop your legs. Continue to have those things churn and you'll be able to run out of some things."
With his power, balance and feet, Taylor is quite productive when it comes to yards after contact, which is a very big barometer when evaluating the effectiveness of a running back outside of their offensive line's assistance. Taylor was third among full-time college football running backs in 2019 with 1,256 yards after contact, and tied for seventh in average yards after contact with 3.9.
Although he loves to run between the tackles and cut inside, he sometimes foregoes opportunities to run outside in favor of trying to pick up the yardage that's available inside. Something he may develop in the NFL with help from coaching is more trust in his speed, as he's more than capable of bouncing runs outside, turning the corner and picking up big yardage.
Overall, Taylor has a natural feel for carrying the ball, as he seems to feel the pressure from defenders peripherally, and he understands how to use their momentum against them in order to bypass them and pickup more yardage.
If his running style looks familiar, it may be because the guy he tries to emulate used to be a major thorn in the Colts' side for years.
"Growing up my favorite running back was Arian Foster, hence the reason I have 23," Taylor said during the Combine. "I just think he was so smooth for his size, in and out of his cuts. That's just a guy I tried to model my game after."
It'll be nice to have that type of running happening for the Colts when they play against the Houston Texans and other AFC South Division opponents rather than against them.
While Wisconsin didn't get Taylor and the running backs involved much in the passing game until his final season in 2019, Taylor showed improvement from earlier in his career as a receiver and route runner.
"Yes, it's definitely something I wanted to do, and I mentioned it before that Coach Chryst (Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst) made a conscious effort to implement that into the scheme because he knew I had the ability," Taylor explained. "Coach Chryst is definitely a players' coach. He wants what's best for his players. He definitely knew that it would help me in the future and it definitely did. I wanted to continue to improve on that as well as routes and being able to run the entire route tree so that whenever I'm either in the slot or split out wide I'm able to run a plethora of routes."
By the end of 2019, Taylor was displaying sharp, convincing cuts when running routes, and he caught the ball naturally, although he was prone to the occasional "concentration drop."
Taylor also got a little more involved in pass protection, and it's an area he desires to keep getting better in.
"Yes, when we first came through at the University of Wisconsin, Coach Settle, the first thing he said was, 'We're not going to go over anything with a ball.' He said, 'The first thing I want to go over is pass protection because that's the largest jump between high school and college,'" Taylor explained. "So I think that's something I'm going to keep in mind because this is another step above. So I already know, that we're definitely going to have to lock in and you're going to have guys that are going to have new techniques that you're going to have to defend. There's going to be new blitzes that you haven't seen before. But all you have to do is make sure you're locked in and focus into your playbook, know the rules of the schemes that you're running and you'll be able to block up anything."
Get your first look at running back Jonathan Taylor after he was selected 41st overall by the Indianapolis Colts.
One of the first areas of opportunity to improve for Taylor as a prospect is his ball security, as he was credited with losing 15-of-18 fumbles in three years. However, it's something he's already working on and has improved.
"There's definitely a lot you can do. A bulk of them (fumbles) came from freshman year and going on trying to progress from that," Taylor said. "You can speak with all of my coaches at the university, especially Coach Settle, he can attest to it – a lot of hard work and things that we put into doing that. You have some mishaps whether it be a running back wide receiver exchange or whether it's a pass thrown behind you, you catch it with one hand and there's a defender on your back hip. So there's a lot of things that you work for it not to happen. But there's definitely hard work that needs to go in each and every single day to make sure that's shored up."
If there's a perfect match for improving ball security when it comes to NFL coaches, it's Colts running backs coach Tom Rathman, who is sure to hammer home taking care of the football to Taylor.
Another topic discussed before the draft was the workload that Taylor shouldered in college, as he had more than 990 career touches in three years. Taylor knows that taking care of your body is priority No. 1 when it comes to playing football.
"Yeah, you have to take full advantage of any opportunity you have to invest in your body. I think that's the biggest thing is in the offseason you have to prepare your body physically and mentally in order to carry a load how I did at the University of Wisconsin, especially now going into the next level of football," Taylor said. "That's all I hear from older guys is definitely take care of your body, but that's already something I took pride in. So that's definitely going to be a seamless transition for me. I'm going to take advantage of the full resources through the Indianapolis Colts in order to make sure my body is a 100 percent ready to go every Sunday."
To that note of workload, Taylor is used to being a bellcow who regularly handles 20-plus touches per game. Does he think he needs that many touches in order to be effective?
"Yeah, I think that I'm just as effective with however many carries that I get. All you need is an opportunity," Taylor explained. "There's nothing as far as, 'I need a certain amount of carries in order to succeed.' All you need is an opportunity and I think that's exactly what the Indianapolis Colts gave me tonight is an opportunity."
FIT WITH THE COLTS
For a long time in the NFL, running the football was king.
It was an old-school approach in which teams thought you couldn't be successful if you didn't have a solid running attack, and although the NFL has leaned more toward the passing game for the last decade or so, at some point everything often does come full circle back around to the run game.
The Colts know this.
Do they want to be a top-five rushing team? Yes. Do they also want to be able to pass the ball at will? Yes. However, in order to be successful, the Colts understand that they will need to be able to run the ball when they want to.
Although the Colts finished No. 7 in rushing last season — going over 2,000 rushing yards on the season for the first time since 1994 and having an individual 1,000-yard rusher for just the second time since 2007 — they still took the player believed by many to be the best running back in this year's draft.
The Kansas City Chiefs were just 23rd in rushing last regular season with 98.1 rushing yards per game, but back in February, they came back to beat the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV due in large part to the run game. Even though they had an incredible quarterback in Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs' 129 rushing yards were well over their regular-season average, led by running back Damien Williams' 104 yards.
It came back full circle: even though the Chiefs were a passing team, at some point they had to run the ball at a high level in order to achieve their ultimate goal.
That's where Taylor comes in, now being paired with a 1,000-yard back in Marlon Mack, a runner who has 107 receptions in his first two years in Nyheim Hines and a guy who has been among the top two in the NFL in yards per carry for the last two years in Jordan Wilkins.
"I think sometimes you do it by committee, but everybody has their emphasis. Everybody knows Nyheim is kind of our go-to scheme-up pass guy. We do some unique things with Nyheim. Jordan has been our number-two back and he's done a very good job. But now with Jonathan into the mix, I really envision that it'll be Jonathan and Marlon really being that one-two punch, them really being the one-two punch," Colts head coach Frank Reich said about how Taylor will fit into the Colts' backfield. "When you look at good teams over the years – it's a long season. It's a grind and when you run the ball as much as we run it, it's really good to be able to change that up. I think their styles will really complement each other very well."
As a baseline, Taylor fits the Colts perfectly. He literally scored a 100-percent match for the Colts based on the minimum physical and athletic thresholds in regard to the three running backs they've drafted since Chris Ballard arrived in 2017.
As a player, his fit is also without question: athletic, tough, high character.
A player of Taylor's caliber running behind All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson and the Colts' offensive line, with the attitude and dominance that the their front often displays, could really be a sight to see. And with a threatening passing game, Taylor is likely to see fewer loaded boxes than he did in college, giving him more room to run.
"It's awesome to see, and now being able to team up with him (Nelson), it's going to be awesome just being able to make sure we're all on the same page," Taylor said. "We can do something really special when the running back and the O-line are on the same page."
Not building the right kind of locker room with leaders and team-first guys like Taylor could make a pairing like this fall apart, but the Colts' locker room is full of leaders who are interested in the team's accomplishments, and just want to win.
As a team captain noted for his work ethic and sportsmanship, Taylor has no problem playing as part of a unit rather than immediately being the guy, and the same can be said for the Colts' reigning rushing leader, Mack.
"It's funny, in the draft room you will hear it a lot – reliable and tough. We want tough, reliable guys – show up every week, compete, teammates can count on them. That wins. That wins over time and we have done a good job of that. We have a great locker room. We have great guys," Ballard said after the draft. "I'll tell you a story, I haven't talked to Marlon yet, but Frank texted Marlon – I mean look, we just drafted another good back. Marlon is a special kid man. He's a special teammate. He knows that Taylor is going to make us better, and he is going to make Marlon better."
"It's just, 'Let's go, man," Mack said, according to Ballard. "Let's go win.'"