INDIANAPOLIS — Teams don't often find blatantly elite talent available to them past the first round of the NFL Draft, but that's exactly what happened to the Indianapolis Colts when they were able to grab former Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor with the 41st-overall pick a few weeks ago in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Taylor is one of the most accomplished players in college football history, and likely would have been its all-time leading rusher if he would have stayed another year. However, the next chapter of his football story takes place in the NFL in a Colts uniform rather than another collegiate season.
Taylor's numbers were eye-popping, carrying the ball 926 times over three years 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.
Those numbers landed him in the Heisman Trophy discussion every year, and he earned numerous other honors along the way.
According to Pro Football Focus, one of Taylor's next awards could very well be the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year award, as they ranked him as the No. 3 candidate for that prize heading into 2020:
Indy might have signed Philip Rivers in free agency, but they made it clear when they traded up to select Jonathan Taylor 41st overall in the draft that they're still going to 'run the damn ball.' And given that he'll be running behind the second-highest-graded run-blocking unit of the 2019 season, Taylor should put up numbers right away as a Colt.
Taylor produced the second-highest PFF grade in the FBS over his three years at Wisconsin, and he averaged an absurd 4.2 yards after contact per attempt over his career. His combination of size, speed and cutting ability is precisely what you want in a running back, and Taylor couldn't be in a better situation than behind that strong Colts offensive line.
Taylor is as accomplished as they come, and he is arriving in Indianapolis in a terrific situation for a running back of his caliber to succeed. When weighing his Offensive Rookie of the Year chances, there are some significant points to ponder:
The Offense Is Built For This
We already know the Colts can run the ball, and they're adding a player as dangerous as Taylor to an already-potent attack.
Over the last two seasons, the Colts have had one of the league's most dangerous ground games, ranking ninth in that time with 120.3 yards per game. They hit the 150 rushing yards mark in 11 games, including six 200-yard games.
Just in 2019, the Colts finished No. 7 in the league after averaging 133.1 rushing yards per game — barely putting them outside the top-five — and they went over 2,000 rushing yards on the season for the first time since 1994, while also toting an individual 1,000-yard rusher in Marlon Mack for just the second time since 2007.
According to PFF, the Colts had the second-best run-blocking unit in the NFL in 2019 with a grade of 85.1. They finished second in first downs converted by runs (131), fifth in carries per game (29.4), were tied for fifth in runs of 20-plus yards (14), tied for ninth in runs of 40-plus yards (3) and 10th in runs of 10-plus yards (53).
Now, that same supporting cast returns, and then some.
All five starting offensive linemen remain with the Colts, as left guard Quenton Nelson's 90.1 run-blocking grade ranked third among all NFL offensive linemen in 2019, right tackle Braden Smith's 86.4 grade ranked fifth, center Ryan Kelly's 74.6 ranked 14th, and left tackle Anthony Castonzo's 70.2 ranked 22nd. That's four-of-five linemen who are among the NFL's top 25 run blockers.
The Colts also added a fullback this year in Roosevelt Nix, as well as another tight end in Trey Burton to pair up with Jack Doyle and Mo Alie-Cox.
Nix has only played 115 offensive snaps over the last two seasons, but he made the Pro Bowl in the last season in which he played extensively in 2017. Burton and Doyle were the No. 1 and 4-rated run-blocking tight ends in the NFL in 2018, respectively, according to PFF.
Another key factor not discussed enough in the run game is wide receiver Zach Pascal, who was the NFL's best run-blocking wide receiver last season with a grade of 85.0, which was well above the next contenders.
Mack, Taylor & Co. carrying the ball within the Colts' run-blocking unit should really be a sight to see in 2020.
Rivers Unstacks The Boxes
Although defenses will know that the Colts can kill them on the ground, having quarterback Philip Rivers under center will make them have to stay aware of the passing game, and will not allow them to stack the box against the run as much as they'd like.
Rivers ranks sixth in NFL history in both passing touchdowns (397) and passing yards (59,271), so if defenses do load up their front to try and stop Taylor, Mack and the run game, Rivers has 16 years of experience proving to opponents as to why that's a bad idea.
With a couple of deep receiving threats on the Colts offense' like T.Y. Hilton and Parris Campbell, they'll likely often command safety help over the top. Teams will need to be aware at all levels of the passing game against the Colts, which should also lead to the Colts having a dangerous threat in play-action with Taylor and Mack in the backfield.
With fewer stacked boxes to face in the NFL than Taylor went up against in college, he's likely to do some real damage behind that Colts offensive line.
Taylor's Talent And High Profile Will Keep Him On The Radar
The media is already well aware of who Taylor is, so he's not going to have to come out of nowhere to put his name in the race for Offensive Rookie of the Year. And while Taylor is part of a full backfield, the Colts want to get him the ball.
There were some excitable things said about Taylor from the Colts' scouting department before the draft.
"If you put this guy in our rushing attack... oh, boy!" Colts director of college scouting Morocco Brown said.
"When you project this guy behind our line in our scheme; holy..." area scout Chad Henry added.
If Taylor is having fewer loaded boxes to run into behind a line that already clears holes, there should be plenty of room for him to run. If he only has to make a few guys miss, he can take care of that himself.
Taylor was third in college football last year among full-time running backs with 1,256 yards after contact, and also tied for seventh in average yards after contact with 3.9.
If he's getting to the second and third levels and only has cornerbacks and safeties to beat, with his speed and power, that's a recipe for big plays.
Spreading The Wealth
Now, to be fair, it's not all smooth sailing for Taylor as an Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate, and that's not a bad thing for him or the team.
The Colts are likely to approach this year's backfield as a committee, as they have a stable of talented backs in Taylor, Mack, Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins. Taylor and Mack are likely to split early-down work while Hines retains his duties as the Colts' versatile pass-catching back.
"I think sometimes you do it by committee, but everybody has their emphasis," Colts head coach Frank Reich said about the Colts' backfield after the draft. "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. 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."
The Colts sharing the wealth and therefore not putting a huge onus on Taylor alone may mean that his numbers don't grab voters' eyes enough to be named Offensive Rookie of the Year against others who are a primary focus of their respective offensive attacks.
In the last 10 years, four running backs have won the AP's Offensive Rookie of the Year award, and they all touched the ball quite a bit for their offense.
In 2018, Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants touched the ball 352 times for 2,028 total yards and 15 touchdowns. The year before, the New Orleans Saints' Alvin Kamara had 201 touches for for 1,554 yards and 13 touchdowns. In 2015 Todd Gurley of the Los Angeles Rams (St. Louis then) had 250 touches for 1,294 yards and 10 TD Finally, in 2013 the Green Bay Packers' Eddie Lacy put up 1,435 yards and 11 touchdowns on 319 touches.
With the exception of Kamara, the previously-mentioned running backs were all the guy for their backfield. That may not happen right away for Taylor in Year 1, even though he could still play a major role.
All that being said, Taylor fully deserves to be included in the early watch lists for 2020 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. However, even if he doesn't win it, that doesn't mean he won't be in line for other awards throughout his career as he likely becomes more of a feature back.
Get your first look at running back Jonathan Taylor after he was selected 41st overall by the Indianapolis Colts.