INDIANAPOLIS — With the month of July upon us, and the start of training camp now within sight, it's time for the Indianapolis Colts' Burning Questions series.
We continue today with the running back position:
» How exactly will the "1-1 punch" of Marlon Mack and Jonathan Taylor work out in terms of actual workload for each back?
It was one of those "the rich getting richer" type of scenarios earlier this offseason, as the Colts, who already had one of the league's top rushing attacks, went out and selected college football's top running back, Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor, in the second round of this year's NFL Draft. With Taylor in the mix, Indy's run game could be downright scary: all five starting offensive linemen return, and every single one of them are considered by Pro Football Focus to be among the top run blockers at their respective positions; also, the team was already returning starter Marlon Mack, who had his first-career 1,000-yard rushing season in 2019, as well as the versatile Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins, who has among the best yards-per-carry average of any running back in the NFL the last two seasons. Adding Taylor to that potion creates what head coach Frank Reich and Nick Sirianni have deemed a "1-1 punch" scenario alongside Mack, which begs the question: how, exactly, is that going to work out? Will Reich truly try to split the carries? Will he go with the hot hand? Could both Mack and Taylor be on the field at the same time on occasion? Could even a super slow Colts.com writer average a couple yards a carry behind this offensive line? OK, let's not get crazy here, but this storyline specifically will be one of the more interesting ones to keep an eye on as the season progresses.
» How long will it take for Taylor to get rolling in his rookie season?
Some running backs seem to just get it from the start, while it takes others a little bit more time to truly wrap their minds and bodies around everything they're asked to do at the NFL level their rookie seasons. While most backs, of course, come to the league more than ready to tote the rock, they might lack in other areas to start out, such as in pass protection or as pass catchers out of the backfield. While every indication at this point is that Taylor is more than capable of coming in and playing a huge role right away for the Colts' offense, it's worth monitoring exactly how he handles everything that running backs coach Tom Rathman will be putting on his plate early on. Remember: Taylor hasn't had the benefit of a true all-around offseason workout program, at least in terms of the on-field work with coaches and teammates, so he's going to have some major catching up to do when training camp is set to begin later this month. Don't be surprised if Mack, at least early on, is clearly Indy's primary back for this very reason.
» How will Philip Rivers being at quarterback affect Nyheim Hines' role within the offense?
Darren Sproles. Danny Woodhead. Austin Ekeler. When taking a look back at Rivers' storied career with the San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers, think about just how valuable those three running backs have been to him in the passing game. And with Rivers making the move to Indianapolis in 2020, a smart assumption is that Hines could easily become one of his favorite targets, as well. Think about it: in his first two NFL seasons, not even in a starting role, Hines has logged a combined 107 receptions for 745 yards and two touchdowns, hauling in 77 percent of the passes with which he's been targeted. Now you add in a quarterback to the mix who has a rich history of targeting running backs just like Hines over and over and over again — and don't call this a "checkdown" approach; this has always just been part of Rivers' progression — and there's potential for Hines to really take off this season. Now, there are some caveats to this, the most obvious being: the Colts, as mentioned previously, already have two running backs in Mack and Taylor that are expected to be the top dogs at the position, so that will affect Hines' playing time depending on the game plan from week to week. But rest assured, Hines has all the tools needed to become a Sproles-like Pro Bowl contributor both on offense and as a returner on special teams, and now it seems as if the stars are aligning for that to possibly come to fruition as soon as this season.