INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts were well-aware of Nyheim Hines' explosive potential when they selected him in the fourth round of the 2018 NFL Draft out of N.C. State.
Just how involved Hines would be in the Colts' offense right away wasn't immediately known, however. Head coach Frank Reich wondered: as he learned the playbook, would Hines be best-suited initially for more of a gadget-type role?
As it turned out, however, matching Hines' talent with his high football I.Q. led to a much larger role than anticipated for the speedy running back in 2018.
Hines would appear in all 16 games as a rookie, and was a threat both running the ball and as a target in the passing game out of the backfield. He had 85 carries for 314 yards and two touchdowns, while he caught 63 passes for 425 yards and another two scores.
In Indy's Week 17 matchup against the Tennessee Titans, Hines passed Edgerrin James (62) for the third-most receptions by a rookie in franchise history. Edgerrin James.
Simply put, Reich said Hines "exceeded expectations" in his rookie season.
"We knew we had a role in mind for Nyheim when we drafted him after looking at his college tape. Chris (Ballard) and his staff did a great job of really getting Nyheim in front of our eyes as well – just looking at him as an offensive staff and seeing what he could do for us. But he has greatly exceeded I think the role that we had envisioned," Reich told reporters in January. "He's just developed faster. I think we thought he could get where he is right now, but I think he's just ahead of the process."
Hines' value in the passing game was clear in 2018, but it's actually one specific area as a runner in which he is one of the top returning running backs in the league in 2019.
Last season, Hines' 74.0 grade in the red zone, according to Pro Football Focus, was the third-best mark among all NFL backs.
PFF's Daniel Rymer wrote this about Hines' running abilities within the 20-yard line:
"Last season, Hines averaged 2.18 yards after contact per attempt in the red zone, ranking 14th out of 66 running backs. The rookie also forced a missed tackle once every 0.18 red-zone attempts, tying for 16th at the position. His speed and toughness were a lethal combination in the red-zone last season, and the Colts could benefit by utilizing him more in 2019."
The Colts last season saw top running back Marlon Mack make a huge jump from Year 1 to Year 2, as he shook off a nagging hamstring injury early on to log 195 carries for 908 yards and nine touchdowns in 12 games. He improved his yards-per-carry average from 3.8 as a rookie in 2017 to 4.7 in 2018, and had Mack been able to play a full 16-game season last year, he set a pace to run for more than 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns.
If Hines can make a similar jump from Year 1 to Year 2 as a runner, then look out.
His head coach isn't ruling anything out.
"He has worked as hard as anybody," Reich said. "I mean the guy works really, really hard. He does all the little things right. He's very dependable. ... That's just a credit to him."