Rookie running backs are often a source of value in fantasy football leagues. However, recent rookie breakouts have caused potential rookie stars to shoot up draft boards. Jonathan Taylor represents a unique buying opportunity as a rookie.
Jonathan Taylor As A Prospect
Taylor has been talked about as a perfect running back prospect and it’s not too far-fetched. He ranks first in NCAA history for rushing yards through a player’s first three seasons and his size-speed combination is 99th percentile.
As Dalton has explained, Taylor deserves to be the first pick of dynasty rookie drafts.
According to Player Profiler, Taylor’s closest comparable player in Ezekiel Elliott. At 6’ 0”, 225 lbs. Zeke looks like a bowling ball on the football field. Taylor is 1 lb. heavier and two inches shorter, giving him a superior BMI. Despite the stockier build, Taylor ran a faster forty than Elliott by 0.08 seconds. Taylor also outperformed Zeke in the leaping drills, giving him a superior burst score.
In terms of production, Taylor also outperformed Zeke. Taylor had a higher college dominator rating and target share.
The significant difference in Zeke’s favor is his draft position. But it remains to be seen how much that affects Taylor.
The Indianapolis Colts
The Colts traded up to select Jonathan Taylor 41st overall. Not exactly a barren depth chart, many are concerned about Taylor’s landing spot in the short-term. Is the competition as strong as initially believed?
Marlon Mack led the Colts in rushing last season, finishing 9th in the league in rush attempts (247). He parlayed his carries into 1,091 rushing yards, good for 11th in the NFL. His 4.4 yards per carry was just slightly above the league average of 4.3.
Selected late in the 4th round, Mack didn’t enter the NFL with an excellent profile. Although he entered the NFL in an excellent running back class, he was just the 15th running back selected. The four running backs selected before him were Joe Williams, Donnel Pumphrey, Jamaal Williams, and Wayne Gallman.
That’s not an indictment, as his NFL production speaks for itself, but it is evidence of how teams viewed him entering the league. With some help from our friends at RotoViz, let’s see how the 2019 Colts fared rushing the ball.
While Mack was serviceable, Nyheim Hines was the only running back that was unable to outperform him on a per-carry basis – in terms of yards per carry and fantasy points over expectation. Jordan Wilkins and Jonathan Williams both outperformed Mack in their limited opportunities.
If you add up the attempts from all the Colts running backs versus Mack, you see the same result.
|Other Colts RBs||152||741||4.88||5||93.7||10.4||0.07|
Obviously, with increased volume, efficiency generally reduces – but this doesn’t paint a favorable picture of Mack’s value as a rusher. It’s hard to imagine a potentially generational talent like talent like Taylor won’t get the opportunity to lead this backfield.
Last season the Colts threw 91 targets to running backs, 19 percent of their total pass attempts.
Hines led the Colts in targets but wasn’t particularly efficient, averaging 5.5 yards per target with negative fantasy points over expectation. Mack and Wilkins didn’t receive many opportunities but also didn’t give coaches any reason to give them more opportunities.
Williams had success with his limited opportunities but only played when Mack was hurt. Upon Mack’s return, Williams didn’t record one touch over the Colts’ final four games.
Can we confirm that Hines is a good passing-game running back?
We can confirm that he struggles as an NFL rusher, running for just 3.7 yards per carry over his first 137 rushes. His 139 targets in his first two seasons are promising but his efficiency has not been favorable.
Using Pro Football Reference’s Play Index tool, I queried all running backs, since 2000, to catch at least 70 passes and rush fewer than 300 times. The list is posted below.
Not sure why Lance Kendricks is listed as a running back, but the list isn’t exactly promising. This particular list of running backs has struggled to receive big workloads. Out of the nine players, Hines averaged the 8th fewest yards per target.
The question remains: will the Colts vastly reduce Taylor’s snaps to keep Hines on the field in passing situations?
Opportunity For a Big Season
The Colts are returning their starting five offensive linemen for a third straight season. This group is already considered among the best in the NFL.
Last year the Colts had 471 rushing attempts, good for fifth-most in the NFL. If we assume that the Colts have the same number of rushing attempts, Taylor would receive 235 carries if he can hold a 50 percent market share.
That’s obviously a difficult assumption to make with Philip Rivers joining the Colts. Last year Rivers’ Chargers passed the ball 597 times, compared to 366 rushing attempts. Although this would reduce Taylor’s rushing attempts, no quarterback targeted running backs as frequently as Rivers.
The Chargers targeted running backs 182 times, that’s good for a 32 percent market share. The league average for targeting the running back position is 19 percent, which is where the Colts landed last season.
We know that the Colts can’t be run-heavy and target the running back position 182 times. But this statistic highlights that moving to a pass-heavy offensive attack with Rivers at the helm may not be a bad thing for Colts’ running backs. Targets are much more valuable than rushing attempts in PPR leagues, and no one targets their running backs more than Rivers.
Taylor’s landing spot is not ideal, but a player’s talent is often more important than landing spot (ask AJ Brown owners). On the Colts, Taylor will compete with Mack and Hines, who both appear to be average or below-average at their roles.
If Taylor is the talent that we believe he is, he should earn a workhorse role over average to below-average talent. Behind the Colts’ offensive line with Rivers at quarterback, Taylor has the rushing and receiving upside to take the league by storm as a rookie.