This article is about a 14-minute read.
In a Backfield Breakdown, we will look at a team's running backs from all angles. Is there a bell-cow back on the roster? How about sleepers? What roles do we foresee from these backs?
Let's find out about the Colts right now.
Going into the 2020 offseason, the Colts backfield seemed to be in pretty good shape with Marlon Mack's and Nyheim Hines' individual strengths meshing well. Despite missing six games over the last two seasons, Mack has shown to be an effective runner -- gaining over 2000 total rushing yards over the last two seasons. Over that same span, Hines has caught over 100 balls. That's solid production from a young duo. Before the 2020 NFL Draft, it looked like fantasy players could easily project the backfield for the upcoming season.
Then, in Round 2, the Colts took the No. 6 all-time career rushing in NCAA history and the only player to gain 6000 rushing yards in three seasons.
How does Jonathan Taylor fit in the Colts backfield? Can Mack hold off the rookie and continue as the team's starter? Does Hines keep his receiving role? Is there anything for Jordan Wilkins to do?
How does this backfield shake out in 2020?
The Indianapolis Colts' offense this year will be quite different than in 2019. Last August we had the surprise retirement of Andrew Luck, creating a major void at quarterback that rippled down through the entire offense. Only Marlon Mack emerged as a real fantasy option last year, as he was the one-star player that posted solid RB2-type numbers.
Now that Indianapolis has had time to adjust to the post-Luck era, they adapted by adding veteran Philip Rivers under center and drafted two strong offensive prospects in RB Jonathan Taylor (Wisconsin) and WR Michael Pittman Jr Jr. (USC). I mention Pittman as he joins T.Y. Hilton to present two solid receiving options (along with TEs Jack Doyle and Trey Burton) that should keep defenses honest.
Looking back two years (and writing off 2019) is not a bad idea to get a glimpse of the potential future. Mack led the team in rushing both seasons, while Nyheim Hines was the third-down receiving back for those two years as well. Those roles are likely to be diminished as Taylor gets up to speed with Frank Reich's offense and starts to take over the backfield. Taylor was a top-notch workhorse at Wisconsin, scoring 50 touchdowns and racking up over 6,000 yards in his three seasons as a Big 10 Badger. Second-round draft pick running backs get work early and often, and he will push Mack and Hines for playing time as soon as he is ready.
As for their work assignments, which is the main takeaway that we all want here, I continue to follow the money. Marlon Mack is in the last year of his rookie deal and earning less than $1M, so he is a bargain for the Colts - and they are rather unlikely to extend him. Running backs are a commodity, and having a rookie learn the ropes while a veteran winds down his stay with the team is the modern method of managing an NFL backfield. The Colts' backfield will be all for Taylor by Thanksgiving (if not sooner) if all goes to plan, while Mack and Hines will be reduced to either goal-line vulture opportunities (Mack) or third-down rest (using Hines as a receiving option). As long as Taylor shows promise as both a receiver and in pass protection in September and October, it will be Taylor owners using him on a weekly basis in the second half of the 2020 season while Mack will be just a "hope for a touchdown" fantasy play.
Jeff is spot on with his assessment of the situation. While Marlon Mack has proven functional in a role, particularly given an uncertain supporting cast, the Colts didn't draft Jonathan Taylor for depth. Absent the pandemic, I think Taylor would've emerged as the Week 1 starter after OTAs and a strong preseason. But the pandemic is a reality and I suspect it'll force all teams to play it safe with rookie snap counts. Taylor, like any young running back, needs to learn the team's blocking schemes and prove to the coaches and quarterbacks he can handle blitz pickups. I have no reason to think he can't become a capable pass protector, but it may take some time into the regular season before the coaches fully trust him.
Mack's contract status may ultimately make his role stickier than some think because there's no long-term downside to giving him a heavy workload. The Colts can essentially wear Mack out and let another team worry about the consequences.
I'm modeling an approximate 50/50 split between Mack and Taylor through the first month, with Taylor gradually taking over the lead role. As Jeff opined, I see Taylor as a bellcow no later than November.
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