Jonathan Taylor: The Colts Future (and Present) Fantasy Workhorse - Roto Street Journal
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Jonathan Taylor: The Colts Future (and Present) Fantasy Workhorse

College backs don’t get more productive than Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor. Literally, Taylor’s average of 2,194 scrimmage yards per season shattered the NCAA RB record… by over 300 yards. He’s the only RB to accumulate over 6,000 rushing yards in only three years, and was just 23 freshman-yards shy of three straight 2,000 yard seasons.

The Colts couldn’t pass up this yardage-gorging stallion, moving up to select Taylor at pick 41. Based on this draft capital, Indianapolis clearly views him as their future workhorse, and Taylor is set up well for an elite fantasy RB1 career behind this mauling line.

This makes Taylor the clear 1.02 in 2020 fantasy rookie rankings, behind only Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who landed in an even dreamier home with the Chiefs.

Yet, will Taylor reach this uncapped ceiling right from the start as a rookie?

Talent: The Pinnacle Workhorse

A Pure Stallion of a Runner

Just as a physical specimen, Taylor defines size-speed terror. He weighs a sturdy 226 lbs, yet blazed a 4.39 forty — the fastest among 2020 RBs and 10th-fastest weight-adjusted speed score by a running back all-time (99th percentile).  Taylor also ranked in the 96th percentile in Adjusted Sparq. This speed and athleticism constantly popped on tape, whether Taylor was beating defenders to the edge or knifing through the gut into the second and third levels.

FantasyPoints’ Greg Cosell, arguably the top RB scout in the game, ranked Taylor No.1 in this wildly talented class, labeling him a “foundation starting point of an offense much like Ezekiel Elliott.”

Similar to Zeke, Taylor is methodical and efficient in getting downhill. He’s mentally and physically tough, consistently shouldering 300+ touch workloads with ease and durability — often improving the more he was fed and could wear down defenders. Indeed, Taylor’s competitiveness, power, and motor exude “grinder” qualities — his thick legs literally never stop churning. Yet, his athleticism and speed bring plenty of home run sizzle to this beefy ribeye steak.

Moreover, Taylor’s instincts runner instincts are truly top notch. He consistently displayed that tricky balance of patience to allow plays to develop, and decisiveness to drill the hole once it opened. Though not overly sudden or “twitchy” like Helaire, Taylor possesses excellent footwork and vision, stringing together moves effortlessly to elude or plow through defenders in equal measure. He ultimately led the nation in first-down runs (97) and 10-plus yarders (61).

In fact, Graham Barfield’s excellent “Yards Created” series detailed “Taylor’s agility is underrated. The majority of Taylor’s missed tackles came from elusiveness or speed on his charted carries” instead of power, as most may expect.

Simply put: Cosell labeled Taylor as “the best overall runner in this draft class.” We fully agree. The only risk we see in his profile is Taylor’s alarming fumble rate.

Not Just a System / Line Product

But Wolf… Taylor undoubtedly benefited from the Badgers’ run-centric offense and top-notch line, right? Could he just be a product of his surroundings?

Indeed, Wisconsin’s line is well above-average, and their run scheme is as productive as any in the NCAA.

Yet, according to Graham Barfield, “the Badgers offensive line wasn’t too big of an advantage. A.J. Dillon (1.90), D’Andre Swift (1.85), J.K. Dobbins (1.72), and Clyde Edwards-Helaire’s (1.58) offensive line all opened up more yards blocked per rush than Wisconsin (1.39 YB/A).” Barfield further details how Taylor was actually more productive without a fullback than with one.

Hell, even if the line helped facilitate some of his production, it’s not like Taylor is suddenly playing behind a patchwork unit. The Colts line has finished Top-3 in PFF’s run-blocking grades in back-to-back seasons. He’ll be right at home with wide open lanes to explode through.

Untapped Receiving Upside

Most mistake Taylor’s lack of receiving production for a lack of ability. This is far from the truth.

Sure, Taylor is a work in progress as a receiver, especially compared to Helaire. He had four concentration drops in 2019, is often late adjusting to throws, and was only asked to pass-block twice all season. Only AJ Dillon ran fewer routes per game.

Still, Wisconsin’s run-obsessed scheme (59% run-heavy) didn’t afford Taylor much of a chance to fully showcase his receiving talents. However, when they did pass, Taylor was fed. According to Barfield, Taylor was targeted on a team-high 33% of his routes — the highest rate of any back he’s ever recorded across five years, including Alvin Kamara (targeted on 31% of routes), Kenyan Drake (27%), and Christian McCaffrey (23%). Taylor also gained the second-most yards per route (2.3) in this class.

Barfield draws an interesting comparison to fellow former Badger Melvin Gordon, who accumulated a total of 22 receptions, 228 receiving yards, and 4 TDs across his whole Wisconsin career. Gordon ranks 8th in total RB receptions since 2016 (191), and hasn’t dipped below 40 catches in four years.

Taylor, meanwhile, topped all of Gordon’s receiving totals (26/252/5 TDs) in his senior season alone. Like Gordon, Taylor should similarly benefit from Philip Rivers, who, as we’ll explore more, loves checking down to his RBs. Taylor’s well aware of these responsibilities (and the meaning of the word plethora):

“I definitely do, especially getting to play with a legendary quarterback like Philip Rivers,” Taylor said after getting drafted about his abilities on third down with the Colts. “I’m definitely going to be ready to go learning a plethora of routes, plethora of protections to make sure that if and when Mr. Rivers needs me, I’m there and ready to go.”

The Short and Long-Term Fantasy Fit

Really a “1-2 Punch?” Plenty of Volume Regardless

The immediate appeal of the Colts should be obvious: their monstrous offensive line. These maulers have ranked Top-3 in run blocking in every season since drafting Quentin Nelson, and return all five starters in 2020.

Moreover, behind these bruisers, HC Frank Reich’s primary goal is to “run the damn ball.  The numbers don’t lie: only five teams ran the ball at a higher percentage than the Colts (47% run rate), who also ranked fourth with 29.4 run attempts per game and fifth in first-and-second down run rate (52%). Their 2,130 team rush yards ranked seventh.

These carries have primarily been fed to Marlon Mack, who’s handled 71.6% of the Colts RB attempts across his last 26 games. Fresh off 1,091 yards rushing last season,  Mack is clearly a capable runner in his own right.

Still, he’s not even close to Taylor’s level of a runner. The Colts didn’t trade invaluable capital to move up for Taylor, just to have him rot in an even timeshare. In fact, Taylor’s selection prompted:

  • “Nice work. Holy shit!” – GM Chris Ballard, in front of his small children.
  • I just wanted to say thank you. Oh my goodness. I am feeling great. Feeling GREAT.” – OC Nick Sirianni
  • “He’s Captain America.” – Colts Area Scout Matt Terpening 

Ballard further gushed: “I mean look, Taylor is a unique talent, and anytime a unique talent starts to fall a little bit – at that point we were like, ‘Man, we need to go get the player.’… So to me, he is too unique a talent.”

Thus, while Reich may “envision Jonathan and Marlon really being that one-two punch,” don’t be surprised if that early-down workload resembles more of a 65/35 split.

Nevermind that Mack has missed at least 2 full games in each of his professional seasons; if and when Mack goes down in 2020, Taylor may never relinquish the forthcoming bellcow role.

Worst case, the Colts commit to a true committee. Even still, Indy is expected to remain one of the run-heavier teams in the league, protecting their aging QB while allowing him to thrive in play-action. Even if this becomes the floor, Taylor will likely shoulder 220+ carries, with a 300+ touch ceiling.

Upside for Receiving Involvement

Nyheim Hines‘ role will be paramount to monitor. He’s been Reich’s hand-selected pass-catching specialist, and is only a season and Andrew Luck removed from a 63 reception season (8th). In all likelihood, Hines will operate in this “Ekeler” style role, and limit the receiving upside for both Taylor and Mack.

Nonetheless, plenty of “scraps” should fall off the table for Taylor. Even in a secondary receiving-back role, Gordon hasn’t been below 40 receptions in four straight seasons with Rivers, and Taylor outproduced Gordon’s entire Wisconsin receiving total in his senior year alone.

This is largely a result of Rivers’ penchant for the checkdown. In the last three seasons, the Chargers RB total targets, target share, and receptions are:

  • 2019: 164 (1st in league), 30.9% (1st), 148 (1st)
  • 2018: 137 (5th), 28.4% (3rd), 107 (6th)
  • 2017: 124 (10th), 23.1% (11th), 92 (11th)

Taylor will be unshackled soon enough

Even if 2020 is a near-even split, Taylor’s longterm prospects are as juicy as any. Mack is an unrestricted FA in 2021, and even before Taylor’s selection, Ballard was already quite noncommittal when asked about a potential extension.

As such, Taylor should assume a workhorse role by 2021, at the very latest. In all likelihood, Taylor should achieve this at some point in 2020, whether because of Mack’s inferior ability or injury history.

Whenever he becomes the Zeke-style focal point, Taylor will push for 280+ touches (35+ rec), 1500 total yard, 12-15 TD upside.

Summary: Beastly Runner + Beastly Line = Don’t Overthink

Taylor is one of purest thoroughbred RBs in college football history. He has the perfect blend of downhill, leg-churning, pile-pushing power and home run speed, all while navigating through defensive creases with minimal change in velocity.

Taylor landed in the perfect pastures to run wild with the Indianapolis Colts’ run-centric offense and mauling offensive line. Sure, Marlon Mack could be a one year nuisance. Still, this “Reich Regime” hand-selected Taylor, and only inherited Mack, who’ll likely be out the door as a UFA in 2021.

Even before that, Taylor should ultimately secure the workhorse role by the middle of his rookie campaign — whether a result of a Mack injury or inferiority. As such, Taylor belongs in your Top-10 Dynasty RBs, Top-25 Redraft RBs, and Top-2 Overall in Rookie-only drafts. He’ll be a 1,400 yard rusher by next season, with an outside shot at 1K and 10+ TDs right off the bat.

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