INDIANAPOLIS – The questions formed nearly the moment Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor’s name was announced with the 41st overall pick.
Will the uber-productive Badger start ahead of incumbent Marlon Mack? How will the pick affect Mack’s contract negotiations as he enters the final year of his rookie deal? And can the Indianapolis Colts possibly find an equitable split for the two star rushers?
Running backs coach Tom Rathman all but laughs at the building consternation.
As he sees it, there’s no challenge at all. The most consistent player will get the bulk of the carries, and factors such as the score, opponent, weather and momentum will dictate the split from week to week. A two-time Super Bowl champion who played eight seasons with the San Francisco 49ers beginning in 1986, Rathman also points out it’s too early to include Taylor’s name alongside Mack’s.
He holds Taylor’s 6,174 career rushing yards – the first NCAA player ever to cross that barrier in just three seasons – in high esteem. But he also knows that’s not an automatic ticket to professional stardom.
“Jonathan hasn’t played any NFL football,” Rathman said. “So he still has to grow into that role, and we all see it. We all anticipate it. We all expect it. But are you gonna see it right away? I can’t say that.
“But hopefully he comes out of the gates, and – boom – he’s playing at the same level as all these other guys, and they all elevate their game.”
General manager Chris Ballard and head coach Frank Reich have worked hard to build a certain level of chemistry in the locker room. All the involved parties believe those bonds will pay off as the running back depth chart sorts itself out.
Mack has impressed through his first three NFL seasons with 2,357 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns in 40 regular-season games. He set career highs last year with 247 carries and 1,091 yards while adding eight touchdowns.
He’s also shown high-level toughness in rushing back from a broken hand and playing through other injuries. But Mack has always worked well as part of a rotation.
Last season, he played a career-high 47% of the Colts’ offensive snaps. By comparison, Tennessee Titans workhorse Derrick Henry appeared on 59% of his team’s snaps and young New York Giants star Saquon Barkley played 68% of the offensive snaps.
Reich has long believed in the importance of defined roles. With the Colts, that’s often meant Nyheim Hines moves ahead of Mack in certain situations – notably the hurry-up offense and intermediate to long third-down conversions.
“Nyheim is such a good third-down back,” Reich said. “He’ll play a prominent part. In some ways he’s a starter, he’s a role-playing starter. Your second tight end, your third receiver, those guys – the way our offense rolls and even defensively, the way we substitute and get everybody involved, the role-playing thing is really accentuated, very important.”
Taylor’s presence should take that to the next level.
If the rookie proves he can produce as expected, Indianapolis could find itself with two true starters. That appears to be the plan.
Both Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni have avoided the phrase “one-two punch,” insisting this is more of a 1A-1B situation. It’s worked before at the pro level, with teams revolving running backs with different styles to keep defenses off balance.
The Colts believe their rotation could be unique because Mack and Taylor won’t need to be substituted for specific situations. It’s not a “lightning and thunder” situation, or even a scenario like Hines’ role.
It’s a chance, in the coaches’ eyes, to replace a featured back with another featured back.
“Jonathan is a little bigger than Marlon, but they both have exceptional speed, and they both have ability to make you miss, and they both have the ability to break arm-tackles and run with power,” Sirianni said. “They have some different running styles, but again they’re both complete backs.
“I think that’s a fantastic problem to have, is to have two guys like that you can feed the football to. It’s only going to help our running game.”
That’s where Rathman brings it back to the team’s family atmosphere.
He played in an organization run by Hall of Fame head coach Bill Walsh and served as a Niners assistant coach under Steve Mariucci, Mike Singletary, Jim Harbaugh, Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly. He knows what works in this league – and what doesn’t – and he sees the right mix in Indianapolis.
“I was in San Francisco, and they had a pretty good organization – and they (still) do have a good organization,” Rathman said. “So you know what a good organization is, and I’m saying this is a dynamic organization from that standpoint, as far as creating that family environment, everybody pulling for each other. I think that’s what’s gonna happen here.
“Everybody’s gonna be rooting for each other, and it’s all about rooting for a guy to get him to play at that consistent, that high level of play. And, really, we call that our standard, and we expect that out of our players.”