2020 Running Back Usage: Indianapolis Colts

Tom Kislingbury

Welcome to the latest installment of a series where we delve deep into what teams asked of their backs – to give us a better idea of what they’ll be doing in 2021.

This time, we’re looking at the Indianapolis Colts. Included are Jonathan Taylor, Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins. Marlon Mack is excluded after he saw only seven touches in 2020 before injury hit and he suffered a torn Achilles. The three featured backs are all under contract for 2021, while Mack returns on a one-year deal.

Before we start looking at detailed usage, this chart shows all RB carries and targets for every team in the 2020 regular season.

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Note that the Colts led the league with 536. The average amount was just 434. Some of this was due to play-calling and preference but some of this was also undoubtedly due to long drives and favorable game conditions. It’s likely the Colts will not lead the league in RB work again so we should expect available RB touches to drop. Maybe that is not enormously but the point is – expecting more touches is extremely optimistic.

This is important because we know that volume is the main determiner of production for RBs and therefore, fantasy points. This chart shows every back from 2020 in terms of offensive touches and yards from scrimmage:

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The correlation is noteworthy. But still, we saw Colts backs do well in 2020. Jonathan Taylor (the blue dot) was efficient at hitting big plays (more on that later) as was Nyheim Hines. Let’s dive in deeper.

This chart gives us a quick summary of the backfield.

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It’s clear to see that the Colts stayed with their favored approach. They used a specialist receiving back (Hines) to complement their lead rusher (Taylor). They did the exact same thing in 2018 and 2019 under Frank Reich.

This chart shows the rushing/receiving split for the three backs:

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League average in 2020 was for RBs to see 22% of their workload coming via targets so Taylor (14%) was notably lower while Hines (46%) was notably higher, with Wilkins close to Taylor.

If we break that out the ‘other way’ around, we can see the picture clearly:

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Taylor owned nearly 60% of RB carries but just 30% of RB targets, while Hines commanded an enormous 58% of RB targets. We’ll come back to this but it’s noteworthy. Hines is such a good receiver he’s likely going to continue to block Taylor from attaining a high target number.

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This chart is slightly surprising. Normally you expect dedicated receiving backs like Hines to play more on third down. That’s not the case here. In fact, Taylor had a (slightly) higher proportion of work on late downs. Both Hines and Taylor were rarely used as pass-blockers and bad when they did do it, so that’s not the explanation.

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The answer simply seems to be that the Colts prefer a specialist receiving back but use him just as much on early downs as they do on late downs.

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This series has mostly poured cold water onto the idea of short-yardage backs. But here you can see a clear tendency in line with what we know about the two main backs on the team. Taylor owned around 60% of work on very short-yardage plays and commensurately less work on longer plays.

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Here you can see weekly work. It’s likely that you’ve read all the article so far and you’ve been thinking “Taylor took over this backfield late in the season”. Well, this is what that looks like.

We can break the season into three sections.

The first part of the season was the first six games. Taylor averaged 18 combined carries and targets per game – 57% of the total.

The second part of the season was the next five games. This was when the fantasy world was extremely down on Taylor. In this period, he saw three low-usage games and missed another. Jordan Wilkins and Nyheim Hines both saw more work than Taylor during these games.

The in the final period of the year, Taylor really picked up. He saw around 22 carries/targets per game. That added up to 109 of the 168 total (65%). Hines still had a role, but this was heavy usage for Taylor.

This is the same chart but showing only pass targets:

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We’re talking small sample sizes here but it’s clear that Taylor did not take over from Hines as the team’s receiving back. In those last five games, Hines received 21 targets with Taylor receiving 12. From November onwards Hines saw 49 targets to Taylor’s 22. The idea that Taylor grew into a receiving role and earned more play in the passing game is false.

The next chart shows usage by quarter:

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Again, the Colts do not live up to expected norms with receiving backs. Hines did not see additional work in the second and fourth quarter. That’s probably down to the fact the Colts were rarely chasing games and therefore did not need to use as many two-minute drills.

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This chart shows how much of the backs’ yardage was gained on plays of different lengths. The key takeout is that Taylor earned 287 yards on plays of 20 or more yards. Only five other backs managed more than that all season. Plus all of Taylor’s big plays came against the Jaguars, Texans, Raiders and Bengals. Those were very poor defenses.

Big plays are not reliable, and big plays against a limited number of historically bad opponents are even less reliable.

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This chart shows the rushing gap distribution of all three backs. For a team like the Colts who play a lot of man-blocking, you tend to see similar distributions because the back is going where the play is designed to go. The only slight difference is that Hines ran less off TEs on both sides, because on plays where Hines was on the field (i.e. mostly passing plays), the Colts tended to not have an in-line TE on the field.

This chart shows the Colts’ distribution against the rest of the NFL.

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Only a handful of other teams rushed more in the A gaps than the Colts, but overall, it was unremarkable.

The last chart shows yards from scrimmage gained by quarter for each of the backs.

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The big takeout is the fourth-quarter numbers for Taylor and Wilkins. The Colts used Wilkins as a direct substitute for Taylor later in games.

Conclusions

The overall situation for Colts backs in 2020 paints a rosy picture. They had a very high amount of RB offensive opportunities, and the two main backs were efficient at creating yardage (albeit against very poor opposition). This seems like brilliant news for dynasty owners and it’s reflected in ADP. Taylor is currently the number two overall player behind just Christian McCaffrey. Hines is going at 141 overall as the RB45, just behind Cole Kmet.

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For Taylor to be worth the second overall pick he needs to be an elite back, probably for multiple seasons. To do that he needs volume.

The Colts have shown a clear preference for using a dedicated receiving back and they have a good one on the roster in Hines. It’ll be a surprise to see Taylor get much more than the 39 targets he received as a rookie.

Also, we need to consider the fact that the Colts led all teams in overall RB workload (this is very likely to drop) and Taylor created a huge number of big plays against four historically poor defenses. He missed one game in 2020 (COVID testing) but we know the average games missed for a starting back is around two.

It’s certainly possible to see a path to greatness for Taylor, but it requires a lot of potential pitfalls to not happen. Every year a handful of backs manage to dodge all those and record stud seasons, but it’s rare for it to happen to backs who are not confident of owning a large number of targets. Investing in Taylor is not the most egregious move in dynasty – but beware of the risks.

Thanks for reading.

tom kislingbury
2020 Running Back Usage: Indianapolis Colts