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NFL draft steal: Jonathan Taylor's emergence a good case study for running backs' true value

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Each week during the 2021 season, we'll examine our NFL draft steal of the week — a younger player whose NFL success has surpassed where he was drafted. We'll try to look back at the why and how of where they were selected and what we thought of that prospect prior to the draft.

Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor

Indianapolis Colts
5-foot-10, 226 pounds
2020 NFL draft: Round 2, No. 41 overall

The 2020 NFL draft was considered a stronger-than-average draft at running back, and it followed a 2019 crop of backs that was a bit lighter on the high-end talent.

It stood as the ultimate litmus test for a position that often finds itself lower on the importance scale: How high should the 2020 draft backs be taken? The modern NFL has trended more heavily toward the passing game, leading to many analytics-driven people to suggest that running backs don't matter (that much).

But Taylor set records for the Badgers, scoring 50 rushing TDs in 41 career games and totaled more rush yards (6,159) through his first three seasons than any back in college football history. He logged 12 career games with 200 or more yards, 19 more with 100-plus yards and only five career games with fewer than 80 yards.

Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor has been one of the league's best backs since being drafted in 2020. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor has been one of the league's best backs since being drafted in 2020. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Perhaps a generation or two ago, Taylor would have been considered a potential top-five overall pick. Less than two years ago, he entered draft weekend as a likely second-round pick. 

Was he simply born too late to fully thrive in the NFL? Or does the value of a quality back require recalibration? 

Taylor ended up going 41st to the Colts, behind two other backs (Clyde Edwards-Helaire and D'Andre Swift). In his rookie season, Taylor ran 232 times for 1,169 yards and 11 touchdowns in 15 games, helping the Colts improve from 7-9 in 2019 to 11-5 and a playoff appearance in 2020. His 36 receptions were almost as many as Taylor totaled in 41 college games (42).

In 10 games so far in 2021, Taylor has been even better, rushing 161 times for league-best 937 yards (a per-carry increase of more than three-quarters of a yard) with nine TDs, plus 29 catches for 303 and one more score. In his past five games, with the Colts winning four of those, Taylor has 716 total yards and seven scores.

There's an argument to be made that Taylor is now a top-five back, and he might not be fourth or fifth. Let's go back to when he was coming out as a prospect. Was Taylor under-drafted? Or is there enough evidence to suggest that he was taken right about where he should have been?

Why did Jonathan Taylor slip in the draft?

There were a host of opinions about the 2020 draft RB class, with some evaluators independently grading Taylor, Edwards-Helaire, Swift and JK Dobbins as the top available back. There also was a belief that the depth of talent at the position that year allowed better-value players to be found lower in the draft.

The latter argument could point toward the relative successes of third-rounder Antonio Gibson and undrafted James Robinson suggest that it's far more prudent to wait on backs. Teams operating with that philosophy are quite frequent in the NFL, and it might be years before that belief fades.

There might even be some truth to it. But it's inarguable that Taylor has been the most productive second-year back in the league, both in terms of combined totals and per-touch efficiency. And keeping your fingers crossed to land the next Robinson isn't a foolproof team-building strategy.

So Taylor certainly suffered from an anti-RB stigma in an era where the run game has been devalued. But he also came with other concerns.

One, his workload in college (968 touches in three seasons) was considered a negative. Even though some data suggest that high college workloads have no correlation to a back's early-career success in the NFL, many teams aren't willing to use higher picks on one-contract players and move on from diminishing assets after four or five seasons.

Two, Taylor's low college receiving usage — less than a catch per game — along with his limited effectiveness as a pass protector reduced his perceived value as well. In a passing league, backs are expected to offer some third-down value. Although he improved moderately in his final season with the Badgers in both respects, Taylor was labeled a first- and second-down NFL back by some teams.

And three, his fumbling was a major concern. With 18 career fumbles, Taylor put the ball on the ground every 53.5 offensive touches — an alarming rate. 

The combination of the three, even with Taylor's absurd body of work as a runner, certainly limited his appeal as a prospect.

Jonathan Taylor broke program and NCAA rushing records at Wisconsin but was only deemed worthy of a second-round pick. (Photo by Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Jonathan Taylor broke program and NCAA rushing records at Wisconsin but was only deemed worthy of a second-round pick. (Photo by Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

How we viewed Taylor as a prospect

Taylor was our No. 36 overall prospect in the 2020 NFL draft, describing him as a "highly productive, blue-collar speed back with elite character." We noted the above concerns, especially in terms of the workload and fumbling, but felt Taylor could improve in the passing game with time and teaching.

To wit:

Taylor is a one-cut speed back with the size and durability to be a workhorse, preferably in a zone system. Ideally, he’d be paired with a good third-down back early on to reduce the need for those [third-down] duties, but it’s likely that he can improve in the passing game.

Still, considering our ranking matched with the relative value of the running back position, we asserted that Taylor would be taken "somewhere in the early to mid-second round," which is ... exactly what happened. 

It's fair to say it's worked out beautifully for the Colts, who are 16-9 with Taylor in the lineup. He's second only to Derrick Henry in yards from scrimmage since the start of the 2020 NFL season.

And those perceived weaknesses we (and others) were concerned about? 

Taylor has only fumbled a total of four times in 25 NFL games, or an average of once every 114.5 touches — nearly twice as good as his college rate. His receiving effectiveness has jumped considerably in the NFL, catching 65 passes for 602 yards and two scores. Plus, his volume has yet to tangibly affect his performance. 

Future forecast

Hasn't Taylor been better through two seasons than your garden-variety 41st overall pick? We'd say absolutely yes. The question then is how high he should have gone. Certainly the Chiefs, who took Edwards-Helaire 32nd overall, would be better with Taylor.

And to take it a step further: If we redid the 2020 NFL draft today, knowing what we know now, how high would be go? It's a fascinating question. Taylor wouldn't go ahead of players such as Justin Herbert, Joe Burrow, Justin Jefferson, Chase Young, Tristan Wirfs, CeeDee Lamb and Jedrick Wills Jr.

Taylor even might not be valued higher than players such as Derrick Brown, Antoine Winfield Jr., Isaiah Simmons, Mekhi Becton and A.J. Terrell. But there might not be too many other players from that draft class who can claim to be more impactful to this point.

The question comes down to longevity. 

Taylor to this point has logged 458 touches through his first 25 NFL games. That's an average of 18.32 touches per game.

There have been studies that suggest backs start to hit the wall, so to speak, when they reach a total touch mark of 1,500 to 2,000. One particularly interesting study we found landed on a more precise 1,800 touches as the point at which backs before depreciating assets.

At his current rate, Taylor should hit the 1,800 mark somewhere around his 98th NFL game. Assuming good health, allowing for one missed game for injury per year, that means Taylor's decline could begin sometime late in the 2025 season, assuming the NFL sticks with a 17-game regular season.

The Colts have Taylor under contract through at least the 2024 season, costing the team a hair under $8 million total. The league's eight highest-paid backs all make more than $12 million per season.

From that standpoint, the Colts have a bargain in Taylor, whose performance-to-cost ratio has to be one of the best in the league. And whether or not they deem Taylor to be a depreciating asset in three or four years, the Colts appear to have a game-changing back and a terrific "Moneyball" type of asset, freeing up cash to be spent elsewhere on the roster.

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