Colts’ camp preview: Running backs

Colts

INDIANAPOLIS – This is the next in a series taking a position-by-position look at the Indianapolis Colts heading into training camp, which is scheduled to open July 28 at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center.

Today: RUNNING BACKS

  • Starter: Marlon Mack.
  • Backup: Jonathan Taylor.
  • Fullback: Rosie Nix.
  • Utility back: Nyheim Hines.
  • Depth: Jordan Wilkins, Darius Jackson, Bruce Anderson III.

Mack attack

The decision to invest the 41st overall pick in the April draft on Jonathan Taylor wasn’t an indictment of Marlon Mack’s worthiness. There is nothing about Mack’s game that creates red flags.

We’ve never bought into the “he’s injury prone’’ argument. Mack has missed eight games in three seasons, which isn’t unusual for the position. He played his rookie season after tearing a labrum in his shoulder in training camp that required surgery after the season, missed four games in ’18 with a hamstring injury and missed only two games last year after fracturing his right hand.

On the field, Mack has continued to elevate his performance and production: 25.6 yards per game as a rookie while serving as Frank Gore’s understudy, 75.6 in ’18 as the first-time feature back and 77.9 in ’19. He’s always displayed speed to the edge and the ability to make tacklers miss, but has become a very effective between-the-tackles back. He’s benefitted from running behind one of the NFL’s top offensive lines, which has enabled him to get to the second level and take on linebackers.

The NFL is a blend of moving the chains and explosive plays and, again, Mack has produced. Over the last two seasons, he’s had gains of at least 10 yards on 48 of his 442 attempts (10.8 percent) and ripped on 20-plus runs 16 times.

Only someone with an axe to grind could find fault with Mack’s resume. His 1,091 yards last season ranked 11th in the NFL and were the most by a Colt since Edgerrin James’ 1,506 in 2005.

By the way, Mack turned 24 in March. He hoped an extension would be offered during the offseason – he’ll be unrestricted at the end of the season – but that never materialized. It’s not a stretch to mention Taylor’s arrival threatens Mack’s long-term future with the Colts.

Frank Reich remains bullish on Mack.

“Marlon has that great vision,’’ he said. “He can run that outside zone well, he can surge, surge, surge and then he can accelerate in the hole.

“Then you have a guy like Jonathan.’’

Backup plan

“I really envision that it’ll be Jonathan and Marlon really being that one-two punch,’’ Reich said.

Coordinator Nick Sirianni took it a step further.

“It feels like it’s just a one-one punch because we have two such exceptional backs,’’ he said.

Many of us – my hand is in the air – are curious how a “one-one’’ punch will work. Most backs need X-number of carries to get the feel of the game and get into a rhythm. In the 26 games he’s played in the past two seasons, Mack’s 442 attempts and 1,099 yards represent roughly 60 percent of the Colts’ rushing totals.

Taylor, meanwhile, was Wisconsin’s undeniable bell cow. In 41 games, he averaged 22.6 carries and 150.6 yards. He had at least 25 attempts 21 times.

Reich and Sirianni will find a way to maximize their “one-one’’ punch, which should only bolster a running attack that ranked 7th in the league last year with 2,130 yards, the team’s highest output since 1988.

The intriguing aspect of Taylor’s game is his big-play skills, and that’s an area of the run game Reich is committed to upgrading.

“Jonathan Taylor is an explosive player,’’ he said. “That size and 4.3 speed . . . we want to turn those 10-yard gains into 50- and 60-yard gains.

“Now both he and Marlon can add that element to our offense.’’

The past two seasons, Mack has generated rushes of at least 10 yards on 11 percent of his attempts (48 of 442). He’s gotten loose for gains of at least 20 yards 16 times.

Taylor? He was a chunk-play machine for the Badgers. He averaged 6.7 yards on his 926 carries and broke free for runs of at least 20 yards in 25 of his 41 games. Consider the long-distance nature of several of his 50 TDs: 88, 80, 75, 72, 71, 67, 64, 53, 51.

An interesting factoid to Taylor’s Wisconsin career: he had at least one 10-yard rush in 40 of his 41 games, including the last 39. The aberration? The 2017 Big Ten championship. In a 27-21 loss to Ohio State at Lucas Oil Stadium, Taylor, a freshman, was limited to 42 yards on 15 carries.

Mr. Versatile

The creative expertise of Reich and Sirianni also will be put to the test regarding Nyheim Hines. Mack and Taylor will command the vast majority of the rushing attempts, but Hines is without question the most skilled receiver in the room. His 63 receptions in 2018 were the 3rd-most in team history by a rookie (Bill Brooks with 65 in 1986 and Marvin Harrison with 64 in 1996). Hines’ total dipped to 44, but there figures to be an uptick this season.

Reich noted Hines’ might have to be patient when it comes to getting his touches “and then all of a sudden he has 10 catches in one game.’’

The team wants to find ways to get the ball to Hines in open space and allow him to use his elite speed and elusiveness. To this point, that’s not really happened. He’s averaged just 7 yards on his 107 catches with a long of 28.

It’s not going to hurt in the least that quarterback Philip Rivers has leaned heavily on running backs during his 16-year career.

Fact worth noting

There already has been talk of Mack and Taylor each rushing for 1,000 yards this season. It’s certainly possible, but not likely. It would be a first for the Colts.

The 1,000/1,000 has been achieved only seven times in NFL history, and twice it was done with a mobile quarterback as part of the tag team. Baltimore did it last season with quarterback Lamar Jackson (1,206 yards) and Mark Ingram Jr. (1,018) while Atlanta had a twin-1,000-yard attack in 2006 with Warrick Dunn (1,140) and quarterback Michael Vick (1,039).

The last team with a pair of 1,000-yard running backs: Carolina in ’09. Jonathan Stewart finished with 1,133 yards and DeAngelo Williams with 1,117.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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