INDIANAPOLIS – Nyheim Hines is one of the more approachable, personable and obliging players in the locker room. Or on Zoom.
He’s engaging and thoughtful. He’s one of those reliable “voices’’ who generally has something worthwhile to offer regardless the topic.
It takes a lot to set him off.
But ask Hines about the notion he’s been a productive “gadget guy’’ in Frank Reich’s offensive toolbox, and duck.
The Indianapolis Colts’ veteran running back doesn’t react with a raised voice or by waving clinched fists in the air, but there nonetheless is an edge that’s normally missing.
Gadget guy? And keep in mind, the description wasn’t lofted in his direction in a derogatory manner. Everyone realizes the 2018 fourth-round draft pick has been one of the Colts’ most versatile offensive weapons, one that routinely tests the creative skills of Reich to maximize his diverse, big-play talents.
“I’ve never been a gadget guy,’’ Hines said last week on a Zoom conference call. “I hate when people call me that.’’
His voice was measured, but the stare was evidence of the level of his irritation.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been that,’’ Hines continued. “I’ve played running back my whole life. I’ve always been able to run the ball in between the tackles. Last year I think that was a step to that.
“Ever since I’ve been in the NFL I’ve heard all the things – the gadget guy, too little to run in between the tackles – so I think last year was a good first step.’’
There was a bit more.
“This year I’m looking to build on that because I hate when people call me a gadget guy,’’ he said. “I’m not a gadget guy. I’m a football player. That’s how I see it.’’
Marcus Brady is in his first year as offensive coordinator but witnessed Hines’ growth while serving as the Colts’ quarterbacks’ coach since 2018. He sees the elite speed, elusiveness, and threat in the open field that Hines possesses as a runner and receiver.
“He’s definitely a weapon,’’ Brady said. “He’s a guy you can trust in the backfield, even just handing the ball off. You always talk about getting him out of the backfield, getting him out in space, but he does a great job in between the tackles where he’s able to get through there and then use his speed to create explosive plays for us.
“He’s just grown. His vision has grown, his patience has grown through the holes, and that just comes from experience.’’
Did Brady understand Hines’ disdain for the “gadget guy’’ description?
“I understand where he’s coming from, definitely,’’ he said. “And he shouldn’t take it as a knock because he’s not just a gadget player, but he does have that ability that does bring problems to defenses.
“He is just more than that.’’
He’s been a little bit of this, a lot of that.
In three seasons, Hines has left footprints as a runner, receiver and returner. In fact, since 2018 he’s one of just eight players to score a touchdown rushing, receiving and returning. And of that exclusive group, only Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill – with a ridiculous 43 overall TDs in 42 games – has generated more TDs than Hines’ 15. Atlanta’s Cordarrelle Patterson has eight.
“With every opportunity I think I’ve gotten more confident,’’ Hines said. “My rookie year I had to figure out the game a bit. I tried to learn from Andrew (Luck) and those guys. In 2019, I think I took a step forward, became a punt returner.
“Last year, I think I took off, and I think it really came down to my mindset and making the most of my opportunities. In our offense, if you don’t make the most of your opportunities, you’re not going to get another opportunity.
“Also, I have my own God-given abilities – my speed, quickness and athleticism that I work on every year. I have found more confidence in myself, too.’’
Reich never has lacked confidence in Hines, but it’s been a weekly challenge finding ways to utilize his versatility in a backfield that’s featured Marlon Mack and Jonathan Taylor and included occasional doses of Jordan Wilkins. Early on, it was as a third-down or change-of-pace back, one adept at creating mismatches in the passing game.
An impressive tidbit: Hines’ 170 receptions are the most by a Colt running back in his first three seasons (Marshall Faulk had 164 and Edgerrin James 149) and the fourth most overall (T.Y. Hilton 214, Marvin Harrison 196, Austin Collie 172).
When primary punt returner Chester Rodgers suffered a season-ending knee injury in week 13 of 2019, the coaching staff turned things over to Hines. He had struggled returning punts early in his career, but worked diligently with assistant coach Frank Ross and became one of the NFL’s more feared specialists.
In week 16 against Carolina, Hines returned three punts for 195 yards, including 84- and 71-yard touchdowns. The yardage and TDs were single-game club records while the yardage was the most in the NFL since 2004.
As Hines mentioned, 2020 represented a noticeable step up as a running back. He set career highs with 89 attempts, 380 yards, three TDs and a 4.3 average while working behind Taylor, the much-hyped second-round draft pick. In his first two seasons, Hines had 11 rushes that gained at least 10 yards. Last season, he broke off 17 during the regular season and added 33- and 29-yarders in the playoff loss at Buffalo.
That’s a “chunk play’’ in the run game (10 yards or more) on 25.3% of his attempts in 17 games. Taylor, who would finish third in the league in rushing and was the unquestioned workhorse, had 38 gains of at least 10 yards on his 253 overall attempts (15%).
Along with bringing versatility to the huddle, Hines represents durability. He’s one of five Colts – All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson, wideout Zach Pascal, long-snapper Luke Rhodes and linebacker Zaire Franklin are the others – to appear in 51 games, including the playoffs, since 2018.
The Colts’ commitment to Hines might manifest itself in an extension this summer. He’s entering the final year of his rookie contract.
“It’s on my mind obviously,’’ he said, “but I haven’t thought that much about it. I’m just letting my agent handle it. My job is to be the best player I can be and the best leader I can be.
“At least for me, I know when they call 21, I know it’s showtime, and I think that’s what all those other (running backs) say, too. When we get the chance, it’s time to go.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.