Matt Waldman’s RSP shares it’s pre-draft scouting report of the Colts’ Jonathan Taylor, a running back Matt labeled the “most talented runner in his class.”
Note: Taylor was the No.2 runner on my board behind J.K. Dobbins, a player I still believe has an opportunity to become a top talent at his position in the NFL and is in the offense to make his mark. As I often state, “Rankings Suck…” because they don’t really encapsulate what needs to be summed up about a player but the fact that Taylor earned a grade as high as he did despite a pair of issues that could hold a lot of runners back is a testament to the traits and skills described below.
2. Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin (5-10, 226)
Depth of Talent Score: 85.5 = Starter: Starting immediately with large role and learning on the go.
If judging solely on what 2020 running back prospects can do on the field right now, Taylor is the most talented runner in this class. However, teams value ball security and pass protection from their running backs, which is why Taylor is not the most talented player at his position.
Three years from now, Taylor could easily develop into the best running back overall. Despite his flaws—and they are substantial—Taylor’s elite traits and skills compensate enough that he’s in spitting distance of the top spot on the RSP’s board.
Player comparisons are rarely exact—even when linking a player in style rather than talent. With that qualifier in mind, Taylor is the closest thing to Corey Dillon—young Corey Dillon, not the slower version who was still a good back in New England—that I’ve seen in a while.
Taylor is a tough downhill runner with excellent vision who will reach the secondary in a hurry when a crease opens. If you never saw Dillon, think of a more physical Chris Carson with blazing speed.
Taylor has almost everything a team covets from a generational talent. However, his flaws are as such that if he doesn’t become a generational talent it’s because those issues keep him from earning feature role or he can’t stay healthy.
Wisconsin features Taylor from pistol, I-formation, and single-back sets. The Badgers run a mix of trap and zone runs, including trap, counter, toss, draw, split-zone, and off-tackle zone. The common positive Taylor exhibits with any play requiring patient running is the depth in which he presses the line of scrimmage.
Taylor works deep into the line and sets up bounces and cutbacks. When plays require Taylor to attack fast, he’ll hit the hole with authority. Most running plays require just enough patience to set up a block or two and then the urgency to hit the crease as soon as that block happens, and Taylor knows how to use lateral movement or a hesitation step or two to set up linebackers or safeties at the edge of the crease so they run into blockers.
Taylor also alters his stride length and pacing to pick his way through a high-traffic area, including penetration into the backfield. The one scenario where he isn’t patient is gap blocks designed to go outside. Taylor often has the room to read and manipulate the defense, but he’ll rush the cutback and tip-off his intentions too early.
Otherwise, Taylor’s blend of patience and decisive action is on-point for the variety of run plays that Wisconsin used.
His willingness to play games with lone defenders responsible for protecting the edge on perimeter runs is a good example of Taylor’s conceptual feel for setting up opponents. Taylor stretches his path to the edge longer than many backs in his situation, using an extra move that is still efficient and in rhythm with the play to turn around that lone defender.
Taylor executes smooth downhill cuts into creases and he spots shots to his legs early enough that he can sidestep the linebacker or safety attacking. When facing penetration in the hole or the backfield, Taylor exhibits timely stop-start movement or a sudden spin to get away clean.
He’s a shifty back behind the line and at the second and third levels of the defense who can also make that one smooth downhill cut—especially on runs with an initial track working sideline-to-sideline as the setup.
Taylor’s cuts are efficient and dynamic in either direction he makes them. He has the hip mobility to point his toe in the direction that he wishes to take the run and his hips will open and take him there.
There’s also curvilinear movement to his game, which helps him bend full-speed runs downhill. However, with his speed, there are conditions where he has lost balance trying to bend at his top rate of speed and that would be difficult for any back. He’ll set up his bend away from opponents with an effective shake move.
Once in the open field, Taylor has a feel for backside pursuit and has shown he can kick his feet away from opponents diving for his feet. Still, the most impressive move Taylor displays is a sudden stop-start to freeze pursuit coming downhill to attack him.
A back with his size and strength capable of freezing defensive backs and then outrunning them is impressive.
The same is true of a back who can spin fluidly after reaching the top of his acceleration.
And Taylor’s acceleration is enough to get him into the secondary early. From there, Taylor is a massive scoring threat. His speed is enough to break gains of 30-45 yards easily. He’ll split the angles of cornerbacks and safeties converging on him, and he has the footwork at high speeds to dip away from opponents while maintaining a downhill track.
Once avoidance is no longer an option, there are only a few backs in this class as well-equipped to earn yards after contact as Taylor. A strong, balanced runner who maintains his feet, Taylor wards off a lot of hits with a stiff-arm that has multiple applications.
Taylor uses it as a leverage device to prevent defenders from shooting into his frame. He’ll also swat through reaches that get into his frame, hacking through the grip of defenders and leaving them tumbling to the side of the road. And, when close enough, Taylor bludgeons opponents on all sides, sending them to the ground with the force of impact.
It’s common for running backs to use the stiff-arm when a pursuer is chasing from the side or slightly behind the runner as he turns the corner. It’s rare to see a stiff-arm used as the runner is working downhill, but Taylor also delivers it from this angle with his pads low.
When the stiff-arm isn’t an effective or a viable option, Taylor powers through wraps. He runs with his knees high through traffic, and it helps him bounce off or pull through hits and wraps to his frame.
Taylor runs through wraps from linebackers and pushes through contact from defensive linemen—often multiple attempts during the same carry. He’s strong enough to drag elite athletes 3-4 yards—like Ohio State defensive end Chase Young
Remaining upright through hits and wraps with the frequency and duration that Taylor does is a strength that’s unique to him in this class. One of the frequent scenes Wisconsin fans observe during football season is a scrum of white or red jerseys surrounding 3-4 defenders with a different color moving 5-10 yards downfield until the official blows the whistle to end the play.
At its epicenter is Taylor, who rarely loses his feet and has generated at least 3-4 of those yards against 2-3 of those defenders before Wisconsin’s line joins the fray. If he doesn’t wear out defenders with his speed, he’ll wear them down with his ability to grind through contact.
Taylor has old-school balance similar to Browns running back Nick Chubb. He bounces off direct and indirect shots to his middle and upper legs from all three levels of the defense. Give him momentum into the hole, and Taylor will flatten a linebacker meeting him head-on.
Also, like Chubb, he has the balance with his gait to kick up one leg when hit low on the other. This means he can displace the force of the hit and maintain his footing when that kicked-up leg returns to the turf. The only type of hit I haven’t seen Taylor maintain his balance through at least once is when a defensive tackle can hit Taylor from the side while in the backfield before he can establish any downhill momentum.
As dominant as Taylor is as a ball carrier, his strengths at prolonging plays also expose his greatest vulnerability in his game—ball security. Taylor carries the ball loose and low until he’s in the clutches of an opponent.
At this point, it’s often too late for him to secure the ball, especially when a scrum ensues. Even when he secures the ball high and tight before encountering traffic, Taylor’s never-say-die attitude against gang-tackling enhances opportunities for opponents to work the ball loose.
Statistically, Taylor’s career work with ball security is awful. In 2017, he authored a rate of a fumble every 38 touches. In 2018-19, he raised that rate to 1 per 79 touches—a low-level figure for the RSP’s Committee Tier for Ball Security.
This raised his career rate to 1 per 59 after two years at Wisconsin. Last year, Taylor fumbled enough to lower that career rate to 1 per 58. This places Taylor below the Reserve Tier with ball security, and it will be a primary concern for him during his rookie year.
Other than injury or misdeeds off the field, nothing else can derail a talented running back’s career faster than a fumbling problem. Still, Sony Michel and Miles Sanders had awful records with ball security and managed to address these issues as rookies. If Taylor can do the same, he’ll be productive this year.
An underrated part of Taylor’s game is pass receiving. Although not used as often in the passing game at Wisconsin as backs in other offenses, Taylor has better hands than his usage indicates, which has been true with backs like Chubb, Leonard Fournette, and Melvin Gordon.
Taylor tracks the ball well, rarely leaving his feet unless the trajectory of the ball demands it. He’s comfortable with extending his arms away from his frame to attack the ball, especially over his shoulder or above his head.
Low throws placed in awkward spots like the back hip while running across the field are targets that Taylor converts easily.
When he drops the ball, it was because he either turned up-field before securing the pass or, much less often, he was confused with which direction to frame his hands to the target. Although he saw targets up the seam and the sideline, expect his new team to work Taylor into the passing game with check-down routes such as swing passes, wide routes, flat routes, and screens.
Like the landscaper who won’t touch a lawnmower at home or the massage therapist who will never rub his wife’s back, Taylor is a physical phenomenon when he works through the line of scrimmage into the open field. But, when tasked to stay at home and use that physicality in the pocket to help his teammates, will he do it?
As my friend, Jene Bramel would say, Good luck, everybody.
Taylor’s greatest skill at the line of scrimmage is disguising his dodges of oncoming defenders as effort. This sounds harsh—and absolutely there are far more moments where Taylor’s effort cannot be called into question—but it only takes a handful of questionable efforts to generate a reputation that Taylor must reverse immediately as a pro.
For instance, Taylor has a tendency to drop his head as he leans into contact. The leaning is not only tentative, if not passive behavior for a blocker, but the dropping of the head prevents Taylor from seeing what he hits.
If a player can’t see what he hits, he’s likely to miss the target because the target has time to avoid him. Add in the fact that Taylor much prefers to lean into contact with an elbow or shoulder rather than a square punch, and it’s easy to generate the perception that Taylor doesn’t want to block.
One of his most dubious plays was an assignment to help the left tackle where Taylor approached the outside shoulder of his teammate and with his head down, leaned into the pass rusher working around the tackle.
Although he extended his inside elbow, the entire effort appeared as if Taylor was trying to avoid contact while behaving as if his drop of the head caused him to miss the angle.
Although possible Taylor truly missed the assignment, there are enough plays where Taylor does competent work that will leave many suspicious—especially when he’s sliding inside and picking up cross-blitzing linebackers, spotting and handling safety blitzes, or executing timely cut blocks with his head up against outside linebackers working the edge or as the lead blocker on sprint passes.
Even when Taylor’s efforts appear better, he must develop a punch. He catches contact from opponents and gets knocked off his feet. He’s strong enough to anchor against defensive backs not arriving from a long distance and some smaller linebackers but he must deliver a punch or he’s taxing the limits of his balance.
If Taylor cannot address his pass protection issues this year, the team that selects Taylor will relegate him to a two-down role, at best. If Taylor improves his blocking, which includes making the effort to punch rather than use half-assed tactics to avoid it, he could be on the field enough to deliver substantial weekly production and be well on his way to becoming a Pro-Bowl talent … as long as he holds onto the football.
Pre-NFL Draft Fantasy Advice: Taylor will be one of the first three backs taken in this draft and he’s an early-round selection in fantasy drafts. Because of his pass-pro and ball security issues, Taylor’s range of acclimation time has a wider window of variance.
Best case, Taylor only needs a few weeks during the season to play to the speed and intensity of the NFL game. Worst case, he’s benched due to fumbles and/or missed blocking assignments and he loses his confidence for the rest of the year.
Expect the milder range of these potential outcomes. Even so, every fantasy player should familiarize themselves with the potential risks embedded with players lacking these vital football skills.
For the most in-depth analysis of offensive skill players available (QB, RB, WR, and TE), download the 2022 Rookie Scouting Portfolio for $21.95.
Matt’s new RSP Dynasty Rankings and Two-Year Projections Package is available for $24.95
If you’re a fantasy owner and interested in purchasing past publications for $9.95 each, the 2012-2020 RSPs also have a Post-Draft Add-on that’s included at no additional charge.
Best yet, a proceeds from sales are set aside for a year-end donation to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse.