INDIANAPOLIS -- The list of running backs consistently grew year after year.
Donald Brown. Trent Richardson. Frank Gore. Marlon Mack.
Each tried to be the Indianapolis Colts' next dominant back but failed for a variety of reasons. None of them could be the running back opposing defenses feared the same way they did with Hall of Famer Edgerrin James during his seven seasons with the organization.
Jonathan Taylor is currently taking his turn at it, and the results so far have many in -- and out -- of the organization believing the second-year back is its best player at that position since James.
“I’m talking as an analyst and also a former player for the team -- he is the best one since Edge,” former Colts center and current ESPN analyst Jeff Saturday said. "I think what he provides is every play could go for a touchdown. Whether it’s in the screen game, a checkdown, giving it to him between the tackles or outside. Every play could potentially go the house."
Colts owner Jim Irsay has never been one to hold back on his expectations (he has predicted multiple Super Bowl titles this decade). That’s why he didn’t flinch as he sat behind a table on a hot and humid day during training camp when talking about his featured running back.
“You don’t want to put too much on a young back and those sort of things, but Jonathan, if he dreams about a gold [Hall of Fame] jacket at night, he’s having the right dream because there’s reality there and a lot has to happen,” Irsay said back in August. “... You can’t put any limits on what he can do. He’s got it all. He has the power, he has the speed. He’s a special, special player.”
Best Colts RB since Edgerrin James?
As the Colts (3-5) face the New York Jets on Thursday at Lucas Oil Stadium (8:20 p.m. ET, Fox/NFL Network), it’s way too early to think about Taylor putting on a gold jacket in Canton, Ohio. For now, the Colts are embracing and enjoying what he has accomplished so far in the NFL. Going back to 1970, Taylor’s 1,818 yards rushing in 23 games are second in franchise history only to James’ 2,335 yards, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“Running backs are really, really difficult to place and figure out in the NFL,” former Colts coach Tony Dungy said. “Seems like those can’t-miss guys or the Derrick Henrys, they don’t come along too often. You’re always looking for them, always looking for the right fit.
"The Colts have had several really, really good backs, but getting that franchise Hall of Fame back is not that easy. I think Jonathan is showing signs of being that, and you hope he’ll be the long-term answer. Always worried about injuries with running backs, but short of that, he’s going to be great.”
Taylor's glowing, smiling, outgoing personality, combined with his power and speed, have led to plenty of success for him on and off the field.
In fact, he has arguably been the best running back in the NFL this season not named Derrick Henry, the Tennessee Titans back who's leading the league in rushing.
Taylor is tops in the league with 6.4 scrimmage yards per touch (minimum 75). And despite having the fifth-most rushes in the NFL, he is second to only Henry in rushing yards (937/649), yards after contact (496/404) and yards from scrimmage (1,091/914).
However, Henry’s season is over because of a foot injury suffered against the Colts in Week 8. That means Taylor is now arguably the top active running back in the NFL.
“They said I could be one of the best in college, but that was just my mindset already, ... how can I be the best version of myself at each and every single level?” Taylor said. “At the high school level, collegiate level and now the NFL level because it doesn’t matter how many yards you had last week or how many touchdowns you had last week. It’s how many yards or touchdowns did you have this week, in this game? It’s just how can you be the best each and every single week?”
From a slow start to elite
The transition to being put in the same category of some of today’s elite running backs like Henry, Ezekiel Elliott and Nick Chubb hasn’t been an easy one for Taylor.
He entered his rookie season in 2020 as the backup to Mack. That lasted less than a full game because Mack tore his Achilles in Week 1. Then Taylor had to learn that he was no longer at Wisconsin, where he just had to take the ball and run.
The NFL was different.
Taylor had to be patient, read the blocks and wait for the running lane to open up -- then go. It was a struggle for Taylor, as he started losing snaps to Nyheim Hines during part of the season. But Taylor closed out his rookie season by rushing for 741 yards over the final five games to finish with 1,169 yards on the season.
In Year 2, Taylor has added a new dimension, expanding his role in the passing game. In addition to 649 yards rushing, he is second on the team in receiving yards with 265. That includes three plays of at least 20 yards, like the screen pass he caught and took 76 yards against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 5.
“That guy is special, man, he has special talent,” veteran wide receiver T.Y. Hilton said. “He’s powerful, he’s speedy in the open field and he’s a guy we can lean on [in] the run game, pass game. He’s catching passes, taking screens to the house and is a big, key piece to this offense.”
Settling in as Colts' star running back
Taylor is arguably underused out of the backfield. It was just a couple weeks ago that coach Frank Reich said Taylor deserves at least 20 carries a game. That’s a great thought and all, but Taylor still hasn't had 20 carries all season after having four such outings as a rookie.
The Colts are 6-0 when Taylor has rushed for at least 100 yards in a game.
“I’m not interested in just getting his rushing total,” Reich said this week. “That’s certainly a big deal. He’s a dynamic player in the pass game as well. Believe me, I want to get him as many rushing attempts as we can.”
The Colts haven’t had a player rush for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons since Joseph Addai did it in the 2006 and 2007 seasons. Taylor should accomplish that feat this season, barring injury. But it's more than just barely topping 1,000 yards. Taylor has proved he's a threat for a big play every time he touches the ball. He's the best offensive player on the Colts and one could argue he's the best overall player on the roster.
With each carry or catch that leads to a big play or touchdown, Taylor runs further away from being in the same category as Richardson and Brown and closer to Edgerrin and Marshall Faulk.
"You play the game to be one of the best," Taylor said. "You play the game to be a winner. So I feel like everyone should dream to get a gold jacket one day."