Jonathan Taylor is one of the most accomplished running backs in college football in recent memory. As he prepares to enter the professional ranks, there is one big question he must answer: Will he walk in J.J. Watt’s and Melvin Gordon’s footsteps and become an NFL star? Or will he struggle in the way that fellow Badgers Ron Dayne and Montee Ball? He has a lot of potential, but making it as a running back is increasingly difficult.
The origin story of Jonathan Taylor, a Wisconsin legend
Jonathan Taylor had the sort of career that all young football players aspire to have when they go to college. Few people would’ve expected that to happen. Taylor was an unheralded prospect from New Jersey when he arrived on Wisconsin’s campus. He started life as a freshman as a fourth-string running back who should get used to spending a lot of time on the bench. But Taylor never let himself get discouraged.
Taylor practiced hard and performed so well in fall camp that the coaching staff had to give him some playing time. When the season started, Taylor was second on the depth chart. By the end of the season, he was a serious contender for the Heisman Trophy. Taylor finished his freshman season with 1,977 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, finishing second all-time in rushing yards for FBS freshmen.
The next year was a disappointment for the Badgers (they finished with a 7-5 record), but Taylor continued to show out even as defenses focused more on stopping him. He led the FBS in rushing yards (2,194) and rushing touchdowns (16), which made him the obvious choice for the Doak Walker award.
Taylor’s junior year was a slight setback in terms of yardage (a mere 2,003 yards), but he still made history. He became the second player in FBS history to have two 2,000 yard seasons and broke Herschel Walker’s record for most rushing yards through a junior season. Jonathan Taylor was now a certified Wisconsin legend with nothing left to prove. After the season ended, Taylor announced that he would leave college and enter the 2020 NFL Draft.
Taylor’s prospects as an NFL player
Taylor’s NCAA career was exemplary, but there’s still a chance he will not be selected on the first day of the draft. There’s a lot to like about him as a pro prospect.
He’s an excellent athlete who can create more big plays than you would expect from a 220-pound runner. Taylor’s movements can be shifty, but decisive when the offensive line creates a space for him. He has displayed some skills as a receiver, which are fundamental to running backs in the modern NFL.
However, there are also some issues Taylor needs to address. The most obvious one is that he fumbles the ball a ton. He coughed up the rock 18 times in only 41 games at Wisconsin. If Taylor was unable to hold on to the ball against college athletes, it’s fair to question how he’ll fare when battling with more experienced professionals. For all of his talent, there is little chance of him earning the trust of coaches and becoming a long-term starter in the league if he continues to concede turnovers.
Running backs have never felt less important
Jonathan Taylor is certainly talented, but the idea of him, or any running back in the NFL, being a long-term starter is becoming more of an oxymoron each year. It’s not because the running backs are less talented than they used to be, but the position is simply not valued as much by most franchises anymore.
Football is an incredibly violent game where life-shattering injuries could happen on literally every play. No position has felt the brunt of the physicality in the way that running backs have. The buildup of impactful collisions, spanning from Pop Warner to the NFL, takes a serious toll on a player’s body. As a result, the shelf life of the position is much shorter than other positions. Physically, running backs in the NFL tend to peak when they first enter the league — before they’ve been able to adjust to being a professional player or been able to negotiate for a big contract.
Just in his time at Wisconsin, Taylor had 968 touches. That’s a lot of stress for one man to put up with. Taylor wasn’t injury prone in college, but the accumulation of those hits inevitably hinder his future at some point.
Franchises have already been adjusting their team-building strategies to fit that new reality. Only one running back (the Oakland Raiders’ Josh Jacobs) was drafted in the first round of last year’s draft. The risk of drafting a bust far outweighs the potential benefits in most instances. Teams find value in later rounds.
None of that means that Jonathan Taylor is doomed to fail in the NFL. Just don’t be surprised if he isn’t a first-round pick.