NFL Draft: Jonathan Taylor elevating his game to first round levels

We already knew Jonathan Taylor was an elite running back. What we didn't know was that he had another level to his ability, and he's putting it on display.

The Wisconsin Badgers are firmly in the hunt for a spot in the College Football Playoffs. Coming off a dominant win against #11 ranked Michigan, it’s clear that the Badgers are a serious threat in the Big Ten this season. Leading their charge? The person we expected. Jonathan Taylor is the best running back in college football. He has been since the beginning of his true freshman season, a season that saw him take the starting job and never look back.

In his first two seasons at Wisconsin, Taylor was excellent. Averaging over 2,000 yards a season and accumulating 29 total touchdowns, he was unstoppable. However, questions about his draft value started to rise heading into the season, questions about his usage, lack of receiving production, and even his athletic ability. Little did we know, Taylor had saved his best season for last, as we should expect him to declare for the 2020 NFL Draft.

Expectations and game planning

Entering the 2019 season, we knew Taylor was going to be a Heisman contender. Hell, we could even write him down for 2,000 yards and feel comfortable. Wisconsin was going to feed him the ball, and if they were going to be competitive, it was going to be because of him. Fans knew this, Wisconsin knew this, and biggest of all, their opponents knew this. Throughout 2018, Taylor saw a number of stacked boxes. Sub-optimal QB play and a lack of weapons on the outside meant that Wisconsin couldn’t really threaten teams with their passing attack. Stop Taylor, stop Wisconsin. Yet Taylor still dominated, and carried the ball for a ridiculous 2,194 yards in 13 games, rushing for 7.1 yards a carry, a staggering number considering the game plans of the opposition. 

Fast forward to this season, and it’s no different. However, the Wisconsin coaching staff is doing it’s best job to distract the defense and give Taylor open looks. In this clip, you’ll notice Wisconsin running a motion from the inside receiver threatening a jet sweep to the right side. This causes the single high safety to hard flow toward the right of the offense, and the nickel corner becomes the safety net in case Taylor breaks through the front 7. Wisconsin then runs a counter back to the left side, catching the Michigan defense flowing to hard to the right, and its all Taylor from there. The run from Taylor showcases excellent patience, vision, and even great breakaway speed. All necessities for a back expected to be selected high in this year’s NFL Draft.

Answering questions

Over the summer, I took a deep dive into Taylor’s film. I left a bit let down. I had hopes that Taylor would challenge for my RB1 spot, and felt a bit disappointed when I gave him a second-round grade. I listed his weaknesses as: workload, explosion/long speed, and fumbling, while also mentioning a concern for his lack of receiving production. Through three games in 2019, he’s answered nearly every question.

First, his workload. Last season, Taylor averaged nearly 24 carries a game. So far this season, he’s averaging less than 20 per contest. His explosion and long speed were next, and he showed you in the last clip just how fast he really is. While he won’t ever be known as a true burner, he has enough juice to take it to the house if you give him the space. He’s also done a great job fixing his fumbling. This season, he’s rushed nearly 60 times and hasn’t put the ball on the dirt once. If he can continue this, it’ll be another issue teams can remove from their scouting report.

Finally, his receiving production. In his two previous seasons, Taylor averaged 8 receptions a year for 80 yards a season and no touchdowns. This year? He’s already accumulated 6 receptions for 70 yards and 3 touchdowns. While he’ll never be an elite receiver like Christian McCaffrey or Alvin Kamara, there’s no reason to believe he can’t be used as a weapon out of the backfield. 

NFL Draft

Jonathan Taylor likely won’t end the season as my RB1. However, that’s more a testament to the strength of this year’s class than it is to his own ability. Guys like D’Andre Swift and Travis Etienne are both excellent backs that have their claims as the best running back in the class. However, neither one is the elite, pure runner Taylor is. If he can continue to answer these questions, and Wisconsin can continue to put him in a position to succeed, there’s no reason that Taylor won’t be a top 50 selection, and maybe even a first-round pick.

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