One of the biggest disappointments of the 2022 fantasy football season was the underperformance of fantasy darling Jonathan Taylor. That is, unless you listened to me, who told you to take Christian McCaffrey first overall.
Even without getting injured, Taylor’s regression was inevitable, with no running back not named Derrick Henry surpassing 1,500 rushing yards in consecutive seasons since 2010. But with a new season upon us, it’s time to take a fresh look. A Look Inside, if you will.
To understand Taylor’s 2023 fantasy outlook, we need to assess his injury history, Anthony Richardson’s impact, and contract situation.
Jonathan Taylor 2023 Fantasy Football Outlook
2022 High Ankle Sprain
One of the dominant narratives surrounding Jonathan Taylor before last season was that he had never missed a game, including his college career. But, of course, that didn’t stop him from missing six games last season, as it is inevitable for everyone to get hurt at some point when playing football. But how serious was his injury, and how concerned should we be about re-injury this season?
A major disclaimer before reading further:
I am not a medical professional, and everything said next is based on my understanding of reading other people’s work and having listened to medical professionals discuss football injuries.
Taylor first missed two games due to an ankle sprain. He then was on and off the field, returning to typical football action in Week 10. But after a four-game stretch where he was the RB3, he suffered a high ankle sprain that sidelined him for the remainder of the season (Draft Sharks).
But what really caught people’s attention was when it was announced that the third-year running back underwent surgery to repair his ankle (The Athletic). If you’re like me, you hear the word surgery and think that must be serious. But Taylor underwent something called arthroscopic surgery. Again, I’m not a doctor, but arthroscopic surgery is one of the least invasive forms of surgery and is primarily used to clean up damaged tissue or repair the bones around your ankle (Cleveland Clinic).
I take this as a largely positive sign. In particular, it is encouraging that Taylor did not need screws inserted to stabilize the tendons in his ankle, as can occur for more severe high ankle sprains. Taylor said himself, “That thing had a bunch of junk in there from a bunch of years,” per NFL Network.
With that in mind, I’m not concerned about his injury risk this season. Sure, players coming off injury are the most vulnerable to re-injury. But the purpose of this surgery was to get Taylor’s ankle back to 100%, and given that we’ve heard no news of a setback, I feel confident that Taylor is ready to go.
Okay, But Now There’s a Rushing QB
Ah, yes, the next most common argument against Jonathan Taylor this season. Conventional wisdom suggests that a rushing quarterback takes away the upside of running backs on their team because they are competing for touches. However, history complicates this perspective.
For the purposes of this discussion, I looked at seven dual-threat quarterbacks over the past six seasons and how the running backs on their teams performed. Those quarterbacks include Josh Allen, Jalen Hurts, Lamar Jackson, Justin Fields, Cam Newton, Daniel Jones, and Kyler Murray.
The primary takeaway from investigating these case studies is that there are two confounding variables that explain why some running backs struggle when paired with a dual-threat quarterback. First, many of these quarterbacks are on teams that heavily rely on the running-back-by-committee model (Allen, Hurts, Jackson, Fields, Newton, and Murray). Secondly, only two of these quarterbacks played on teams with elite running backs (Newton and Jones).
Take the Buffalo Bills as an example. From 2020 to 2022, Allen had 102, 122, and 124 carries, respectively. Meanwhile, his running backs had 290, 310, and 361 carries (NFLFastR). So they actually got more opportunities over time. But the Bills had at least three running backs competing for touches each season. Despite this, Devin Singletary has been a low-end RB2 in consecutive seasons. But I don’t think anyone would claim Singletary is an elite running back.
Cam Newton provides a great example of how the running back context matters more than the quarterback style. In 2017, Newton had 139 carries compared to 340 carries by Carolina running backs. That season, Christian McCaffrey was RB10. But, in 2020, Newton had 137 carries compared to 341 carries by New England running backs (NFLFastR). These were very similar numbers, but he had James White, Rex Burkhead, Damien Harris, Sony Michel, and J.J. Taylor competing for touches in New England.
And finally, the prime example debunking the myth of rushing quarterbacks thwarting elite fantasy running backs is found in Daniel Jones. Do I need to say more than the fact that Saquon Barkley was RB5 last season with Jones at quarterback?
What This Means for the Colts
Sure, rushing quarterbacks make average running backs obsolete. But Jonathan Taylor is an elite running back. His situation is more comparable to Christian McCaffrey behind Cam Newton, Saquon Barkley behind Daniel Jones, or Mark Ingram behind Lamar Jackson in 2019. This isn’t Kenyan Drake beyond Kyler Murray, J.K. Dobbins behind Jackson, or James White behind Newton.
Lastly, we don’t even know Anthony Richardson is going to start Week 1. I know it’s the offseason, and people want a narrative to latch onto, but it’s May. I’ll worry about Richardson when he is officially announced as the starter during the preseason, not when Jim Irsay is saying some nonsense in May.
So if you’re drafting now, whether it’s Best Ball, dynasty, or redraft, don’t be afraid of Jonathan Taylor. The talent is there. Get the value before everyone else remembers who this man is.
Also, Taylor’s in a Contract Year
There is a robust history of running backs over-performing during a contract year, particularly those in their age 25 to 26 season when they are approaching the end of their rookie contract. Among those, Leonard Fournette went from RB40 in 2018 to RB7 during his contract year, Josh Jacobs went from RB12 to RB3 last season, and Saquon Barkley finished out 2022 at the RB5, solidifying his place on the franchise tag. Even Jamaal Williams, while older, over-performed in a contract year, moving from RB43 in 2021 to RB13 last season.
The fact that you can currently draft Jonathan Taylor in the second round is malpractice. I know the trendy thing is to draft a wide receiver in the first round, but let’s not forget how deep the position is compared to running back. Taylor still has the potential to be the number one fantasy running back and compete for the best non-QB in the league. With his current ADP, he is a clear value play that can win your league in 2023.
A Look Inside the Indianapolis Colts
Editor’s Note: We don’t want to leave you hanging on the rest of the team. While Austin focused on Jonathan Taylor in fantasy football, here is a quick look at the other fantasy-relevant Colts by Ryan Weisse.
The comp here is plain as day: Justin Fields. Richardson has major growth to do as a passer, but he will excel as a rusher. If he is starting Day 1, he has top-10 potential, and that might be understating it.
Moss underperformed in Buffalo and was unceremoniously jettisoned to Indy. He didn’t do much with the Colts either, but his 4.9 yards per carry is a nice indicator. If you have Taylor and a deep bench, Moss is not a terrible insurance policy.
If Richardson is Justin Fields, Pittman is DJ Moore…meaning we have no idea what to expect in 2023. Pittman has finished as a top-20 receiver in each of the last two years with subpar QB play. The Colts have added no true competition at WR, so Pittman is likely to hold onto his 130-140 yearly targets. He is a value as your fantasy team’s WR2.
Pierce should have some value playing opposite Pittman. As a rookie, there was good and bad. He caught just 52% of his targets but had an excellent 14.5 yards per catch. That gave him 593 yards on just 78 targets, but he only scored two touchdowns. If you expect natural growth heading into Year 2, Pierce could end up being a steal at his current ADP. The looming issue is how many viable WRs can a rushing QB support.
While Jaxon Smith-Njigba was almost the universal WR1 in this year’s draft, Downs made a few people’s lists as the 2nd-best, and many thought he was the best slot WR. That is the exact role he’ll play in Indy. As of now, he’ll need to beat our Isaiah McKenzie, who the Colts signed immediately after he was cut from Buffalo. Clearly, the team likes McKenzie, but they also put draft capital into Downs. Expect a split in 2023, with Downs gaining value next season. Keep an eye out for a McKenzie injury, which would make Downs a #1 waiver priority.
The Tight End Room
What. A. Mess. With the new coaching staff bringing a Philadelphia-esque offense, fantasy managers want the next Zach Ertz or Dallas Goedert. Unfortunately, there are many options to pick from. When you have three, or four, or five tight ends, you don’t have one tight end. The team retained Mo Alie-Cox, who’s entering his sixth year with the team. They drafted Kylen Granson two years ago, and while he tied for the team lead in TE targets last year, he has scored exactly as many professional TDs as anyone reading this article. In last year’s draft, they brought in Jelani Woods in the 3rd round. He also had 40 targets last year and scored three TDs. It looks like he’ll take the job, but the team added Will Mallory in the 5th Round this year. What. A. Mess!
We will be covering every team this offseason. So check back here often for all of our A Look Inside articles.