AFC South Reporter
Colts general manager Chris Ballard doesn’t sound pressed to get an extension done with star running back Jonathan Taylor.
Asked about it by reporters Tuesday ahead of training camp, amid speculation of Taylor’s unhappiness with his contract and the general deflated state of the running-back market, Ballard multiple times brought up how the Colts have a new coaching staff. He mentioned how the team is coming off a rough season, one in which it won just four games.
Even when he praised Taylor — “Jonathan is a great player and he’s a great person,” Ballard said — he noted how the former All-Pro is coming off an injury. With regard to the contract, Ballard said it will “play out over time and work out the way it should either way.”
Not a whole lot of clarity there — or a sense of urgency.
“We had long talks back in May and June,” Ballard said of his dialogue with Taylor. “We’ll have another one here.”
Ballard typically doesn’t speak on contract negotiations publicly and gave no sense that a Taylor extension is a top priority at this time. And there’s no reason for it to be.
The 24-year-old Taylor, who produced the most prolific rushing season in Colts history in 2021 (1,811 rushing yards and 18 rushing touchdowns on 332 carries), hasn’t yet been on the field to prove that he can regain his All-Pro form. He missed six games last season due to a right ankle injury, underwent surgery in January and didn’t participate in on-field work during the offseason program. He was placed on the Active/Physically Unable to Perform List ahead of training camp.
Then there’s the reality for running backs in today’s NFL, a hot-button topic. Teams have increasingly demurred from awarding running backs the big-money contracts their production earned in previous eras, thanks in part to the league’s shift into a passing league and the short shelf-life nature of the position. Three elite running backs — Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs, Tony Pollard — were all franchise-tagged this offseason.
Though Barkley on Tuesday agreed to an amended one-year contract, he can earn just $909,000 more than the original $10.091 million non-exclusive franchise tag for running backs. Pollard signed the tender. And even though Jacobs hasn’t reported for Raiders training camp, he’s expected to show at some point, because he’d cost himself game checks during the regular season. (He won’t be subject to fines for training camp practices missed because he’s not under contract.)
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Running backs have very little leverage under the current CBA.
“The market is what the market is [for running backs],” Ballard said.
Unlike Barkley, Pollard or Jacobs, though, Taylor plays with a quarterback on a rookie contract: No. 4 overall pick Anthony Richardson. And it’s not a stretch to say that Taylor will be critical for the young QB’s development. It’s widely expected that Richardson will need a couple of seasons to develop as a passer. The run game — Taylor, specifically — will be leaned on during that time.
Taylor’s absence could derail Richardson’s progress and/or confidence, a worst-case scenario for a franchise that has been in quarterback hell since Andrew Luck’s stunning retirement four years ago.
“Let’s not crown him yet,” Ballard said of Richardson in January. “He’s a young player. He’s got work to do, but we like his talent. We like what he can be.”
So even though he plays a position with little leverage, Taylor has as favorable a situation as one can ask for. And that’s notable considering he’s the next star running back in line to get paid (his rookie contract expires after the 2023 season). What the Colts do with Taylor could set the precedent for what other clubs do with running backs moving forward.
As Ballard indicated, Indianapolis has a track record of paying its homegrown stars, even those at non-premium positions. Left guard Quenton Nelson signed a four-year, $80 million extension in September that made him at the time the highest-paid guard in NFL history. Linebacker Shaquille Leonard also inked a record-setting contract in August 2021, a five-year deal worth $98.25 million.
In January, Ballard said it makes sense to pay a running back top dollar if he is a “special playmaker.”
It’s a stance that doesn’t appear to have changed.
“You pay guys that are going to help you win regardless of the position,” Ballard said. “We think very highly of Jonathan.”
How, when or if that will happen in Taylor’s case remains to be seen — and we may not know for a while.
“We’ll kind of let it play out as it does,” Ballard said, “and make those decisions when we need to make those decisions.”
Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for SeattlePI.com for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.
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