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Projecting Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor's impact as an NFL player

We’re back from Indianapolis, and although events such as the NFL Scouting Combine make it seem like the offseason evaluation of prospects has just begun, these players have plenty of tape to go along with what they displayed at Lucas Oil, giving us a wealth of data from which to analyze.

[Editor's note: PFF's 2020 NFL Draft Guide is live! Subscribe to PFF's EDGE or ELITE subscription today to download your copy.]

In today’s article, we continue in a series of analytics-based projections (powered by our friends at AWS) that use our play-by-play NCAA data, contextualize it by play type, play difficulty and strength of opponent, and produce a projection of each and every player eligible for the 2020 NFL Draft. Unlike previous articles, though, we’re able to use the combine data, which is tailored to projections in each facet of play using a dimensional reduction technique and PFF NFL grades.

The player we’ll analyze today is Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor. While many a Wisconsin running back have been highly regarded and highly drafted in recent memory, most have struggled to have sustained success at the NFL level, with outright busts like Terrell Fletcher (2nd round, 1995), Ron Dayne (1st round, 2000), Brian Calhoun (3rd round, 2006) and Montee Ball (2nd round, 2013), flashes in the pan like Michael Bennett (1st round, 2001) and Melvin Gordon (1st round, 2015), and one-dimensional players like James White (4th round, 2014). Taylor, after a great career that saw him generate over 1,250 yards AFTER contact in each of his three seasons in Madison while toting the rock 925 times on the ground and another 42 times (on 65 targets) through the air, ran a sub-4.4 40-yard dash last week in Indianapolis, seemingly securing his spot atop many draft boards as the best running back.

Do our projections coincide with this assessment? Let’s take a look:

How Taylor Projects as a Rusher

Using our college-to-pro projection system, Taylor projects as a well-above-average ballcarrier in terms of yards per attempt and missed tackle rate forced. Taylor’s median missed tackle rate forced is the highest among running backs in this draft by almost 0.3 yards, and he is one of only three backs after the combine (AJ Dillon and Clyde Edwards-Helaire) who has a median projection over 4.6 yards per carry.

In the context-free setting (essentially assuming league-average rates of outside zone, inside zone, short-yardage plays, plays against stacked boxes, etc.) Taylor comps to Alvin Kamara (median 0.28 WAR during rookie deal), Derrick Henry (0.14), Aaron Jones (0.12), Chris Ivory (0.05), Ben Tate (0.07) and C.J. Anderson (0.10). His 75th percentile (think “ceiling”) comps to players like Nick Chubb (0.17), Kenyan Drake (0.10) and Kareem Hunt (0.17), while his 25th percentile (think “floor”) projects to Devonta Freeman (0.18), Mark Ingram (0.07), Thomas Rawls (0.06), Doug Martin (0.13), Roy Helu (0.08) and Jerick McKinnon (0.07). It’s pretty clear from these projections that you’re getting a starting NFL running back when you select Taylor:

Jonathan Taylor’s projected yards per carry and missed tackle rate during his first five seasons in the context-free environment. Vertical lines are league median rates for players drafted in 2015 or later.

Taylor’s exploits during the NFL Scouting Combine certainly help his projections, as his Combine Score is better than the 70th percentile and, in conjunction with his college data, is a big reason he projects the way he does.

What about scheme? We at PFF collect run concepts, down and distance, men in the box, etc. for every NCAA FBS and NFL play, and if we use that information, we can better understand how Taylor would do, say, if a team like Tennessee (almost 50 percent outside zone) selected him in the first round to replace free-agent runner Derrick Henry:


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