'A Plug-and-Play Workhorse': Jonathan Taylor on Translating CFB Dominance to NFL

Tyler Dunne @TyDunne NFL Features WriterApril 16, 2020

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - DECEMBER 07: Jonathan Taylor #23 of the Wisconsin Badgers warms up before the Big Ten Championship game against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 07, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)
Justin Casterline/Getty Images

NFL teams live in fear of the inevitable decline. The moment a starting running back who seemed indomitable and revolutionary and worth millions starts looking…human. Then average. Then old. Because whenever a superstar back so much as hints at reaching this tipping point, there's no turning back.

At least that's the premise by which so many teams appear to be operating.

Todd Gurley was cut loose at 25 years old. Melvin Gordon's power play backfired (a year after Le'Veon Bell's did). Devonta Freeman, once the richest back in the game, was let go with three years left on his deal. The Cardinals dumped David Johnson's contract a few years after he was getting picked No. 1 overall in fantasy drafts, and they were treated like they committed larceny by doing so. Derrick Henry carried the Titans to the AFC Championship Game—blasting away for 159 yards per game over an eight-game span—but could only watch on as he was franchise-tagged and his quarterback raked in the $118 million contract.

The ones who can serve as the lifeblood of an offense still are devalued. The ones who run and block and catch and have the ability to influence the game more than any other player on the field still see their stock plummet.

What a reality to live in and what a reason for someone like Jonathan Taylor to be demoralized right now.

He has the film. All Taylor did in college was eclipse 2,000 yards from scrimmage three years in a row, with 55 touchdowns over the span. He ranks sixth all-time in NCAA Division I rushing yards (6,174), and if he had stuck around for his senior year at Wisconsin, he would've left Tony Dorsett, Ricky Williams and even Ron Dayne (No. 1 at 7,125) in his dust by a cool 1,000 yards.

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He has the speed too. He's been laser-clocked at 4.37 in the 40.

He has strength. He squats 600 pounds and benches 350.

There's really no reason for a team not to like Taylor, other than the position that he plays. Not he's about to go full Aretha and demand respect. Rather Taylor understands this cruel reality and has charted a plan. Picture a "curve," he says, speaking to B/R by phone from Scottsdale, Arizona. Think of how so many people say "All good things must come to an end," and picture the arrow starts pointing down. Taylor will ensure his tipping point—the moment his employer would deem him anything but special—is far into the future.

In college, he heard whispers. He felt like folks expected a tick of mediocrity after he tore through defenses as a freshman.

"Everyone is waiting for that downfall," Taylor says.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - FEBRUARY 26: Jonathan Taylor #RB27 of Wisconsin interviews during the second day of the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 26, 2020 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)
Alika Jenner/Getty Images

So he'll fight it. He’ll solve this RB puzzle with literal puzzles—he's a jigsaw fanatic—and a "consistency mentality." Taylor is incredibly bright. He considered attending Harvard, after all. It's not like he's blind to the state of affairs. He gets it. But he's also convinced there's a select group of backs breaking the mold. Christian McCaffrey did, and he got paid. So did Ezekiel Elliott. Saquon Barkley surely will too.

Taylor believes that he will join this group and force teams to value what he does—that he, like them, can transcend what any metrics about the position spit out.

"When you think about these guys," he says, "they are really unstoppable. … They do everything they're asked."

That's what Taylor thinks he can be.

Others aren't so sure. One AFC personnel director says the problem may be that while Taylor is good at everything, he's not special at one thing. "The knock on him is that he's not very good when it's not blocked up," he says. "So if he has to create or break tackles or make people miss, that's not really his forte. He's not that naturally elusive or evasive, nor is he a power guy."

In other words, he's not "Saquon-like," hence projections that have him slipping to the second round. Still, the personnel director says, "The dude is productive." And after he carried the ball nearly 1,000 times in college, there are plenty of teams that can see his production translating to the NFL immediately.

According to B/R draft expert Matt Miller, many teams view Taylor as the top back in the field this year because he's "a plug-and-play workhorse."

Taylor is aiming even higher than that.

He wants to bring the running back back.

The plan, on the surface, is straightforward. Taylor promises to fight the preconceived notions teams have about running backs by being the same exact person every game, every practice, every rep. He wants to give his team no choice but to keep him on the field.

What makes him different than any other back in this draft, to him, is simple: "Consistency."

Nothing motivates him more than anyone, ever, expecting a drop-off.

"I didn't want to be a guy who'd get in and you didn't know which Jonathan you were getting that day," Taylor says. "I'm not skipping over any steps."

Which is how a player carries the ball 926 times in three seasons at 6.7 yards per clip.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 07: Jonathan Taylor #23 of the Wisconsin Badgers runs for a 44-yard touchdown ahead of Shaun Wade #24 of the Ohio State Buckeyes in the first quarter of the Big Ten Football Championship at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 7, 2019
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

So, this is his secret. Typically, Taylor explains, players identify what they're good at, what they're bad at and, understandably, focus solely on the bad. That's never been him. He's always trying to attack his weaknesses, but Taylor makes a conscious effort to harp on every minute detail of what he's already best at. "I am not going to take it lightly," he says. So, say, an outside zone play is called. He vows to go through the same nuanced, detailed progression in his head now that he did as a snot-nosed freshman—reading the player at the end of the line of scrimmage all the way in.

Other backs with this much mileage, he says, are only thinking: I know the play. Let me get the ball.

"Even if you're already great at that technique," Taylor says, "even if you're already great at something, still go through that same process. ...  You're still trying to master it."

Otherwise, he'd feel like he's cutting a corner.

This mentality applies to everything, right down to his ridiculous weight training. It's why he's built like a brewing tank (5'10", 226 pounds). Every offseason, Taylor sits down to meticulously critique his own game and incorporate drills to improve. (It's no shock he jumped from eight to 26 receptions last fall.) And it's not like he sacrifices a millisecond of time elsewhere. His training sessions instead only get longer. And longer.

Otherwise, it'd feel like he's neglecting something. When Taylor repeats the word "consistent" so impulsively—a dozen times, at least—he isn't spewing poll-tested, predraft garbage.

He means it.

"I know at the next level," he says, "that's what it's all about. It's not about what you did yesterday or the day before. What did you do today? Being able to come to work every single day and play at a high level is something I'm going to pride myself on. You have to come to work every day. You have to be at your best. I've shown it for three years. … And that's something I'll continue to do."

So as Taylor molds himself into something different—something special—he is convinced he will last.

Rattle off the slights of this March (Henry tagged, Gurley cast aside, etc.), and there's really no concern in his voice because when he looks at Barkley (a No. 2 overall pick) or McCaffrey (a No. 8 pick) or Zeke (a No. 4 pick), he sees…himself.

"It's definitely interesting, because a lot of people say the value of the running back has been deteriorating," Taylor says, "but I think the coaches at the next level understand the value. If you look at the teams who've been successful in the NFL, [they] are teams that have been able to run the ball successfully. You look at San Francisco. You look at Minnesota. Tennessee.

"In my eyes, the only thing you can do is keep working—to find every reason for them to not want to pay you. That's the biggest thing: 'This guy does everything we ask him to. He does it at a high level. He does it consistently, week in and week out. Every game, practice, rep. There's no other option.'"

Simple enough. He'll give his team no other option.

There's a science to the simplicity. Watch any Jonathan Taylor highlight, and everything seems to come so…so…easy. Putting this all into action, however, is not.

So much goes into that consistency.

There were the hot yoga sessions with receiver Danny Davis. Last offseason, they did this three times a week. During the season, they kept at it too.

His strength-speed combo isn't an accident. That not-flashy yet perfectly timed ability to plant and accelerate in heavy traffic is the result of the Badgers' conditioning program. "Compound movements" are the emphasis, he says. A mashup of power cleans, jerks, anything that stresses not just moving weight but also moving weight quickly.

"That's all speed is," Taylor says. "Speed is being able to put force into the ground quickly. If you're able to move moderately heavy-to-heavy weight quickly, that's all you're generating. You're generating power and explosion, which translates to speed when you put it into action with the correct mechanics."

He's a mad scientist with this all, right down the act of running.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 28: Running back Jonathan Taylor of Wisconsin runs the 40-yard dash during the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 28, 2020 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Taylor studies the fastest sprinters in the world on his phone, rifling through clips of Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake and Justin Gatlin specifically so their strides become his stride subconsciously.

He didn't always have breakaway speed. As legend has it, while recruiting Taylor, Badgers running backs coach John Settle saw defenders catching him downfield his junior year in New Jersey. Settle told Taylor to run track. Taylor did. And he's been getting separation ever since—and telling any young back who'll listen to run track too.

To him, there’s an art to churning your legs and pumping your arms.

"I really think you just need to be a student of the game," Taylor says.

This could be the philosophy major in him. Taylor makes a conscious effort to push his mind into as many "uncomfortable situations" as possible because doing so "forces you to think through things." If you're comfortable, you're content. He never, ever wants to live in a world where everything feels nice and dandy and he's not forced to truly think about every decision he makes in football and life. 

The more he challenges himself, the more Taylor likes the person he becomes.

Says Taylor: "You're pushing your body to new limits. You're taking in new views and new ideas. … That's how you keep the mind stimulated and be able to continue to grow."

Which explains why the biggest celebrity on a college campus enjoys a good old-fashioned jigsaw puzzle. To some football players, it might sound about as pleasing as a trip to the DMV or a swift punch to the jaw. But Taylor sincerely enjoys sitting down to work on 500-piece puzzles. Not that just that either. He barely even looks at the box, the picture, he's attempting to piece together.

Taylor will glance at it once—squinting and staring at the image to stitch it into his memory—and then set the box aside so he can fit piece…to piece…to piece together completely on his own.

"Your gears are churning," Taylor says. "You're trying to create an image of a picture without actually having it there. … I think that's a good way to keep the mind working."

The one he's most proud of is a 500-piece shot of Camp Randall. He's thinking about trying a 1,000-piece puzzle soon with all the time on his hands through this pandemic. The payoff? The reward? By not looking at the box, Taylor insists he really does feel a sense of accomplishment because he knows he's steering his brain into an uncomfortable position.

This helps clear up everything on the field, where he's also creating a mental picture. Taylor makes mental links he didn't even know he could pre-snap…to snap…to the ball being in his hands. All of the little things he's seen on film are logged in his head. Somewhere.

And, suddenly, voila, there goes a red blur in No. 23 toward the end zone as 80,000 in Camp Randall cheer on.

"Whenever you see something and you're predicting something," Taylor says, "you're not expecting to go there, but you're thinking, These are some telltale signs that this should be going on, so I'm going to expect for this to happen, and then it actually does happen, you do feel a sense of accomplishment."

He does learn from other backs. The three who came before him in Madison, for sure. James White's third-down skills. Gordon's one-on-one elusiveness. Montee Ball's nose for the end zone. Taylor feels "spoiled" in incorporating specific parts of their games into his.

The two pro backs he admired most, growing up, were Adrian Peterson and Arian Foster.

Peterson drove him in the weight room—he wanted the same generational speed-power blend. ("You do not get that in backs.") Foster made him want to test his mind because everything he did on the field was so smooth, so natural. ("It was like it just came to him instinctively. It was effortless.") As Taylor learned, that ability comes from mastering your scheme in every possible way. If he's running that outside zone play and a linebacker is lined up at a specific angle and he can get that 'backer to bite hard a specific way, Taylor knows he's won. Soon enough, Taylor was hearing the same How did he know that was there? echoes that guys like Foster did.

Piece by piece, he keeps evolving. Taylor doesn't care that, despite checking every box imaginable, he's never really considered a player worth taking in the top 10. He won't paint himself as a sneering, overlooked prospect out for vengeance, because he expects greatness, and that's all that matters.

MADISON, WISCONSIN - SEPTEMBER 21:  Jonathan Taylor #23 of the Wisconsin Badgers celebrates a touchdown against the Michigan Wolverines during the first half at Camp Randall Stadium on September 21, 2019 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

"I want people to know that it's not, Oh, man, it'll be a great game if Taylor shows up," he says. "It should just be another deciding factor of the game: We know Jonathan Taylor is going to play well. That's what I pride myself on. … I want to play at a high level every single time I step on that field."

Along the way, he hopes to help save his position and be the centerpiece of an offense for years. And years.

Where most everyone sees a trend for the worst, Taylor sees a movement just beginning.

One that he can be a big part of.

"I'm going to try to help with that push as much as possible."


Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.

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