The Jonathan Taylor impasse has the Colts 2023 season in limbo
Some of the issues in this article were discussed in greater length on my NFL podcast “The Call Sheet.” You can listen to the show in the player below the article:
Writing a preview article on the prospects of the Colts for the upcoming season is tricky business. Everything hinges on the Jonathan Taylor situation, which is almost impossible to predict at present. We’ll get into that momentarily. For now, though, the one absolute is that the Colts are a team in flux. And that “flux” has ramifications for a number of stakeholders, all of whom are sure to be monitoring the situation closely.
From the global view, 2023 was going to be a struggle for Indianapolis no matter what happened with Taylor. The Colts went 4-12-1 last season and dropped six of their final seven games. They parted ways with veteran quarterback Matt Ryan, who retired after 15 seasons in the league. With the fourth pick in the NFL draft, they selected Anthony Richardson of Florida as Ryan’s replacement, and signed Gardner Minshew to anchor the ship until Richardson is ready.
Richardson has massive potential but also significant flaws in his game. It’s unlikely he’ll start in September, as the plan seems to be to go with Minshew and to bring Richardson along slowly. Many suspect head coach Shane Steichen will ease in Richardson with some read-option packages like he did with Jalen Hurts when Steichen was the offensive coordinator in Philadelphia. That would pair Richardson’s athleticism with Taylor’s inside running ability. Adding some RPOs would be a conservative way to introduce him to the passing game, giving Richardson simple reads to execute as he learns the nuances of diagnosing NFL coverage. The prospect of a Taylor-Richardson backfield duo is tantalizing to most Colts fans, and they seem willing to tolerate another losing season so long as it bears the promise of better days to come.
Only now, that plan seems murky. The Taylor situation is complicated on one hand and fairly simple on the other. First, the complications. Taylor wants a new contract, and the Colts are adamant he’s not getting one. He’s only entering his fourth year and must play it out before he has enough time accrued as per the league collective bargaining agreement to possess any leverage. Indianapolis wants to see how Taylor responds to an ankle injury that limited his production in 2022, as well as how he fits in Steichen’s offense and how he meshes with Richardson, before they ink him to a new deal. Given the impasse between the two sides, Taylor requested a trade last week, which owner Jim Irsay swiftly denied.
The terms of a new deal for Taylor, if and when it comes, are tricky as well. Christian McCaffrey is the highest paid running back in the NFL right now, at an average of $16 million per season. The next highest is Alvin Kamara, at $15 million. McCaffrey and Kamara are more versatile than Taylor, though, with the receiving chops to make them threats in multiple facets of the game. Taylor more closely resembles fellow power back Nick Chubb of Cleveland, whose annual salary is in the $12 million range. Then there’s the fact Saquon Barkley didn’t exactly help Taylor get top dollar when he signed a one-year, $11 million deal with the Giants last week. So, if Taylor wants McCaffrey money, and the Colts are offering a deal more on par with Barkley’s, there could be additional complications.
Further muddying the waters is the fact Taylor is being held as the standard-bearer for running backs throughout the league who bemoan the fact the market at their position is being devalued. Chubb and Najee Harris of Pittsburgh have been vocal with their disappointment in how NFL running backs have been treated by owners recently. Chubb said it best, remarking that running back is the only position where productivity is held against the player at negotiation time. If a back puts up big numbers, owners argue the tread is being worn off his tires and a younger, cheaper alternative exists elsewhere. If a back doesn’t put up big numbers, it’s a performance issue and he’s either low-balled in the negotiation or the team simply turns the page to someone else. If Taylor settles for an underwhelming deal, it will serve as further proof that the market is indeed flat. But if he can somehow convince the Colts to pay him in the McCaffrey range, it may inspire hope that the position remains vibrant throughout the league. Again, there are lots of complications.
Here’s where the situation gets simple. The Colts don’t appear anywhere close to buckling to Taylor’s demands, nor should they. They hold all of the power right now. If Taylor holds out and doesn’t play in 2023, he doesn’t accrue his fourth season and Indy retains his rights. If he decides to show up late and play in only a handful of games to satisfy the qualification for accruement, they can franchise tag him for 2024. And again in 2025 if they desire. Taylor could potentially be tied up in Indianapolis for three more years if the Colts play hardball. That’s something neither he nor the franchise wish to see happen. But it’s not out of the question. At some point, Taylor will have to come off of his current stance. Whether that point comes sooner or later remains to be seen.
Recent history is not on Taylor’s side, either. Ezekiel Elliot was cut in Dallas and Dalvin Cook was cut in Minnesota because both were deemed too expensive to extend by their respective employers. Going back a few years, Le’Veon Bell sat out all of the 2018 season because he didn’t want to play under the franchise tag for the Steelers. Bell wanted a long-term deal, which he never received, and he eventually departed for the New York Jets. The former Pro Bowl back was never the same on the field, and he never got the big contract for which he’d hoped. Bell remarked recently that he regretted leaving Pittsburgh, calling it the worst decision of his career. His saga should serve as a cautionary tale for Taylor and his fellow running backs as they enter negotiations with ownership. It’s unfortunate that the market is being devalued, and it’s noble to take a stand when you feel you’ve been wronged. But there are consequences that come with those sort of actions, and those consequences can be career-altering.
None of this has any bearing on how the Colts will perform in 2023. At least not right now. My suspicion is Taylor will find his way back to the field at some point before the regular season kicks off. He has too much to lose by holding out, and if he wants to reset the running back market, he’s going to have to put up big numbers to do it. That’s the reality of the business side of the league. As cold as this sounds, Taylor is the commodity, and rarely does the commodity determine its value without oversight from those who own the machine.
It would be a nice story if Taylor and the Colts could have a kumbaya moment and sort everything out swiftly. That would make life easier on Steichen, and likely on Richardson as well. For the moment, though, it feels as though this is headed towards a nasty divorce, with both sides feeling as though they got screwed in the end. That could foreshadow a fitting epitaph for the Colts in 2023. They may very well be a team whose season was crushed before it ever really got started.