Yahoo Sports' top 2020 NFL draft prospects, No. 36: Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor

Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports
Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports

36. Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor

5-foot-10, 226 pounds

Yahoo Sports draft grade: 5.98 — starter potential

TL;DR scouting report: Highly productive, blue-collar speed back with elite character but also fumbling, workload concerns.

The skinny: A 4-star Rivals recruit, Taylor initially committed to Rutgers before switching his pledge to the Badgers. He earned a starting role as a true freshman in 2017, listed as a co-starter for the first game and then starting the remainder of his games over three college seasons. Taylor set the FBS mark for rush yards by a freshman that season with 1,977, adding 13 TDs and being named to second-team AP All-America team, Big Ten Freshman of the Year and a Doak Walker Award finalist.

In 2018, Taylor followed up his brilliant freshman season with an even better sophomore season. He ran for an FBS-best 2,194 yards (7.1-yard average) and 16 touchdowns in 13 starts, winning the Doak Walker Award, being named unanimous first-team All-America and first-team all-Big Ten, and being named MVP of the Pinstripe Bowl a win over Miami.

In 2019, Taylor repeated as the Doak Walker winner and as first-team AP All-America, rushing for 2,003 yards and 21 touchdowns and adding 26 receptions, 252 receiving yards and five more scores.

Taylor, who turned 21 in January, declared early for the 2020 NFL draft. He attended the NFL scouting combine and performed every drill, turning in impressive numbers in the 40-yard dash (4.39 seconds), vertical jump (36 inches) and broad jump (10-foot-3). Taylor stood on his testing numbers at Wisconsin’s pro day and performed only a positional workout.

Upside: Absurd rushing production — 12 games with 200 or more yards (high of 321), 19 more with 100-plus yards and only five career games with fewer than 80 yards. Had a 10-yard run (or longer) in all but one career game — only Ohio State in 2017 prevented that (long of 7 yards).

Nose for the end zone — 50 rush TDs in 41 career games, plus five more on receptions. Only two career games with fewer than 70 yards from scrimmage. Never went longer than one game between 100-yard rushing efforts in three seasons.

Consistently faced defenses geared to stop him — saw loaded boxes and heavy fronts. Wisconsin’s passing offenses ranked 92nd (2017), 114th (2018) and 96th (2019) in his three years. Clear workhorse capabilities — 27 career games with 20 or more carries. No back in college football history totaled as many rush yards (6,159) through their first three seasons.

Rare straight-line speed for size — carries 220-plus pounds extremely well and has sprinter’s burst and acceleration. Don’t let him get to the second level — rarely taken down from behind or beaten to the edge. Gears up with ease — speed appeared to stun opponents at times.

Runs through contact — leave your arm-tackle attempts on the practice field. Wicked stiff arm that can bury would-be tacklers. Determined, hard runner. Doesn’t leave much meat on the bone — averaged more than 1,300 rush yards after contact per season. Outstanding balance — smooth, controlled runner who takes what’s there, plus often a little bit more.

We could have chosen any number of runs from Taylor’s 2019 season — or any of a dozen from his outstanding game against Nebraska — to highlight. But this one gives you an idea of what Taylor can do with the most straightforward attempts. Protecting a 13-point lead midway through the fourth quarter, Taylor gutted away at the Huskers. He follows his tight end through the hole and powers his way through for an extra 9-10 yards after initial contact:

Taylor is a master of finding small creases and making the most of them.
Taylor is a master of finding small creases and making the most of them.

Operated effectively in I-formation and one-back alignments. Patience makes him ideal for inside/outside zone scheme but also capable of operating in a gap run system. Waits for his blockers to get into their men and then bursts through the hole. Nice inside running instincts — finds cracks before they develop. Subtle jump cut (really a skip cut) to make people miss. Great peripheral vision to sniff out safeties and linebackers crashing down to take him out.

Made small strides in receiving game, but the team didn’t give him opportunities he needed — targeted 18 times in first six games but only 19 in final eight contests in 2019. As pass blocker, looked lost as a freshman, passable as sophomore and solid as junior — measurable improvement, even with limited chances. Shows knack for being a capable cut blocker.

Tremendous physical and mental toughness, intelligence, and football and personal character. Carried himself like an ambassador of the program, but teammates praised his humility and blue-collar mentality. Winner who will take on whatever the team asks of him. Ran well in the elements and played through injuries.

Downside: Fumbling remains a bugaboo — went from three in 2018 to seven in 2019. One fumble every 53.5 offensive touches. That’s an alarming rate and worst among top backs. Lost critical fumble late in upset loss at Illinois. Total of 18 fumbles and eight dropped passes (on 65 career targets) in three years. Not yet adept at switching ball to outside hand and will expose the ball to be poked out by defenders.

Ton of mileage on his legs — 963 touches over three seasons. Might not be built to last for a 10- or 12-year career as a bellcow at this rate of usage. Benefitted from outstanding run-blocking units with multiple NFL-caliber offensive linemen at Wisconsin. In his three seasons, Badgers’ run-blocking rankings (per PFF) were sixth, first and 10th nationally, respectively, among all FBS teams.

Passing-game contribution was limited. Relegated to checkdowns, screens and flares as a receiver. Seldom flexed out or put in motion. Never caught more than three passes in a game. Big-play rate way down as a receiver outside of South Florida game in 2019 — only three catches longer than 30 yards in three seasons and none longer than 36. Taken off field often in obvious pass situations and asked to pass block only selectively; still needs reps in that department.

Lateral quickness is good but not great — 3-cone time of 7.01 seconds. Lacks ideal wiggle and can be tight as a runner. Initial straight-ahead burst good but not great. He needs time to reach max velocity. More of a one-cut-and-go runner than an imaginative runner who creates magic out of thin air. Will attempt a spin move now and again but often gears down to do so. Vision in the hole appears lacking at times.

Wasn’t used on a single special-teams rep over three seasons.

Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor is one of the smartest and toughest backs in the 2020 NFL draft class. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor is one of the smartest and toughest backs in the 2020 NFL draft class. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Best-suited destination: Taylor is a one-cut speed back with the size and durability to be a workhorse, preferably in a zone system. Ideally, he’d be paired with a good third-down back early on to reduce the need for those duties, but it’s likely that he can improve in the passing game.

Among the teams that could be interested in his services include the Miami Dolphins, Pittsburgh Steelers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Detroit Lions, Los Angeles Chargers, Atlanta Falcons, Washington Redskins, Seattle Seahawks and Buffalo Bills.

Did you know: Taylor was an honors student in high school and considered attending Harvard, with an interest in astrophysics, visiting the school three times. He also thought about a double major of astronomy and physics at Wisconsin but ended up as a philosophy major. Taylor has said he wants to attend Harvard in the future and earn a master’s degree.

They said it: “He’s everything that you would want to [have] in a teammate. That’s where it starts. An unbelievable example of how you approach every day. And it’s impressive what he’s done on the field, and it’s incredibly impressive who he is and how he’s done it, is more impressive to me.”

— Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst

Player comp: Let’s go back a bit: Ahman Green.

For a more recent comp, he enters the NFL as a healthier version of James Conner.

Expected draft range: There’s a chance Taylor could slip out of the top 50, but it’s hard to believe a team like the Steelers — assuming they stay at pick No. 49 — would pass on him if he lasts that long. Somewhere in the early to mid-second round feels like his landing spot.

Previous prospect rankings: Nos. 100-91 | 90-81 | 80-71 | 70-66 | 65-61 | 60-56 | 55-51 | 50. DT Justin Madubuike | 49. CB Damon Arnette | 48. OT Ezra Cleveland | 47. WR KJ Hamler | 46. CB A.J. Terrell | 45. RB Cam Akers | 44. DL Ross Blacklock | 43. OT Josh Jones | 42. DT Jordan Elliott | 41. C Cesar Ruiz | 40. S Kyle Dugger | 39. EDGE Terrell Lewis | 38. WR Laviska Shenault Jr. | 37. S Grant Delpit | 36. Jonathan Taylor | 35. WR Brandon Aiyuk | 34. EDGE Zack Baun | 33. EDGE Yetur Gross-Matos | 32. CB Jeff Gladney | 31. QB Jordan Love | 30. CB Trevon Diggs | 29. EDGE A.J. Epenesa | 28. RB JK Dobbins | 27. WR Justin Jefferson | 26. WR Tee Higgins | 25. S Xavier McKinney | 24. WR Jalen Reagor | 23. CB Kristian Fulton | 22. RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire | 21. WR Denzel Mims | 20. LB Kenneth Murray | 19. RB D’Andre Swift | 18. QB Justin Herbert | 17. LB Patrick Queen | 16. WR Henry Ruggs III | 15. EDGE K’Lavon Chaisson | 14. WR Jerry Jeudy | 13. OT Mekhi Becton | 12. DT Javon Kinlaw | 11. OT Andrew Thomas | 10. OT Tristan Wirfs | 9. WR CeeDee Lamb | 8. OT Jedrick Wills Jr. | 7. CB CJ Henderson | 6. LB-S Isaiah Simmons | 5. DT Derrick Brown | 4. QB Tua Tagovailoa | 3. CB Jeffrey Okudah | 2. QB Joe Burrow | 1. Chase Young

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