How much can we read into Colts allowing Jonathan Taylor to seek trade? Previous contract disputes provide hints

More than three weeks after the formal request hit, the Indianapolis Colts are now granting permission.

Jonathan Taylor, a 2021 All-Pro running back, can now seek a trade, a source with knowledge of the trade details confirmed to Yahoo Sports on Monday evening.

That’s a necessary step before Taylor, who’s under contract with the Colts through the 2023 season, can play elsewhere. But as any introductory logic professor will teach (or, at least, as my freshman professor did): necessary does not mean sufficient.

Taylor can now pursue a trade and, in concert, the contract extension he seeks. But will the permission ultimately matter? Does a market exist to divorce the Colts and Taylor?

League sources are split.

Taylor’s potential is indisputable. He led the league in 2021 with 1,811 rushing yards, 18 touchdowns and 106.5 rushing yards per game. No NFL player surpassed Taylor’s 2,171 yards from scrimmage nor his 20 touchdowns from scrimmage during that All-Pro campaign. Taylor was ruthlessly efficient, Seattle’s Rashaad Penny the lone running back to average more than Taylor’s 5.5 yards per carry.

Injuries and general franchise dysfunction hampered Taylor’s production last year, the 2020 second-rounder rushing for 861 yards and four touchdowns in 11 active games. He averaged 4.5 yards per carry.

Taylor underwent ankle surgery in January and failed his physical to kick off training camp, remaining on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list for the past month.

A trade partner needs to get comfortable with three elements: Taylor’s health, the price of any contract he commands and the trade value the Colts desire.

Jonathan Taylor's public contract dispute with the Indianapolis Colts has come to a head as he's been granted permission to seek a trade. (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Jonathan Taylor's public contract dispute with the Indianapolis Colts has come to a head as he's been granted permission to seek a trade. (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

What a potential trade partner needs to consider

One league source emphasized: The Colts’ asking price is at least as much of an impediment to a trade as Taylor’s desired contract value.

Indianapolis reportedly wants a first-round draft pick in exchange for Taylor’s rights. A source confirmed the permission did include stipulations.

Some teams are comfortable spending a first-round selection on a talented running back. The Atlanta Falcons drafted Bijan Robinson eighth overall this year and the Detroit Lions selected Jahmyr Gibbs at 12. But those picks, as opposed to the free agent running back contracts that dipped in value from prior years, guarantee teams the right to five cost-controlled years.

Consider that Robinson is not scheduled to count more than $7 million against the Falcons’ cap any of his guaranteed four years.

Given Taylor’s base salary this year is already at $4.3 million, his cap count at $5.1 million, that’s not the type of money he likely prefers — even as he has 860 touches worth of NFL tread compared to Robinson’s clean slate.

NFL running backs understandably don’t like how that tread is counted against them, but the reality remains that front offices consider it heavily.

In training camp conversations with Yahoo Sports, NFL general managers and front-office staffers alike have painted a picture, not of teams shying away from the running game, but instead of teams determining the supply of adequate running back talent outpaces the demand right now. Running backs can emerge from college to contribute instantly, execs say, without hampering salary caps. Many teams prefer to allocate larger percentages of their salary cap to what they consider “premier” positions like quarterback, left tackle and defensive end. Wide receivers and cornerbacks are benefiting from the era’s lean to the passing game.

So while Taylor may find a taker — one front-office source said their “gut said yes” a trade would materialize — it’s also possible that Taylor’s resolution instead follows the course of offseason narratives that played out on either coast: the stories of Lamar Jackson and Austin Ekeler.

What other recent NFL trade requests show us

That same executive who can envision a trade framed such a trade wisely: This possibility is a “win-win for the club.” If a team ponies up a first-round pick, the Colts have lucrative and much-needed draft capital. If the rest of the league doesn’t perceive Taylor’s value as meaningfully more than the Colts — which, they need to, to give both contract and a first-rounder compared to the Colts’ need to extend a contract alone — then Taylor stays put … and perhaps can reframe his frustration with the Colts’ valuation of him as instead frustration with the league’s market value at large.

In-season holdouts have not proven successful of late. Holding out is not likely to increase Taylor’s value even if he forfeits the $4.3 million base salary he’s due this year, none of which is guaranteed.

The Baltimore Ravens quarterback saga and Los Angeles Chargers running back dispute of this spring point to a potential path to resolution.

Jackson sought a fully guaranteed contract that the Ravens did not want to award their quarterback. The Ravens placed a non-exclusive franchise tag on Jackson, allowing the two-time Pro Bowler and former MVP to negotiate with other clubs. Jackson also requested a trade, he announced March 27.

No team was compelled by the combination of expensive trade value (two first-round picks) and a contract structure awarded only once in league history. The Cleveland Browns’ $230 million fully guaranteed deal to Deshaun Watson a year prior was the exception, not the rule. The Ravens ultimately gave Jackson a then-richest-in-NFL-history contract worth $260 million over five years, including $185 million guaranteed.

The best deal from the team that valued Jackson most was right at home.

Fast forward to May, two months after the Chargers gave Ekeler permission to seek a trade. Ekeler wasn’t on a franchise tag like Jackson, but Ekeler argued that his league-best 18 touchdowns from scrimmage last season merited more than the $6.25 million he was due entering the final year of his contract.

Ekeler ultimately collected an additional $1.75 million in incentives this year but no further extension. The San Francisco 49ers’ blockbuster trade last October for RB Christian McCaffrey had been yet another exception rather than rule. The Chargers are intimately familiar with how to maximize Ekeler’s versatility, with new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore eager to capitalize on his contributions.

The Colts have said they do not plan to offer Taylor an extension before this year, a measure of respect (or lack thereof) that probably further soured this dispute. But realistically, whether Taylor needs to bet on himself or whether the Colts can award him a contract that gives him more money if not top-of-market money, Taylor could be a difference-maker in a high-stakes year for the Colts.

This isn’t a year when Indy’s coach or quarterback is on the hot seat, Shane Steichen and Anthony Richardson each in their debut campaigns in their respective roles. But the Colts have opted to roll with the No. 4 overall draft pick as their starting QB from Week 1 despite his extremely limited college experience. Can Richardson unlock his dual-threat ability without a punishing running back beside him? How damaging could a season without a balanced offensive attack be for Richarson’s long-term development? Do the Colts really want to find that out?

More questions than answers loom as the Colts give Taylor leeway to pursue a trade. It’s early to make an educated guess on how this will unfold.

But it’s worth remembering: The Colts granting Taylor permission to seek a trade is very different than the franchise and player finding a partner shelling out the value that powers a deal to the finish line.

A necessary step was taken. It’s not yet sufficient.