Throughout the course of his career with the Chargers, Philip Rivers has never been shy about targeting his running back in the passing game. Darren Sproles, Danny Woodhead and Austin Ekeler are just some of the backs that made a living off catching passes from Rivers out of the backfield and to tremendous success. As Rivers now starts a new chapter in Indy, the next beneficiary for that affinity to get his backs involved in the passing game could be Nyheim Hines.
The 23-year-old is heading into his third season in the NFL after Indianapolis selected him in the fourth round out of NC State, which just so happens to be the alma mater of his new quarterback. So far, Hines has proven to be a capable third-down back for Indy, catching 107 passes over his two-year career. With Rivers now at the helm, Hines could be in line for an uptick in opportunity.
“I’m very excited,” Hines told the official team website about what the addition of Rivers could mean for his production in 2020. “Been waiting two or three years, just trying to catch balls and hopefully I get a little bit more opportunity. I’m going to try and earn that.”
“As a running back, we’re the safety valve,” he continued. “I’ve always thought I was the safety valve that can take a five-yard dump and turn it into 50. That’s really what I’ve been planning on doing the last two years and hopefully show glimpses of it. I would love to do that this year and I think with Philip back there, there would be a great possibility of it.”
Head coach Frank Riech has talked up Hines’ potential in 2020 throughout the course of the offseason and even highlighted a potential Danny Woodhead-like role within the offense for him on Monday.
“We used to say in San Diego that when we had Danny Woodhead. He was not our starter, he was our ‘role playing’ starter,” said Reich, who was the Chargers offensive coordinator from 2014-2015. He played such a significant role. He had 80 catches in a year. You look at a guy like Nyehim Hines. We talk about Marlon and Jonathan, but what about Nyheim? He’s such a good third-down back that he’ll play a prominent (role). In some ways, (Hines) is a starter. He’s a role-playing starter.”
Woodhead saw 106 targets during that 80-catch season in 2015 to go along with 755 receiving yards and six receiving touchdowns. Those would all be career marks for Hines, who owns a current career-high of 81 targets during his rookie season in 2018.
The biggest obstacle for Hines to reach that potential may simply be carving out snaps. Marlon Mack led the way for Colts backfield in 2019, playing in 47.35% of the offensive snaps. Hines, meanwhile, played in 31.48% of the offensive snaps last year. After using a second-round pick on Jonathan Taylor, who did catch 26 passes for 252 yards and five touchdowns for Wisconsin in 2019, the Colts will obviously fit him into the equation somewhere. For Hines, he should look to establish himself as the reliable third-down, receiving back early, leaving Taylor and Mack to duke it out for early-down work. If he can manage that, he is poised to have his best year yet.