When I talk about draft strategy, I preach safety early on to those who will listen. Don’t go all-in on the first hand when there is so much more left to be played. I prefer a David Johnson in round one to a Todd Gurley. I prefer Adam Thielen to Amari Cooper. I’d rather have the eighth tight end at a low cost than the first one at a steep premium. Once I know a player has the safe floor I crave, then I consider the ceiling. This is why Ezekiel Elliott is my top pick this year: he feels safer than any other player in the draft, and I know the upside is still monstrous. Compare this to Saquon Barkley who has a shorter track record of success and an unfortunate outlook for his team’s offense. Both could easily succeed, but Zeke feels less likely to disappoint this year. This all leads me to Marlon Mack—a player that I can’t quite figure out. Join me on this strange journey as I develop an opinion on the Colts’ lead running back.
Good: Rushing Ability
If you’re a Colts fan or just someone who loves good running backs, you should appreciate Marlon Mack. He has a bruising style similar to Marshawn Lynch, and he knows how to deal with contact. Just watch this run against the Texans in the playoffs last year.
Mack crushes Jadeveon Clowney (an excellent defender in his own right) with a stiff-arm, he avoids a second tackler, and then he simply bounces off the third. Houston is a formidable defense, and Mack brushes them aside with ease in his most important game to date. He runs hard, he runs smart, and I don’t see anyone on the Colts’ roster matching this skill. Let’s look back to a game from Mack’s rookie season against the San Francisco 49ers.
Here, the play was designed to go to the left and Mack starts off that way. He runs into the back of one of his linemen and quickly realizes this side is bottled up. So, Mack breaks back to the right for open space, again shrugs off three defenders, and picks up 15 yards on the play. Mack is an impressive runner, and he’s still young enough (22) to expect further growth—as well as a long prime ahead.
If I scored Mack as an eight or nine out of ten in pure rushing upside, I’d probably have to give him a one or two in pass-catching potential. In his rookie year (2017), Mack saw 33 targets and 21 receptions during his 14 games played. Based on his limited use, the departure of Frank Gore, and the promise of working with Andrew Luck, this was sure to go up in 2018. Right? Not quite; in twelve games last year, Mack saw only 26 targets and 17 receptions. Meanwhile, rookie running back Nyheim Hines was a target hog; he caught 63 of his 81 targets. See where I’m going here? Mack has an incredibly low ceiling in the passing game with T.Y. Hilton, Parris Campbell, Deon Cain, Devin Funchess, Nyheim Hines, Eric Ebron, and Jack Doyle all as possible targets ahead of him in the pecking order. At best, I’d call him the team’s 5th option in the passing game. If I could lock in 32 catches for Mack right now in 2019, I would. Without the passing game, it will be hard for Mack to ever hit that very top tier of players.
Is pass-catching that important though? Can’t running backs just succeed without the catches? Let’s look at the data. In 2018, only one running back finished with less than 40 catches and still made the top-12 overall: Kareem Hunt. In 2017, Ezekiel Elliott (26 catches) and Leonard Fournette (36 catches) did it. Here is the data from 2014-2018:
|Top-6 Finish||Top-12 Finish|
|Fewer than 30 receptions||0%||12%|
|Fewer than 40 receptions||17%||28%|
|Fewer than 50 receptions||27%||48%|
So, running backs who finished with 30 or fewer receptions are a rarity in the top-12, and they haven’t cracked the top-6 in the last five years. Odds aren’t much better with up to 40 receptions, and it’s not until we get to 50 that half of our RB1s are covered. This is a bad sign for Mack, who was on pace for only 25 receptions last year.
Good: the Offense
Similar to pass-catching, there is a strong connection between an offense’s success in scoring and the success of the team’s top running back. It makes sense: more scoring means more chances for easy touchdowns at the goal line. In 2016, this helped propel LeGarrette Blount to a 9th place finish in PPR despite only seven receptions that year. Thanks to the potency of the Patriots offense, he ran it in 18 times! How strong is the connection, though, between offense and running back? Let’s look at some more data. This table shows how many of the top-6 and top-12 running backs come from a top-10 offense and a top-16 offense.
|Top-10 offense||Top-16 offense|
|Top-6 running backs||57%||77%|
|Top-12 running backs||53%||75%|
Since 2014, more than half of all RB1s came from top-10 scoring offenses that year. Expanding our reach to top-16 offenses, we now account for more than 75% of all top running backs. This makes sense—good offenses are scoring more, and running backs have more opportunities for touchdowns. This is especially beneficial for pure runners. Ezekiel Elliott and Marlon Mack need touchdowns more than David Johnson or Saquon Barkley. Remember those reception-deficient backs I mentioned that still succeeded? Well, 53% of them came from top-10 offenses; maybe an excellent offense can save you from pass-catching woes. The Colts offense looks quite promising this year, and they are an easy favorite to finish top-10 behind Andrew Luck.
Bad: Game Plan/ Game Flow
If we go back to the end of the 2016 season, Jordan Howard is looking like the next big thing. He rushed for 1300+ yards, had another 298 receiving, and he was a 22-year-old rookie. Fast forward to 2018, and he looked completely out of place in a new-look offense relying on versatility from its running backs. The Bears had a hard time using him because his presence on the field made plays obvious: Howard is in, so the Bears are running. Maybe the coaching deserved some blame, and a better game planner could have made it work. However, there’s a simple fact about players that can only do one thing—they are predictable by nature. Look how quickly the Bears dumped Howard to the Eagles for almost nothing in return because they found a rookie who could catch the ball.
Now think about the Colts; they have a young workhorse running back who has so far not shown much in the passing game. He—like Howard—is an excellent pure runner, but he does only one thing: he runs the ball well. Can Indy’s game plan accommodate a piece like Mack and still keep defenses off guard? Do they even prefer Mack when Nyheim Hines can take some carries and catch passes with the best of them? I’m certainly left uneasy knowing what just happened to Howard after he looked like a fantasy cornerstone just 2 years prior. Looking beyond the Colts plans for the future, what happens if they fall behind in a game this year? How useful is a pure runner during the 2-minute drill? Are you keeping Mack on the field with a 10-point deficit? I doubt it. The Colts could easily move on from Mack to someone more versatile—even if they aren’t as good a runner—if it means the overall offense functions better.
Good: the Offensive Line
If you were a running back, what would be the top thing on your wishlist? Probably to steal Saquon Barkley’s body and talent. Okay assuming that’s off the board, then it would probably be a great offensive line. It has to be a dream to wake up and realize you get to run behind 5 big dudes who know how to flatten everything in their path. For Marlon Mack, this is the reality. The Colts have a top-5 offensive line, as ranked by Pro Football Focus, that includes Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith—their two promising 2018 rookies. With a great line in front of him, a few things should be true for Mack: He should have a good yards before contact (the distance run before he is first touched). Last season, Mack was 12th in the league in yards after contact from week 6 (when he first played) through the season’s end. So, he is set up for good yards before contact and good yards after contact? I like it. I still haven’t mentioned the other benefit of a strong O-line: more goal-line opportunities. If you know your front seven can push the defense back, then why not always run it when you get close? Mack ran for a first down or a touchdown on 27.1% of his plays last year…good for a top-10 finish at his position. The big guys up front plus Mack in the backfield give the Colts the confidence to pound the ball in from close, and Mack should see a healthy touchdown number as a result. If you don’t catch passes you need to score touchdowns; Mack should score plenty of touchdowns.
Bad: Injury Risk
One of the biggest bugaboos for running backs is not being able to stay on the field. I drafted Dalvin Cook as a rookie but was quickly disappointed when he was knocked out for the season. The same was true of Leonard Fournette—I eagerly drafted him with high hopes, but it seemed like every other week he was sitting with a toe injury. What are we walking into with Mack? Here is his injury predictor page. He’s had two concussions, a labrum tear in his shoulder, and a nagging hamstring injury from last year that kept him out for 5 weeks. All of this puts Mack in the “high” risk category this year. I don’t put complete faith in an injury predictor, but I think it’s a worthwhile starting point; their mission, after all, is to predict injuries and they view Mack as a high risk. This status must give us some pause in what we’ll do with him this year. I’ll add in the fact that there are two young backs behind Mack who’ve shown potential (Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins), and I doubt Indy is risking Mack when he isn’t 100%. They have the playoffs to think about and certainly one of their goals is getting there healthy. Running becomes all the more important come playoff time. Imagine we are heading into week 13, the Colts are 8-3, and Mack has a minor but nagging injury. Don’t you think Indy might just let him sit and get healthy instead of risking it?
Where I Stand
It’s time for the big conclusion. I’m finally taking my stand. Mack is going to succeed because of his rushing prowess, the proficiency of the offense and the elite offensive line. No wait—Mack is going to fail because he can’t catch a pass, he’s game script dependent, and he’s an injury liability. In all seriousness, I am buying Mack this year right around his current ADP. I like him more than Derrick Henry because he has a better offense and a more certain role in it. I could also argue for Mack over Leonard Fournette because of Indy’s better offense and their similar injury risks. I would call Mack one of the safest RB2 options on the board with a good chance of breaking into RB1 territory. If you want a higher upside (but riskier) play, better choices would be Aaron Jones, Kerryon Johnson, and Josh Jacobs. In dynasty and keeper leagues, I am not that interested in Mack as a long-term investment. I think he is one of a dying breed (pure rushers), and I think the Colts could move on from him in a year or two for someone more versatile…especially with the loaded 2020 draft coming up. I should also mention that if Mack’s injury history makes you squeamish, then you have good reason to pass completely.
Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)