The Indianapolis Colts held back from drafting a running back in the 2019 NFL Draft. Why?
A common construct among National Football League forecasters and prognosticators is the year-3 breakout. This is the season many believe talent and experience converge allowing a player to approach their full potential. Marlon Mack, Colts RB, appears primed for a year-3 breakout and coaching staff appears to be betting on him.
While many expected Indianapolis to draft a RB, the Colts stood pat. Instead, they opted to upgrade their wide receiver room with second-round pick Parris Campbell and undrafted free agent Penny Hart. This can be fairly interpreted as a vote of confidence in their current running back room, but also, in Mack specifically. A 4th-round selection from the 2017 NFL Draft, Mack heads into the 2019 season all but penciled-in to be the starting halfback in the Colts backfield. The question will be how much of the total workload he is able to secure.
How did Mack get here?
Mack entered the NFL as an immensely productive prospect with a penchant for big plays. The University of South Florida star accumulated 3,622 yards (with a whopping 6.2 yards per carry) and 32 touchdowns on the ground in his 3-year career while making 36 starts. He posted an absurd 93 carries of 10+ yards along with 115 tackles avoided per PFF (subscription required). Mack was deployed sparingly in the passing game tallying 65 receptions, 498 yards, and 1 touchdown.
Despite handling 651 touches over his collegiate career, a common concern from draftniks and analysts was Mack’s feature back potential citing his unwillingness to engage between the tackles and inconsistent power. Accompanied by concerns regarding his ball security (12 career fumbles), Mack was projected by many to be a complimentary back that wouldn’t be proficient as an every-down workhorse. Concerns that, by all appearances, were shared across league front offices as Mack fell in the Colts lap. They would select Mack with the 143rd pick as the 15th RB taken in what is shaping up to be a historically deep RB class. A turn of good fortune poised to pay big dividends in Indianapolis.
How has his NFL career gone thus far?
Mack began his NFL career behind entrenched future Hall of Famer Frank Gore on the depth chart. Gore would go on to start all 16 games leaving Mack with little more than spot duty totaling a meager 93 carries and 21 receptions. Neither back did well from a yards per carry standpoint as both posted sub-4.0 averages. Their ineffectiveness was likely a confluence of a struggling offensive line and sorely missed franchise quarterback Andrew Luck.
When Frank Reich came on as the new head coach in 2018, he brought with him the opportunity for Mack to be the starter. Unfortunately, those plans were derailed when he suffered a strained hamstring in the Colts preseason opener. The incumbent halfback would miss 4 of the first 5 regular season contests.
Mack burst back onto the scene with a 12 carry, 89-yard performance in week 6 against the New York Jets. He would go on to post back-to-back 100+ yard games in wins over the Buffalo Bills and Oakland Raiders before the injury bug would strike again limiting him until the final month of the season.
Once relatively healthy, Mack finished the season strong with a 27 carry, 139-yard, 2 touchdown performance against the Dallas Cowboys. Here we witnessed one of the most decisive exhibitions of run-blocking I can recall from the 2018 season. This was the game that showed not only what Mack could do when healthy, but what this Indianapolis Colts line was capable of doing to even among the most talent-laden of defenses.
What does he need for a breakout season?
First and foremost, Mack obviously needs to stay healthy. Or, at least as healthy as one can reasonably expect for the most punishing position in sports. The Colts post-draft addition of veteran Spencer Ware was likely both an insurance policy and a risk mitigator. Ware is a 5-foot-10, 227-pound bruiser that can spell Mack on early downs and potentially handle short yardage and 4-minute situations.
Besides injuries, the biggest source of lost snaps for Mack came in the passing game. Rookie Nyheim Hines handled the majority of 3rd down duties along with obvious passing situations. Hines outpaced Mack in targets 78 to 27. Much of this is the result of Hines being a gifted receiver out of the backfield.
However, it’s also partially the consequence of Mack’s inconsistent hands (7 career drops) and struggles in pass protection. Mack allowed 9 pressures on just 38 pass-blocking opportunities over the 2018 season per PFF. While I expect Hines to maintain a considerable role in the Colts pass attack (they would be crazy not to use him), becoming a more reliable contributor in the passing game can only increase Mack’s opportunities and utility.
Mack on taking the next step
Mack himself cited contact balance as an area of needed improvement:
“Me personally, standing out more just hitting the hole more, getting through it, bursting through,” Mack said. “I could get better at from last year picking up my feet. I fell a couple times – shoe tackles. That’s something I can definitely get better at.”
These are the types of improvements that come with experience and repetitions. To take the next step Mack will need to polish his game to become more consistent and efficient. Whether its decisiveness, contact balance, pass-protection, or simply taking care of your body, the best players focus on the details and never gets complacent. Mack Echoed these sentiments following an early-May OTA practice:
“Way more comfortable. You just know what to expect now,” Mack said adding “You just got to do better at what you do and just always push yourself to get better. You can’t get too comfortable with it, you always got to learn and get better at it.”
Mack’s 2018 season was ravaged by injuries. Despite this, he still managed 1011 yards from scrimmage while featuring a robust 4.8 (4.7 on the ground) yards per touch. He forced 23 missed tackles and averaged a healthy 3.0 yards after contact to boot. He will need to clean things up in the passing game a bit. Additionally, he’ll have to hold off promising second-year backs Hines and Jordan Wilkins.
The talent is obviously present and with year-3 comes the opportunity. With better health and a bit of refinement, Mack could be due for a major breakout season as the feature running back of the Indianapolis Colts.
Ken Grant is a writer for PFN covering the AFC South. You can follow him @KenGrantPFN on Twitter.