Running Back Pop Quiz:
Which of these two players is a Hall of Fame running back, and which is Indianapolis Colts’ rookie Marlon Mack?
- 5’10”, 210 lbs, 4.35 40-yard dash
- 3-year starter at a non-Power 5 school
- Junior year: 300 rushing attempts, 1530 yards, 5.1 yards per carry, 21 touchdowns
- 6.0 yards per carry average during college career
- 5’11”, 213 lbs, 4.50 40-yard dash
- 3-year starter at a non-Power 5 school
- Junior year: 174 rushing attempts, 1187 yards, 6.8 yards per carry, 15 touchdowns
- 6.2 yards per carry average during college career
Which player is better suited for success in the NFL?
- Player A ran a lightning-fast 40-yard dash, but had significantly more carries in college than Player B.
- Player B also ran a fast 40 time (especially for a running back) but appears to have less “wear and tear” coming out of college.
- Player B had a better yards per carry average than Player A for both his final college season and career.
- Both RB’s played against similar levels of competition.
So who’s who? Well, I can give you a hint, both players were drafted by the Indianapolis Colts
Player A was the 2nd overall pick in the 1994 draft and is #11 on the NFL’s all-time rushing list, his name is NFL Legend Marshall Faulk. Player B is Colts’ rookie running back Marlon Mack, who was the 143rd overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft from the University of South Florida.
The truth is, Mack’s college numbers hold their own against Faulk’s. I am not saying that Marlon Mack will be the next Marshall Faulk – he won’t. What I am saying is that running back evaluations, for GMs of both NFL and fantasy football teams, are not nearly as black-and-white as they used to be. Faulk was drafted when bell cow running backs were still very much the status quo. Ironically, one could argue that Faulk’s elite skills as both a rusher and a receiver, and the way he was utilized as a dual-threat by the Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf,” directly contributed to the movement toward the modern era of committee backfields. More teams sought pass-catching running backs to complement their between-the-tackles runners. Very few running backs can do everything well, and what’s more, few NFL teams let them.
The Colts are likely to follow suit this season, with Mack expected to be part of a timeshare as a rookie, forming a thunder-and-lightning duo with the Colts’ plodding but reliable workhorse back, Frank Gore. Did you know that Frank Gore rushed for over 1,000 yards last season? Unless he was on your fantasy team, that might surprise you. However, 2017 will be his age 34 (!) season, and he last averaged over 4.0 yards per carry in…wait for it…2014. Gore is 10th all-time in rushing attempts and has a better than fair chance to climb all the way to 5th this year. That is a LOT of carries. Remember how Player B had much less “wear and tear” coming out of college than Player A? Well, Mack played with a running quarterback and had about a 60-40 carry split with South Florida’s other running back. He has younger, fresher legs than Frank Gore, and is the type of home-run hitter that the Colts haven’t had in their backfield since they traded Marshall Faulk to the Rams in 1999. Last season, over half of Mack’s rushing yards came on his fifteen runs of 15-plus yards. Six of his fifteen rushing touchdowns came on runs of 40-plus yards. Mack often lined up at wide receiver for South Florida, and his receiving skills showed great improvement throughout his college career.Of course, if Mack had a flawless scouting report, he wouldn’t have been available to the Colts at the end of the fourth round. Watching his tape, it’s evident that Mack’s first instinct is to bounce runs to the outside, sometimes even when it’s not forced. If there’s nothing there, or the play is blown up by a defender in the backfield before it gets going, Mack often reverses field. This occasionally led to big gains or long touchdowns in college, but NFL defenses are too fast and too disciplined for this to work consistently. Another criticism of Mack is that he doesn’t have the power or the build to run between the tackles in the NFL.
However, scouts said some of the same things about LeSean McCoy a few years ago. McCoy, who has a nearly identical build to Mack, had a very similar running style coming out of college. Like McCoy, I think Mack can improve as an interior runner. I also think his skills are a great fit for the Colts’ offense, whose only glaring weakness is the offensive line. Fortunately for Andrew Luck and Co., Mack doesn’t always need much help to make something happen. The Colts won’t ask Mack to shoulder the load right away, but he projects to get most of the third-down reps, and they will certainly put his abilities as a pass catcher to use.
I believe Marlon Mack is currently being undervalued in all leagues. If you’re in a dynasty or keeper league, Mack should be getting even more of your attention. In Reggie Bush’s 2006 rookie season, he was on the short end of a timeshare with Deuce McAllister. McAllister, the established, more plodding runner of the two (sound familiar?), had 244 carries to Bush’s 155. Bush also led the Saints in receiving targets as a rookie, adding 88 receptions to his rushing and return game touches. While no one expects Mack to lead the Colts in targets, they will utilize him some in the passing game, and I expect a similar carry split between Frank Gore and Marlon Mack in 2017 as what we saw for Reggie Bush as a rookie. 2006 was also the last season in which Deuce McAllister eclipsed 200 rushing attempts, 1,000 yards rushing, and 4.0 yards per carry. McAllister was 28 years old in 2006. Remember, this will be Frank Gore’s age 34 season, and he last averaged over 4.0 yards per carry in 2014. It seems safe to assume that 2017 will be Gore’s final ride, and in any case, I think the Colts drafted Mack to be the back of the future.
Mack’s speed and skill set fit what the Colts want to do on offense. As a rookie in a timeshare, Reggie Bush was still the fantasy RB #17 in 2006. While that’s a lofty goal for Mack’s rookie season, I think a reasonable expectation is Reggie Bush light: something worse than fantasy RB #17, but better—maybe much better—than RB #56, which is Mack’s current average in the expert rankings on FantasyPros.
Rankings & Other Great Reads
- Outside of Ezekiel Elliott, David Johnson or Le’Veon Bell there is some question marks as who should be ranked as the next top fantasy RB this season. Get caught up with the 8 Top Fantasy Running Backs for 2017 outside of the big three names
- Check out Jody Smith’s 2017 Dynasty Rookie Rankings. Get a full recap of all of the top players you should target in the first round of your rookie dynasty draft and highlight some gems you should stash for later
- Stay up to date with Gridiron Experts NFL Depth Charts for 2017. We are constantly updating projected team rosters to help you narrow down which players to draft and when
- Rookie Profile articles: Learn more about WR Corey Davis from the Titans, Mike Williams from the Chargers, John Ross the newest Bengal Wide Receiver or the Buc’s newest weapon O.J Howard.