INDIANAPOLIS – It’s not difficult to imagine Marlon Mack’s reaction when a team with one of the NFL’s most productive running attacks and being led by a young, emerging back saw fit to use one of its top picks in the April draft on, that’s right, a running back.
It was his team, the Indianapolis Colts. They were 7th in the league in rushing in 2019, and their 2,130 yards were the 9th-highest in franchise history.
And he was that young, emerging back. Mack, who turned 24 in March, piled up a career-high 1,091 yards in his third season. That’s the most by a Colt since Edgerrin James’ 1,506 in 2005.
Yet when his team was on the clock in round 2 with the 41st overall pick, it opted for Jonathan Taylor, an ultra-productive back out of Wisconsin.
“As a running back, it just motivates you,’’ Mack said on a Friday Zoom conference call. “It’s just business.’’
And that’s undoubtedly part of the motivation. Mack is on the final year of his rookie deal and will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.
Do the Colts believe they can move into the future with the “one-one punch’’ coordinator Nick Sirianni envisions with Mack and Taylor? Or does general manager Chris Ballard adhere to the philosophy that unless you find a truly transcendent talent at the position, it’s more prudent to reload every four years than re-invest in the legitimate feature back who’s gotten you to this point?
Mack describes himself as a “team guy,’’ but also realizes he must approach things with an underlying current of selfishness. That second contract is critical to every player, and might be especially true with running backs.
“We don’t have too many years in the league and that’s a goal for a running back, man, especially a young one, ’’ Mack said. “Get that second contract. That’s what you need in this league.
“Just be patient for it and work, work, work to get it. That’s all I can do.’’
The front office and decision-makers have changed, but the Colts rarely have ponied up a second deal for a running back. That includes a pair of backs with bronze busts in Canton, Ohio.
Edgerrin James (4th overall pick in 1999) played out his rookie contract, played the 2005 season under the franchise tag and, after rushing for 1,506 yards, signed a free-agent deal with the Arizona Cardinals.
Marshall Faulk (2nd overall in ’94)? Disgruntled when the team wouldn’t offer an extension after 1998, he was traded to the St. Louis Rams prior to the ’99 draft. That decision cleared the path for James’ arrival.
Donald Brown, the 27th overall pick in ’09, never got a second deal.
The exception: Joseph Addai. The 30th overall pick in ’06 and James’ successor earned a second contract, a three-year, $14 million package in 2011. However, injuries in ’11 ended Addai’s career in Indy.
Addai and veteran Dominic Rhodes were a formidable “one-one punch’’ in 2006 that proved instrumental in the Colts’ withering playoff run that culminated with a win over the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI.
Now, it’s up to Mack and Taylor – a pair of players accustomed to being the feature back – to not only co-exist, but thrive in tandem.
That seems to be the case.
Listen to Taylor describe his early association with Mack.
“It’s been fun,’’ he said. “I mean, he’s from Florida so I had a lot of Florida guys on my team back at Wisconsin. So they are usually always funny – kind of funny, not making jokes – but they are just cool, mellow guys who love and enjoy life.
“So being able to connect with Marlon, asking him questions, picking his brain about the games. We won’t have any preseason games, but being able to get as much knowledge and information from him as far as what to expect is something I have been doing a lot of.’’
And listen to the veteran about working with the rookie. Mack was asked if he watched Taylor at Wisconsin, where he rushed for 6,174 yards and 50 touchdowns in three seasons.
“A beast, man, like he is now,’’ Mack said. “You guys have seen already a few clips that he (does). He’s going to be a beast, and teams should be aware of him.
“Just be ready for him.’’
It’s impossible to gauge how Taylor’s arrival impacts Mack’s quest for a second contract.
Frank Reich has left no doubt in terms of the depth chart.
“Marlon is the starter,’’ he said. “Marlon has earned it. He’s had a couple of really good years for us, but we’re going to continue to take the same approach that we have, where it’s week-in and week-out, hot hand and all those things.’’
That’s fine with Mack.
“It’s football, man, and so as long as I get to play each week and show my talents, that’s all I really care about,’’ he said. “There’s not too many guys can be in my position already. Just be grateful for what you’ve got.
“Just go out there and attack it no matter what. I’m going to do the best I can. As long as I get to show up on Sundays and do that, I’m good.’’
One of the best groups
When the topic turned to his running backs room, Nick Sirianni turned up the volume. His eyes lit up, his enthusiasm increased.
The offensive coordinator didn’t attempt in the least to disguise the hand he’s been dealt.
“I think we have to have one of the better groups in the NFL, most certainly is probably the best group I’ve been around in my 12 years in the NFL,’’ Sirianni said.
Somehow, Reich and Sirianni must divvy up the carries between Mack and Taylor. But they also can tap into the talents of Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins.
Sirianni’s snapshot look at the group:
Comment: “You’ve got a guy like Marlon who’s got really good speed and vision and able to make you miss.’’
Notable: Since settling in as the feature back the past two seasons, Mack has rushed for 1,999 yards and averaged 4.5 yards per carry. Last year, he had nine runs of at least 18 yards.
Comment: “(Mack is) complemented well with Jonathan, who is bigger and still really fast. He looks like he has good vision.’’
Notable: Taylor’s 6,174 yards rank 2nd in Big Ten history and 6th among FBS players. He averaged 6.7 yards per carry and piled up at least 200 yards in 12 of 41 career games.
Comment: “What we’ve always wanted in this offense is a back who can create mismatches. We have that in Nyheim being able to match him up with linebackers. Nyheim’s so shifty and so good at what he does that even if they match up a safety on him, we still feel confident Nyheim can win there.’’
Notable: It seems Hines is a running back in name only. In two seasons, he has more yards on receptions (745 on 107 catches) than rushes (513 on 137 attempts). His 63 receptions in 2018 were the third-most by a Colts rookie, trailing Bill Brook (65 in 1986) and Marvin Harrison (64 in ’96).
Comment: “Jordan Wilkins has done really well. It just seems like every time Jordan gets in the game, he makes plays. We notice that.’’
Notable: Wilkins (round 5) and Hines (round 4) were products of the 2018 draft, and Wilkins has been the more productive runner. He’s managed 643 yards on 111 carries. That’s a robust 5.8 yards per attempt. He’s had a pair of 50-plus-yard runs in each of his first two seasons.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.