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Colts Conundrum: What To Do With Marlon Mack Hurt


Hello, my name is Eric Samulski, and I spent all my FAAB on Brian Hill last week. Phew! I’m glad we got that out of the way. Now that that’s on the table, we can talk honestly about this week's biggest running back decision: How the Colts will replace Marlon Mack, who just underwent surgery on his hand.

This time of year can be deadly when trying to pick up running back. All of us are out there, desperate on the streets, searching for the one guy who’s gonna take us to the promised land. The one guy who's going to make our season of struggle worthwhile. Yet, in reality, the more likely situation is that we’re going to be hoodwinked. Bamboozled. Led astray by some tantalizing player who quickly reminds us why he wasn’t a starting option to begin the season.

Maybe I’m a little gun shy after Brian Hill let me down, but I also want all of us to be aware of the risk we're taking as we head down this road together. We’ve got three potential options behind an offense of line that many consider to be one of the best in the league. However, on the year, the Colts are 11th in line-adjusted rushing (yardage gained due to the success of the line and not just the running back). That's behind offenses like Buffalo, Oakland, and Los Angeles (the Rams). They are 14th in success on power runs and, surprisingly, 22nd in the league in percentage of runs stuffed at the line. The talent may be there, but this line is not performing at an elite level, which will make the task even harder for whichever runner gets the job.

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Jonathan Williams

The trendiest option to replace Mack is Jonathan Williams. The twice-released running back had a great game last week against a formidable but not overly strong Jaguars Defense. As a rookie with the Buffalo Bills in 2016, Jonathan Williams impressed many people with his aggressive running style and the lateral agility to make people miss in the open field. However, with the Bills changing coaching staffs, he found himself on the outside looking in. He latched on with New Orleans and also impressed people in the preseason, only to be released again.

So we have a running back who has tantalized with preseason ability but has been consequently cut by two different organizations. He's also been a member of the Colts since October of 2018 but was active for only three games and saw two total carries before last week. There is something to the fact that he has shown these flashes in the past.

Behind a good offense of line, his strong burst and above-average wiggle should give him the ability to gain decent chunks of yards, and his power should make him a solid red-zone option. However, the line is allowing a lot of plays to be stuffed, so that says to me that he's more of an RB3 with the potential to become a low-end RB2 if he’s able to find the end zone.

You can't deny how good Williams looked last week, but he's not a real option in the passing game, especially with the presence of another guy who we are going to talk about later. It gives me a bit of pause.

 

Jordan Wilkins

The other factor capping William's upside is the presence of Jordan Wilkins. The second-year back from Mississippi has been Mack's back-up all season, even with Williams on the team. Wilkins isn't the athlete that Mack is and doesn't run with the nasty demeanor that Williams does, but he's been effective as a backup in his short NFL career.

He's averaged over six yards per carry this season and showed himself to be a solid enough receiver last year that the Colts don't necessarily need to take him off the field on passing downs. He makes his bread inside, with 71.4% of his rushes coming between the tackles. He's also gained 63% of his yards after contact, which, while fine, trails Jonathan Williams' 88% and is indicative of Wilkins' lesser physicality.

What's more interesting to me is Wilkins' usage so far this year. He wasn't called upon last week to replace Mack since Wilkins was out with an ankle injury; however, when Marlon Mack left the Raiders game early in Week 5, Wilkins only saw four rushes, compared to Nyheim Hines' three. In fact, despite Mack battling through multiple injuries this year, Wilkins has never seen more than seven carries in a game. Last year, with Mack also dealing with injuries, Wilkins saw over 10 carries in a game only once, and he rushed 14 times for 40 yards in that Week 1 loss to Cincinnati.

He's been an effective part-time player, but do the Colts think he can handle a starter's workload?

 

Nyheim Hines

If that weren't enough, Nyheim Hines is also around the muck up the situation. The Colts' primary pass-catching back has seen his rushing usage dwindle in his second year. After averaging just under 20 yards a game on the ground last year, Hines has averaged 7.7 yards per game rushing this year on 2.3 attempts. The Colts simply aren't going to use him as a runner. He doesn't have the size to hold up to a full workload and doesn't gain enough yardage after contact (57% - below league average) to move the chains consistently on the ground.

However, Hines will be involved in the passing game. Without Mack, and with T.Y. Hilton also banged up, the Colts may be playing from behind in upcoming games against the Texans, Titans, Buccaneers, and Saints. In the Colts' losses, Hines sees around four targets a game. If you bump that up without Mack around, it's safe to predict about six to eight targets a game for Hines, depending on the game script.

 

Marlon Mack

The incumbent also isn't to be forgotten. Mack already had surgery on his hand, but there is no clear timetable for his return. He's still seeing specialists to determine just how much contact he can take. If the hand is recovered enough to hold the ball, and taped up enough to soften tackles, then Mack being able to play will come down to pain tolerance.

He will be at a heightened risk of re-injury on one direct hit while he's carrying the ball, but we can't guarantee he's out multiple weeks. For what it's worth, Dr. David Chao tweeted the other day that it's reasonable to think Mack could play in Week 13. That could put a big damper on the value of all the players listed above, but it's also far from certain to happen.

 

Verdict

Where does that leave us? Nowhere good, to be honest. At least with Brian Hill, he had locked-in touches. Even with a poor performance, he played 60% of the Falcons snaps. I'm not sure we can assume that with the Colts situation.

Past usage and the roster construction all season tells me that Jordan Wilkins will be the guy. The Colts preferred him over Williams all year on the roster, so I don't think one week changes that. I also don't think the Colts want to feed Wilkins more than 10-12 carries in a game, so I expect Williams to have approximately five to eight carries and Hines to be involved in a slightly enlarged passing role.

That's not a situation I really want to mess with. Especially with the Colts fighting for a playoff spot and Mack potentially only being out one to two weeks.

 

Yeah, But I Need a Win This Week

If you absolutely need a win this week, I'd go with Wilkins, but I wouldn't blow my FAAB on it. I don't know that he'll be that much more useful than Bo Scarbrough. If you're in a PRR league, I think Hines will be the highest-scoring Colts running back on Thursday against the Texans since I assume the Colts will need to put up a lot of points.

If you're already locked into the playoffs, I'd float an offer for Marlon Mack. If we see him back in a week or two, you'd have a sure-fire RB2 for the final few weeks.

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