Return of the (Marlon) Mack | What the Houston Texans new RB can add

The Houston Texans continue to reshape the roster and have brought in a new yet familiar face. Marlon Mack, the former Indianapolis Colts running back was added a week after being brought in for a workout.

This signing mirrors others GM Nick Caserio has made, buying low on players who have flashed talent but have seen their stock drop off due to a recent injury. These types of players have varying degrees of reputation, from wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton, to offensive guard AJ Cann, to linebacker Blake Cashman. Undoubtedly though, Mack has shown the most production out of this group.

The 26-year-old offers the potential of a lead RB in a committee, something the Texans have severely lacked for far too long. The million-dollar question becomes, how likely is it that Mack returns to his 2019 form - after missing all of 2020 and only playing six games in 2021 - due to his torn Achilles?

I attempt to uncover that answer by looking at how he succeeded in 2019, how he looked post-injury in 2021 and applying those takeaways to make a game plan for 2022. Let's begin.

2019 Mack

I watched three games of the 2019 Colts - @KC, vs DEN, vs CAR - to gain a deeper understanding for how Mack earned his lone 1,000+ yard season of his career, and ran for a solid 4.4 yards per carry. Adding this (admittedly limited) film study to my understanding of Mack after watching him twice a year since 2017 allows me to paint a picture of his strengths and weaknesses.

First off, what is his running style? Mack is an extremely patient, downhill runner who does his finest work between the tackles on gap/power runs. Out of Mack's 195 carries in 2019, a staggering 95 of them (49%) were aimed right behind the Center, per Sharp Stats. On these specific runs, Mack attained 4.3 yards per carry, along with nine explosive runs (10+ yards), more than he had attacking any other direction.

Mack's best moments will have shades of Le'Veon Bell, patiently dancing and hopping around the line of scrimmage as he waits for his blocks to develop and slowly advance upfield. Additionally, Mack will vary his pace and rushing path to give his linemen better angles to secure their blocks.

Caserio has done well to identify a RB who fits with the power run scheme offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton and offensive line coach George Warhop have historically utilized. Mack will regularly gain the yards that get blocked for him because of his patience, toughness and understanding of the scheme.

One of the biggest takeaways I had was regarding Mack's athleticism. He's not an overly explosive, elusive, or speedy athlete who is dependent on chunk plays to raise his efficiency. Instead, Mack is a grinder, someone who will gain three yards, then five yards and help wear down the defense.

He's never been much more than an average athlete and that lines up with his running style, wanting to take his time and attack between the tackles rather than bounce runs outside in a hurry.

Mack's solid but not spectacular athleticism can be viewed through two major lenses. On the optimistic side, because he never relied heavily on his athleticism to be successful, any lost quickness or explosiveness from his Achilles tear won't be overly detrimental like it would for a speed back.

On the other hand, if Mack's athleticism gets zapped to the point where it is now mediocre, he may be under the basic threshold for athletic requirements of an NFL RB. If he can no longer hop around the line of scrimmage and evade defenders while blocks develop - his bread and butter - will he be unplayable? Spoiler alert, I'm less worried about this now than I was when he initially signed, thanks to the 2021 film.

Furthermore, RB is only one piece of the run game puzzle. Mack and every Colts' RB have benefited from an elite run blocking OL in 2019, led by Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly, Anthony Castonzo, Mark Glowinski and Braden Smith. There are numerous runs where Mack goes untouched for five-seven yards through a wide gap, because of the push the front five creates.

The Colts' powerful OL is certainly a variable that helped Mack attain the rushing yards he did. This is not to completely discount Mack, as he and the line worked cohesively together to the tune of a 52% rushing success rate (defined by a run of 3 or more yards), higher than the league average of 47% in 2019.

Instead, it's a critical takeaway because Mack, like the majority of RBs, will need better run blocking than the Texans unit displayed in 2021 - owning a success rate of just 36%.

Mack rarely had to deal with backfield penetration with the Colts, but when he did, it was a clear detriment. For every one or two "wow" runs he had a game, Mack was also not able to create something out of nothing when a block was blown.

This is where we see his solid but unspectacular athleticism pop up, as he's not going to make numerous defenders miss in a phone booth and consistently make up for poor blocking.

The Texans have made it a priority to improve their run game and continue to try and form their in-game identity around pounding the rock. To do so, they'll need to provide Mack the blockers up front. There is only up from here, you'd like to think.

To quickly touch on Mack's skillset in the passing game, I'll say that he's definitely more valuable as a runner. Over his five-year career, Mack has eclipsed 100 receiving yards in just two seasons. Furthermore, this statistic has declined every year since he was a rookie, going from 225, to 103, to 82 before the Achilles injury.

Part of this has to do with Mack's role and Nyheim Hines being a superior receiving threat. However, it'd be disingenuous for me to say I think he'll be much better as a receiver than Rex Burkhead was last season.

In Mack's career-best year (2019), he averaged just 5.9 yards per reception and part of this was his solid, not spectacular, athleticism limiting his YAC.

Mack often struggled to make the first defender miss in space as his jump cuts and tackle-breaking proficiency is not jaw-dropping. This isn't something I'm very worried about, but rather a weakness I wanted to highlight to provide a full picture of who Mack is as a player.

Overall, 2019 Mack was a patient, downhill runner who excelled on gap/power runs between the tackles and found tough yardage. His solid but not spectacular athleticism limits his efficiency when blocks are blown and in the receiving game.

He finished the year 9th in carries, 10th in rushing yards and 12th in total TDs. At his best, behind an elite line, Mack gives you borderline top 10 RB production. Can we expect the same in 2022?

2021 Mack

As Texans fans learned with David Johnson, just because a player used to be productive, does not mean they will continue to be in the future. Injuries are especially deterring for RBs and Mack sustained a torn Achilles in week one of the 2020 season. The typical timeline for the injury is 10-12 months and Mack miraculously looked like his old self, just nine months later.

That sentiment was shared by numerous Colts' reporters and even better, "the film don't lie". I watched the 2021 weeks two, four and five matchups vs the Rams, Dolphins and Ravens and was quite surprised with how spry Mack looked.

I would estimate and say he looked 90%-95% of the athlete he was back in 2019. Furthermore, by week one of the 2022 season, he'll be two-years post-injury which could look like the full return of the Mack.

As I like to do, it's time to show proof with the film. 2021 Mack still looked like the patient runner he's always been, reading the defense and reacting with subtle cuts as he inches his way up for a seven-yard gain vs the Ravens.

Mack displayed his quick and efficient footwork on this next play, avoiding DT#90 and then immediately cutting upfield to run away from LB#55. The best part of this run? Mack finishes tough, lowering his shoulder into DB#30 and adding four yards after contact.

Every aspect of 2019 Mack was apparent in 2021, along with his ability to capitalize on good blocking. The Colts opened a massive cut-back lane between the LG and the C, which Mack was able to see and cut through to pick up an explosive run.

Every aspect means truly, every aspect. This means there were also reps where the Colts allowed backfield penetration and Mack could not create something out of nothing. Colts' WR Zach Pascal (#14) misses the block on DB#30 and DT#90 sheds the double team, leaving Mack with nowhere to go but the dirt.

I wanted to finish the film review with that clip because it resembles my major takeaway after studying Mack. I like this signing but he's not going to single-handedly drastically improve the run game.

He's a talented RB but expectations need to be tempered until the Texans improve their OL. Mack will play as well as the Texans allow him to, which starts with improving the 2021 OL which ranked 32nd in rushing DVOA, 32nd in adjusted line yards and 24th in stuffed runs.

2022 Game Plan

The Texans OL was not a good run blocking unit last season. The basic stats tell us this, the advanced stats tell us this and the eye test tells us this. When all three pillars of evaluation line up and provide the same answer, they aren't lying. Anyone can tell you the Texans need to improve the OL but which positions should be prioritized and with which players can they do so?

As the roster currently stands, the tackle positions should be locked down with Laremy Tunsil and Tytus Howard. The Center position, held down by Justin Britt last year, seems to be running it back. Britt is one of the most respected players who is mentioned as a leader by teammates, coaches and execs. His two-year, nine million dollar contract makes him the 16th-highest paid C in the NFL, an indication of what Caserio thinks he provides.

The right guard spot appears to have a new starter in AJ Cann. The seven-year starter for the Jacksonville Jaguars is clearly one of George Warhop's guys and barring looking like a shell of himself post season-ending MCL injury in 2021, should be the penciled-in starter. Cann has been known for his run blocking prowess and the Texans will be hoping they can get the 2019 version who was a solid starter, rather than the 2020 and 2021 version who was a weak link.

That leaves one spot in the projected starting five that needs a clear upgrade. At left guard, the Texans have played a messy game of musical chairs between Max Scharping, Justin McCray and even Tytus Howard. Getting a starter quality player here would remove the weakest link in the chain and no, the answer should not be Howard, who is a good TACKLE.

With the interior offensive line market dried up in free agency and barring a surprise trade, Caserio will have to look to the 2022 Draft where he'll have 11 chances to find the LG of the future. Selecting a physical mauler who meets the physical measurements that Warhop desires will be pivotal.

The Texans could select Boston College's Zion Johnson as high as 13. Texas A&M's Kenyon Green is the next best option and has been falling to pick 37 in a majority of mock drafts. These are the two prospects who have the best chance at starting early in their career, with Johnson being particularly pro-ready after five seasons of starting experience and Green starting at every position but Center for the Aggies.

If I had to bet, Caserio is going to trade down from either 3 or 13 and selecting Johnson or Green in the 20s would be a wise pick that provides better value than moving Evan Neal or Ikem . Both linemen provide a physical presence to pave lanes on the ground, with Green having the size advantage over Johnson, who is the far better pass protector between the two.

Concluding Thoughts

This was a long winding article but one that I hope provides clarity on Marlon Mack and the opportunities the Texans have to help him succeed. I believe reinforcements in the trenches are necessary to get the best version of Mack, who seemed to be back to his normal self in 2021, and should look even better in 2022, especially if a starting left guard is added in the first round.