It feels as if changes are made to the Buccaneers’ backfield every offseason. There were quite a few changes from 2019 to 2020, with Ke’Shawn Vaughn, LeSean McCoy and Leonard Fournette all added to the mix as Peyton Barber and Dare Ogunbowale departed. Now, as Tampa Bay turns the page to the 2021 season after winning Super Bowl LV, there looks to be backfield turnover once again.
With his performance in the playoffs, Fournette may have earned himself a payday that the Bucs can’t afford to give him. As for McCoy, he may very well retire. Otherwise, he’s likely to sign on elsewhere as well. So, if those two are out, who’s coming in?
If the Bucs look to the free agency market for a running back to complement Jones, perhaps they’ll look into a big bounce-back candidate that is plenty familiar with playing at Raymond James Stadium. Of course, we’re talking about Marlon Mack, the former University of South Florida standout.
Marlon Mack’s Career Thus Far
After playing his prep career at Booker High School, Mack chose to sign with USF over the likes of Louisville, Michigan and UCLA. By the time his three-year career with the Bulls was over, he was the program’s all-time leading rusher and was even the American Athletic Conference’s all-time leading rusher for a time (he now ranks fourth). In three seasons, Mack ran for 3,609 yards and 32 touchdowns while catching 65 passes for 498 yards and one score. He averaged 6.2 yards per carry over his college career and earned 14 USF records, establishing himself as one of the Bulls’ greatest players ever.
In the fourth round of the 2017 NFL Draft, the Indianapolis Colts used the 143rd overall pick to select Mack. He was the 15th running back taken and became the 28th player in USF history to get drafted. He spent his rookie year backing up Frank Gore, running for 358 yards and three touchdowns while catching 21 passes for 225 yards and a score.
Mack became the Colts’ starting running back in 2018, breaking out in a big way. He ran for 908 yards and nine touchdowns despite missing three games early in the season with a hamstring injury. In the first round of the playoffs, he set a franchise record with 148 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries in a 21-7 win over the Texans. Indianapolis’ season—and Mack’s—ended with a dud in the next round, but it was still a great sophomore season for the 2017 fourth-round pick.
Mack’s rise continued in 2019, as he ran for 1,091 yards and eight touchdowns. He finished that year 11th in the league in rushing, and he did that in just 14 games (12 starts) thanks to a hand injury he dealt with in the latter half of the campaign. Despite failing to play a full 16-game season in each of his first three seasons, Mack still had put together a strong start to his professional career. Unfortunately for him, though, 2020 dealt him a bigger injury than any of the minor knocks that he picked up in the previous seasons. He tore his Achilles in the Colts’ Week 1 loss to Jacksonville, sidelining him for the rest of the year while rookie Jonathan Taylor went on to rush for 1,169 yards and 11 touchdowns as his replacement.
With his rookie deal up at the end of 2020, Mack now enters free agency for the first time. He turns just 25 years old on March 7, so it’s likely that, despite the fact that he’s coming off of such a major injury, he’s going to be an intriguing option for a lot of teams in the market for a running back.
Why It Works
If Leonard Fournette and LeSean McCoy are both headed elsewhere in 2021, the Bucs will need to fill some gaps in their backfield this offseason. One of those gaps is bigger than the other, of course, as Fournette spent much of the 2020 season complementing Ronald Jones II. So, who better to assume that role of complementing Jones than a former 1,000-yard rusher like Mack? Before missing this past season, the Sarasota-born back was on an upward trajectory that had him looking like one of the steals of the 2017 draft. How he bounces back from his torn Achilles remains to be seen, but it’s not unreasonable to expect him to return to his previous form. At his best, Mack can be an explosive runner with good speed. He averaged 3.8, 4.7 and 4.4 yards per carry in his first three seasons, respectively, then averaged 6.5 yards per carry over his four rushes in the 2020 season. There’s big-play ability there, that’s for sure.
Given what Tom Brady likes to do in the short passing game, whichever running backs Tampa Bay adds to its 2021 roster will need to be serviceable receivers. Mack has shown flashes of being a good receiver, averaging 10.7 yards per catch as a rookie before dipping down to 6.1 and 5.9 in his next two seasons. And, before he left Week 1 of the 2020 season with his injury, he had three catches for 30 yards in limited time. Considering the struggles that Bucs running backs had with catching the ball in Brady’s first season, it’s hard to disagree with the idea that Mack would improve the pass-catching of Tampa Bay’s backfield.
From a talent standpoint, Mack would appear to be a nice fit with the Bucs. And it’s easy to see why playing in Tampa again would be attractive to the former USF Bull. He knows the area well and would surely like his chances at competing for a championship in 2021 and beyond. There’s a lot to love for both sides when it comes to a potential deal.
Achilles injuries can be tricky. How well Mack bounces back in 2021 will be the big question for teams interested in signing him this offseason. He is only 25, but getting back up to the point where he was before the injury could take some time and there has to be a chance that he’s never fully the same as he once was. So, as talented as the former Colt is, it’s possible the Bucs look for a safer option to add to their backfield for this fall.
Of course, bringing in a guy like Mack to complement Jones is also a non-starter if the team believes Ke’Shawn Vaughn can take on the No. 2 role. For one, Mack isn’t the type of player that should be competing to be a backup. He could be an easy No. 2—or very likely a starter—elsewhere. On top of that, he’s likely trying to get paid in his first time as a free agent. Colts general manager Chris Ballard has even said he would love to bring Mack back to Indianapolis to pair with Taylor, but he believes that his 2017 fourth-rounder deserves a “good contract.”
So, if the Bucs are to give him a “good contract,” it’s going to be for a significant role in the offense. If Vaughn is a strong candidate to be the complement to Jones, Tampa Bay will surely be looking for a cheaper option to bring into the fold.
What’s The Cost?
Cost will be the key here with Mack, as it will be with every free agent that the Bucs pursue this offseason. Keeping the majority of their Super Bowl champion team together won’t be easy, so any additions to the roster will have to make good financial sense. And as Ballard said through the lens of the Colts’ situation, he’s not sure if he can give Mack the contract that he deserves heading into his age-25 season. If it’s a big-money contract that Mack is looking for, him signing with Tampa Bay is going to be a longshot.
Then again, with Mack coming off of a torn Achilles, he may come at a bargain. There’s a chance that a team will spend a lot of money on him, but he may find himself with offers that are lower than he would like as a result of the injury. A bounce-back year may be in order before he gets his big payday. Pro Football Focus projects a one-year, $2.5 million deal (with $1.75 million guaranteed) for him. So, if he ends up looking for a short-term prove-it deal, perhaps the Bucs could be in the market for his services after all.
What We Don’t Know
As mentioned before, we don’t know what the Bucs think about Vaughn’s future in the backfield. The 2020 third-round pick out of Vanderbilt didn’t get much playing time as a rookie and in his limited snaps, he made his share of mistakes. But Jason Licht and his front office clearly saw something in him, so it would be difficult to push him to the side or completely part ways with him already. However, the Bucs are still in “win now” mode. So if it comes down to hoping Vaughn pans out in the future or adding an already-established back to pair with Jones, the latter option is probably more likely.
As with any free agent, we also don’t know how Tampa Bay views Mack. Will they see the former USF star and promising talent that emerged in his first three years with the Colts? Or will the Achilles injury be too big of a question mark? There’s also the chance that the Bucs go with a running back who has more familiarity with Brady as they try to continue setting the soon-to-be 44-year-old up for success in year 22.
Make The Decision
So, what do you think, Bucs Nation? Would you like to see Marlon Mack return to Ray Jay as a Buc in 2021? Be sure to let us know what you think by voting in our poll and discussing your thoughts in the comments down below.
When it comes to Marlon Mack, what would you have the Buccaneers do?
This poll is closed
Sign him no matter what
Make an offer, but keep it reasonable
Invite him for a cup of coffee and see where it goes
Call him up if they have a need after the NFL Draft
Don’t need him