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Saints RBs: Can we rely on Mark Ingram?

8/5/2011

When 2009 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram was drafted by the New Orleans Saints this spring, it made sense to view him as the long-lost star running back that coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees have been yearning for. I can understand that point of view. But I also understand the statistics don't really support it. Even if the Saints had a stud running back -- and folks, this is a rookie, not Adrian Peterson -- it's no given they would use him the way fantasy owners covet.

The facts don't lie, and those facts say that no Saints running back has rushed for as many as 800 yards in a season since 2006, when franchise icon Deuce McAllister rushed for 1,057 yards. Four seasons have passed since then, and 800 yards really isn't a lot. Sure, perhaps Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush, Mike Bell, Aaron Stecker, Chris Ivory and others weren't worthy of a ton of carries, and I wouldn't argue that point, but Thomas and Darren Sproles -- who essentially assumes the role of Miami Dolphins acquisition Bush -- remain on the Saints, as well as Ivory, last season's top rusher. I really doubt Payton will simply ignore them. It's crowded, folks, and I think that's just fine for Payton, because he has divvied up the running back load for years as a philosophy, not because he lacked a stud.

Thomas hasn't been the most durable running back since arriving in 2007. The most carries he has accumulated in a season are 147. Prior to an injury-interrupted 2010 season, he had averaged 5.1 yards per rush, an impressive number that gives credence to him being used often. He's productive. I don't see how things have changed all that much for 2011. Thomas is presumably healthy after an ankle injury derailed him, and while I doubt he gets more overall touches than Ingram, don't be surprised if it's an even split. Then there's Sproles, a diminutive master pass-catcher, and Ivory, the biggest of the team's potential feature backs and someone who averaged 5.2 yards per rush in 2010.

We've certainly seen how NFL teams love to use timeshare systems at running back, and in New Orleans, Payton has four legit options vying for playing time. I like Ingram. If the right team had drafted him, perhaps we could have seen him really shine as the main guy. But this isn't the right team. Ingram landed in a committee, and there's no indication that will change. Over the past four seasons, no Saints running back has been given as many as 175 carries in a season, and for perspective, 114 running backs have topped that figure in that span (thanks to ESPN senior researcher Paul Carr for that statistic). I don't think anything changes this season, which is why expecting Ingram -- or Thomas, for that matter -- to do so is unrealistic.

In fairness, it's worth mentioning that I rarely rely on fantasy football rookies in the first place, but there's ample reason for that: Consider that over the past two seasons, just one rookie running back has reached 1,000 yards, and that was Tampa Bay Buccaneers surprise LeGarrette Blount (1,007 yards in 2010). Blount wasn't a first-round pick, or even a third-rounder ... he went undrafted by NFL teams. Last season Ivory was second among rookie runners with 716 rushing yards. Hey, it's not easy to be a productive NFL skill-position player as a rookie; the trio of 2008 rookies that ran wild (Steve Slaton, Matt Forte, Chris Johnson) was likely aberrant.

Ingram is currently being selected 26th among running backs in ESPN average live drafts, a seventh-rounder overall, and I consider that a reasonable spot to pick him. In our Wednesday mock draft, Ingram was taken, appropriately, in the seventh round. Thomas is going three rounds later, the 33rd running back. That seems just as reasonable, as he clearly lacks the upside the youngster does. Sproles is a 14th-rounder, and Ivory is going undrafted. I don't think Sproles needs to be selected. If Bush didn't get enough carries, certainly Sproles isn't likely to. Kudos to fantasy owners for not only avoiding the temptation of overrating the first running back chosen in the NFL draft, but keeping expectations for all Saints running backs in check.

Have a great weekend!