As the Saints are winding down their efforts to prepare for the arrival of the rapidly approaching 2016 NFL Draft, some other teams around the NFL are looking to find an answer at the running back position.
While many Saints fans are concerned with the team rebuilding its 31st ranked defense, they can take comfort in the fact that the team’s RB position will be anchored by two outstanding veterans in Mark Ingram and Tim Hightower, with last year’s free agent signee C.J. Spiller likely to be a part of the mix as well.
And though it was Hightower that grabbed the headlines earlier today when it was announced that the and the team had reached agreement on a new deal, it’s Ingram who fans are looking to lead the Saints rushing attack back to prominence in 2016.
Last year, the Saints offense didn’t skip a beat; despite its alleged demise with the trades of All-Pro TE Jimmy Graham and WR Kenny Stills during the 2015 off-season, that removed them from the vaunted Sean Payton passing attack. The Saints still finished as the 2nd best offense overall in the NFL despite Graham and Stills’ departures.
As many Saints fans may have noticed, the Saints have tried to get back to the formula and success they had in their first few seasons of the Sean Payton Era; and that means establishing a strong ground game featuring the “power” running style of players from the Saints past, most notably Deuce McAllister in 2006.
Sean Payton’s best offenses during his tenure as head coach in New Orleans has been when he featured the “power” runners such as McAllister in 2006 and Mike Bell in the Super Bowl season in 2009, complemented by a “scatback” catching passes out of the backfield –a role originally held by Reggie Bush, followed by Darren Sproles , and now Spiller – assuming he can get back to form after a disappointing 2015 season.
It was the reason why the Saints traded up from the 2nd Round of the 2011 Draft and gave up a #1 pick to the Patriots to take Ingram at the end of the 1st Round, as they envisioned him to be the “successor” to McAllister, who had finally officially retired two years earlier.
After struggling to find his during the first 2 seasons of his young NFL career, Ingram had a “break out” season in 2014, a year that silenced many of his harshest critics. Ingram rushed for 964 yards, had the most attempts in his career with 226 touches, and scored 9 touchdowns.
In successive games against the Green Bay Packers and on the road to play the Carolina Panthers on Thursday Night Football, Ingram become the second running back in Saints history to have two consecutive 100+ yard games since Deuce McAllister did it in 2003, with 9 consecutive games.
The original plan that the Saints had for Ingram after taking the former Heisman Trophy winner at Alabama in that 2011 Draft had began to come to fruition.
Oct 26, 2014; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram (22) fights off Green Bay Packers cornerback Davon House (31) as he carries the ball in the second half at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. New Orleans defeated Green Bay 44-23. Mandatory Credit: Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports
If it weren’t for a broken hand he suffered in Week 2 against the Cleveland Browns that forced him to miss three games (he missed Weeks 3, 4, and 5), Ingram would have surpassed the 1,000- yard mark in 2014, falling just short with 964 yards in 13 games played.
Ingram placed 15th among RBs last season despite playing only playing in a total of 13 games. He reached the end zone in 70% of his games, and totaled 85 yards per contest. He easily would have eclipsed the double-digit touchdown threshold had he played a full season.
As the Saints entered into the 2015 season, Ingram seemed destined to finally eclipse the mythical 1,000 yard mark for NFL RB’s, the “measuring stick” of a pro rusher’s ultimate success or failure.
But a shoulder injury cut his season short, forcing the Saints to place him on injured reserve for the remainder of the 2015 season in Week #13.
Ingram had been the team’s leader in yards from scrimmage, with a total of 1,174 yards; with 769 of it rushing. There isn’t any doubt whatsoever that he would have eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark had he been healthy.
Could things be different in 2016?
Nov 1, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram (22) breaks a tackle by New York Giants cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (41) during the first quarter of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Obviously health will be the key, as Ingram has always seemed to deal with them every season that he’s been in the NFL thus far. One can only imagine the numbers he potentially could put up should he be able to endure the rigors of a full 16-game NFL season.
Looking at some of the statistics from the Saints 2015 offense, there is a lot evidence that suggest that this upcoming season in 2016 could be finally be the year for Ingram to top the 1,000 yard rushing mark.
Of the Saints’ 1,064 total offensive plays, only 397 of those plays were rushes — or only 37% of the plays the Saints executed. While no one is going to complain about Brees moving the Saints offense via the air, the Saints need to establish a better running game in order to get back to having a true “ground and pound” aspect to their offense.
In 2015, the Saints were ranked 24th overall in rushing offense, with a total of 1,477 yards.
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769 of those yards came from Ingram; which accounted for 52% of the total rushing yards that the Saints as a team produced, on only 166 attempts — which was 42% of all rushing attempts.
While it would appear by all accounts that the Saints plan on sticking with the “3-headed monster” approach to the running game through their usage of multiple backs, it’s clear that no one should be worried about Ingram not getting enough touches or yards due to sharing the back field.
If Ingram’s past two seasons weren’t ruined by his injuries, he could have had back-to-back 1000 yard seasons in spite of the time share at RB, and likely would already be giving chase to McAllister’s all-time franchise rushing record.
One would imagine that with the departure of former #2 RB Khiry Robinson to the Jets in Free-Agency, Ingram should further strengthen his hold on the #1 RB spot, with Hightower now serving his as his primary back-up; with Spiller (if he can come back from his injury issues that killed his season before it got started) serving in the capacity of the old Reggie Bush / Darren Sproles “scat back” role.
Assuming Ingram can stay healthy throughout the 2016 season, and continue to evolve into the player that the Saints have always planned for him to be, 2016 has the potential to truly be something special.
Dec 6, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram (22) celebrates after a touchdown against the Carolina Panthers during the second half of a game at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Panthers defeated the Saints 41-38. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Running behind the 3rd best ranked offensive line from 2015 according to Pro Football Focus should aid Ingram in his efforts, though the Saints will have to address the right guard position following the departure of long-time veteran Jahri Evans.
If the Saints are able to fill the right guard position with an unsigned veteran free agent or even with an NFL-ready rookie that can come in and start right away, one would imagine that Ingram should be able to remain on the path to eventually chase down and finally top the 1,000 yard barrier in 2016.
Playing with the toughness, strength, and determination to finally eclipse the mythical 1000 yard mark in a season, you can be confident that Ingram will run over anyone who tries to block his way, in 2016………