Assessing the New Orleans Saints’ Backfield

Saints RBs

Assessing the New Orleans Saints’ Backfield

The New Orleans Saints are known as one of the NFL’s best passing teams. However, the argument can be made that their greatest success has come when they have run the ball effectively. When the Saints won the Super Bowl at the conclusion of the 2009 season, they had racked up 2,106 team rushing yards during the regular season. In addition, they scored 21 touchdowns on the ground.

The Saints failed to approach those numbers in the following seasons and have not come close to returning to the Super Bowl since.

New Orleans Saints 2013 Season

Running Backs ATT YDS AVG 20+ TD YDS/G REC TAR YDS TD
Pierre Thomas 147 549 3.7 0 2 34.3 77 84 513 3
Mark Ingram 78 386 4.9 3 1 35.1 7 11 68 0
Khiry Robinson 54 224 4.1 3 1 22.4 0 0 0 0
Darren Sproles 53 220 4.2 1 2 14.7 71 89 604 2
Totals 391 1473 3.8 7 10 92.1 155 184 1185 5

With the reinstatement of head coach, Sean Payton, the Saints made a strong attempt at being a balanced offense this season. Unfortunately, the results were middling at best. New Orleans came in as the NFL’s 25th ranked rushing attack. As great as Drew Brees is, he and the offense function best when a consistent ground game exists. Despite some spurts of solid play, overall the rushing attack didn’t exist for them during the 2013 season.

One of the Saints’ problems is that they have almost always had too many running back options to choose from. During the Sean Payton era, they have invested in Darren Sproles, drafted Reggie Bush and Mark Ingram in the first round and had a number of undrafted players emerge as contributors; Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory and Khiry Robinson to name a few. Bush and Ivory are now playing elsewhere, but Sproles, Ingram, Thomas and Robinson are still in town. With that much talent, you’d be tempted to call this backfield a four-headed monster, but watching the Saints you’ll see they have produced more of a four-headed mess.

The split carries situation has particularly hurt Mark Ingram. Ingram came into the league with a high pedigree, as a Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Alabama, but hasn’t lived up to expectations. Injuries have been an issue and he was pretty ineffective from 2010 to 2012. However, some spectacular games last season proved that – while he will never be worth the high ransom the Saints paid to get him – he isn’t completely worthless. The issue with Ingram is that he is a rhythm runner in every sense of the word. He gets better as the game wears on and is only really effective when he receives the bulk of the team’s carries. If the Saints are going to continue to go with a committee approach, they would be wise to move on from Ingram, despite his development.

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Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles are still generally effective in their very defined roles. Unfortunately, they often render each other redundant. Thomas was not very good as a runner last season, but was deadly in the screen passing game. Sproles has had only one great rushing season with the team and is more of an outlet receiver than a running back. Given their major salary cap woes, the Saints may not be able to afford to keep both players.

Sproles’ injury issues last season has led to speculation that he may be cut. The only problem is that doing would leave $1.5 million in dead money on the Saints’ cap – per OverTheCap.com. If the team elects to let Pierre Thomas go, they would save $2.9 million without any dead money hits – again per OverTheCap.com. Just following the money, it seems Thomas will be playing elsewhere next season and an aging Sproles will reprise his role with the Saints.

Khiry Robinson Fantasy

Khiry Robinson Fantasy That leaves but one man; Khiry Robinson, the latest undrafted Saints’ running back to make an impact. Robinson rose to the national spotlight after he had a few very impressive runs in the Saints’ playoff loss to the Seahawks. He was a big factor early and finished with a rushing touchdown and 57 yards on 13 carries. It also helped that Bill Parcells compared the rookie runner to a young Curtis Martin.

All this adds up to Khiry Robinson being a fantasy sleeper headed into 2014 and that’s always the case when talent meets opportunity. Robinson is an aggressive downhill runner with solid vision and enough quick-twitch movement to make defenders miss. Unlike Mark Ingram, he doesn’t need a ton of carries to reach his potential. No matter who stays, out of Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles, they will not be a threat to Robinson’s role. He’s also the only one amongst the four who has yet to show durability issues.

If the cards fall right, Khiry Robinson could surprise and emerge as the New Orleans Saints’ first true featured back since Deuce McAllister. Even if he remains a part of a committee, Robinson is only going to see his role expand. It’s not time to put Khiry Robinson on your fantasy watch list; it’s time to buy into him.

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