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Do the Saints Need an Upgrade at Running Back?
The New Orleans Saints haven’t wanted for offense for a very long time. Basically ever since head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees were paired together in “Who Dat” nation, the Saints have ranked near or at the top in offense in the league.
But it’s one thing to dominate through the air, or from an overall standpoint. Despite their great success, the Saints have struggled to be a team that can consistently run the ball at an elite level. They’ve actually been decent in that department, but there is always room for improvement.
More specifically, the talent New Orleans currently has in its backfield is aging and moderate, at best. Mark Ingram started to show life again in the first round of the playoffs with 91 rushing yards and a score in a win over the Philadelphia Eagles, but fumbled in the second round.
The door isn’t completely closed on Ingram being “the guy” for the Saints. He’s just 24 and did run well in both playoff games last season. However, career highs of 602 rushing yards and five touchdowns are uninspiring, while his inability to stay healthy and lack of versatility limit his overall upside.
Considering Ingram was already the subject of trade rumors heading into the 2013 season, it’s starting to seem entirely possible that he gets dealt or released before next preseason.
Beyond Ingram, the Saints just need to look to get young out of the backfield. Pierre Thomas has proven to be a very serviceable change of pace back, and even has been able to handle early down work when called upon. However, he’s pushing 30 and there are whispers that he may not be back with the team in 2014. That makes his $2.9 million salary a cap casualty, and if New Orleans couldn’t talk him into a reduced number, they’d suddenly be hurting at running back in terms of experience and effectiveness.
The same goes for shifty third down man Darren Sproles, who will be 31 in June and is coming off easily his worst season in three years in New Orleans. It doesn’t really sound like he’s in serious danger of getting cut, but he does make the most money of any Saints running back and is aging, so it wouldn’t be insane for the Saints to save some cash while looking to the future at the position.
The last guy to look at is Khiry Robinson, an undrafted free agent who impressed in the old “Chris Ivory role”. Blessed with good size and deceptive speed, Robinson could be a chief piece for the Saints going forward. More importantly, he could end up leap-frogging Ingram or Thomas or even make one of them more expendable than they already appear to be.
One way or another, the Saints should at least consider changing things up in their backfield. They probably won’t suddenly move away from their effective committee approach, but thanks to injuries and inconsistency, there’s little doubt that could still improve in that area of their offense.
For now, we’ll assume Robinson is safe and will be the new Chris Ivory for the next few years. But let’s think about what could happen if Ingram, Thomas or Sproles are handed their walking papers. With that in mind, here are three running backs in free agency or the draft that New Orleans might want to consider.