Yesterday morning during Saints Training Camp at Greenbrier, veteran Saints RB Pierre Thomas “threw down the gauntlet” to the rest of the Saints RB’s. “I told these other running backs come and get my job; it’s gonna be a fight but come get it”. Now with all due respect to Thomas, who surely will go down as one the most beloved Saints players of all-time, he might want to be careful what he wishes for. Thomas will obviously contribute in a similar fashion as he always has done, which has made him one of the most valuable players in recent team history. However, there are several hungry young men that are currently in the mix for playing time at the position. I personally believe there are none among that group of Saints RB’s that are any more hungrier, than 2nd year pro Khiry Robinson.
With the Saints expected to commit to the “power” running game this coming season, Robinson (a.k.a. ‘K-Rob’ to his teammates) potentially stands to benefit the most. After Thomas suffered a chest injury at the end of the regular season in Week 17, Robinson essentially had his “breakout” performances in back-to-back Playoff games. The only thing that likely would seem to prevent Robinson from taking that next step is actually Coach Payton himself. Since Deuce McAllister’s retirement, Payton has been using the dreaded ‘RB-by-committee approach’; therby limiting any one RB on the roster from becoming a “lead back”. So the question begs to be asked (and please pardon the bad analogy): can Robinson become the “Alpha Dog” — and be the lead back among the talented group of Saints RB’s?
Payton does what he does because he looks to attack opposing defenses based on their schemes, and subsequently will mix different running backs into a game based on their particular skill-set and that week’s matchups. Payton likes to take advantage of each RB’s particular talents, as evidenced by the fact that they were four different running backs carried the football for at least 15 percent of the time for the Saints in 2013. As a matter of fact, that’s been the case every single every year since 2009 (the Super Bowl season that featured Thomas, Reggie Bush, and Mike Bell) — which is that the running back that led the team in rushing, wasn’t the same guy as the previous year before.
Further complicating the issue was the emergence virtually at the very the same time, of often-maligned and criticized 4TH year RB and former Heisman Trophy winner out of Alabama , Mark Ingram. Ingram carried the ball 108 times for 532 yards and two touchdowns last season. He missed five regular-season games with injuries. Against the Philadelphia Eagles in the Wild Card Round, Ingram rushed 18 times for 97 yards and a score while Robinson added 45 yards on eight carries. The following week at Seattle, Ingram added 49 yards on 10 carries. That would suggest to some observers that Ingram has finally “turned the corner”.
However, as one of those who has been one of Ingram’s biggest critics, I’m not convinced that Ingram will build upon that performance. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again right here: I believe Ingram is a “bust” on the grandest of scales; and unless he can duplicate the performances of those Playoff games, I believe this will be his last year in a Saints unifrom in 2014. Ingram will be a free agent after the upcoming season, since the Saints declined his fifth-year option (a wise decision in my opinion). Call me an Ingram “hater” if you choose to do so; but I want to see him play well CONSISTENTLY, and not just for a few games in an entire 3 year span.Trust me when I say, I hope Ingram proves me completely wrong — I just don’t believe he will do it.
The Saints struck UDFA gold once again last year when they signed Robinson, who had been the featured back at West Texas A&M. Robinson, a Central Texas native who attended high school in the towns of Belton and Temple, TX; enrolled at West Texas A&M after completing studies at Blinn Junior College in Brenham, TX. He chose West Texas A&M (located in suburban Amarillo) because of the opportunity to play his position of choice: RB. He follows in the footsteps of other successful UDFA Saints RB’s such as Thomas, Chris Ivory (now with the Jets), and another current RB on the roster who will be competing for carries in Trevaris Cadet (who I believe is the one likely to take on Sproles’ previous role). Robinson actually went unsigned as a free agent initially when the 2013 Draft had ended.
He had to settle for a three-day tryout at the Saints’ 2013 rookie minicamp, where he was just impressive enough to earn an invitation to training camp. Once he got there, he started turning heads early in camp with his combination of speed and smash-mouth power running style, and a bit of slippery elusiveness. He certainly seemed to have developed a knack for breaking through tackles, or flat-out making guys miss. He continued to impress when given the chance in several cameo appearances throughout the regular season; but the crowded backfield (which included the since-departed Darren Sproles) only served to diminish his opportunities.
After Thomas suffered a chest injury at the end of the regular season in Week 17, Robinson essentially had his “breakout” performances in back-to-back Playoff games. He even caught the eye of Bill Parcells, who according to Fox Sports analyst John Lynch called head coach Sean Payton prior to the Saints playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks and compared Robinson to Curtis Martin.
Parcells called this week and said, ‘Sean what are you doing? You’ve got Curtis Martin right in front of your eyes, and you’re not doing anything with him. Give him the ball.’ – Saints head coach Sean Payton, as told to Fox Sports analyst John Lynch in a production meeting prior to the Saints-Seahawks January 2014 Divisional Playoff Game
As someone who coached Curtis Martin throughout a majority of his career , I would think Parcells is more than qualified to make that comparison. Robinson (6 feet, 220 pounds) made the most of his playoff opportunities, when he ran for a combined 102 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries in the Saints’ two playoff games, and he caught one pass for 13 yards. He certainly has impressed me, though I think he actually reminds me alot more of the man he essentially replaced in current Jets RB Chris Ivory – rather than the former Jets Hall of Famer Curtis Martin.
As you can see from that Tweet just yesterday, Robinson has looked even more impressive in recent days than he had last year. He clearly looks to be able to take on a more significant role in the Saints running game, perhaps even as the every down / lead back role that I spoke of up above. Robinson possesses the size, strength, speed and athleticism to be an every-down starting NFL running back. Unfortunately, I just can’t see Payton making that sort of commitment to one player, even though I believe he just was recently ‘burned’ by not doing so with the previously-mentioned Chris Ivory (who almost single-handedly helped the Jets beat the Saints in their match-up last season).
Payton said earlier in the off-season that we’d see the Saints make a return to the “power” running game, which one might assume would definitely favor Robinson. However, Ingram will get his shot presumably to fill that role as well; and Pierre Thomas will get his alloted share of touches to be sure. Additionally, Trevaris Cadet will bring his unique talents to the table (in the former Reggie Bush / Darren Sproles role that includes the kick return game), along with this year’s UDFA Timothy Flanders from Sam Houston State — who may possibly see some playing time as well. The RB position is as crowded as its ever been; and I believe that it would require a near-legendary performance by K-Rob to persuade Payton to think otherwise.
These next few weeks of Training Camp followed by the Pre-Season will likely go a long way in determining just how the Saints RB’s will be utilized in the 2014 version of Sean Payton’s offense. It’s safe to say that whether Payton sticks to his pledge of returning to the “power” running style employed earlier in the Loomis-Payton Era. or just simply decides to keep things status quo; that Robinson will be called upon to make a significant contribution to its success. To what degree of an impact that Robinson will have remains to be seen, but certainly the young man that everyone calls ‘K-Rob’ has the unquestioned ability to become the “Alpha-Dog” among a talented pack of Saints RB’s…..