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Despite a Mark Ingram return, the New Orleans Saints backfield is still cloudy

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When the New Orleans Saints made the decision to bring back running back Mark Ingram, they addressed one of their largest question marks heading into the NFL’s free agency period on March 10. While the team figures to have a fair amount of the offensive question marks accounted for, there are still some holes when you scan around the team’s depth chart.

As for the running back position, the Saints do have four running backs on their roster. However, aside from Khiry Robinson, there are question marks.

Edwin Baker, who was promoted to the Saints active roster late in the season after spending a couple of years with the Cleveland Browns, enters his third season in the NFL. While with the Browns in 2013, he played in three games, amassing 171 rushing yards on 43 carries (4.0 yards per carry), 57 receiving yards on 8 receptions, and 2 rushing touchdowns. He’d play in Weeks 8-10 with the Saints in 2014 due to running back injuries, but tallied only 2 rushing yards on one carry.

The other option is Tim Hightower. Before you start wondering where you’ve heard that name before, check out this video from the 2009 Divisional Playoff highlights.

Hightower was signed to a reserve/future contract on January 4. After playing four seasons in the NFL from 2008-2011, Hightower would tear his ACL early in the 2011 season after appearing in five games with the Washington Redskins, and hasn’t appeared in a game since. To make a long story short on his road to recovery, he was medically cleared to play football last spring. Prior to his injury, Hightower played in all 48 games for the Arizona Cardinals from 2008-2010. He has a great back story, and is grateful for the opportunity the Saints have given him.

"“When I went down, I wrote down on a sheet of paper that this wouldn’t be the end for me,” Hightower said. “That didn’t mean that I didn’t have emotions, that I didn’t have times where I was angry and frustrated. It was a long process. But I don’t think I ever stopped training. I don’t think I ever stopped working toward this goal. As I trained, as I did rehab, as I went to the different surgeries, I just tried to keep that end picture in mind.”"

While Baker and Hightower are not locks to be on the starting roster in 2015, where does that leave the Saints for options?

For starters, a name that you should keep on your radar is free agent Roy Helu. Originally a fourth-round pick out of Nebraska in 2011, Helu is primarily known for his third down services. He’s looking for a bigger role in an offense, but in such a running back heavy free agent market, that figures to be very difficult to find. Helu’s price tag from last season was $1.5 million, and would be an ideal fit for Sean Payton’s offense.

Another free agent name that has been tied to the Saints by many fans is Shane Vereen. While he looks to be among the more highly sought after free agent running backs, Vereen was first seeking around $5 million annually. He has since changed his tune to look for around $3.5 million per year, but ultimately could be out of reach for the Saints. He’s an excellent pass catching back, and would also fit in to the scheme. Many might also be inclined to inquire about Vereen’s counterpart at New England, Stevan Ridley, but is not exactly what the team is searching for.

Could there be a situation where the Saints bring back Pierre Thomas at a reduced salary? Not likely. The veteran minimum for someone like Thomas, who enters his ninth season in 2015, is $870K. A veteran minimum could not also provide bonuses over $65K. Remember that Thomas took a pay cut to remain with the team in 2014, and he’s already charging the Saints $830K as part of the dead money from parting ways with him. The move did save $1.75 million in salary cap space. Thomas is likely to play elsewhere in 2015.

Reggie Bush is another name that has been tied back to New Orleans. After spending his first five years of his career in the Big Easy, he left for Miami to get a full-time gig with the Dolphins. He nearly produced three back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, but fell 14 yards short in 2012. Still, Bush was able to wow in the time he has been with other teams, but ball security issues with the Detroit Lions in 2013 posed a problem. Bush would eventually lose carries to Joique Bell and Theo Riddick this year, and was given his release on February 25. Sean Payton has stated that he’s still on high on Bush, but higher than he was on Pierre Thomas?

One has to remember that the Saints will not likely invest in an expensive running back, so those that hoped for a C.J. Spiller pairing, it won’t happen. They made the decision to pay that said running back by bringing back Mark Ingram at a 4-year, $16 million deal.

The final and most realistic way to find another answer for the Saints running back depth is through the NFL draft in April, which offers plenty of options for the black and gold. My personal pick is Miami’s Duke Johnson. Do yourself a giant favor, and watch this highlight video of his play as a Junior in 2014.

Do those runs, cuts, and ability to break tackles remind you of anyone? Does that field vision jump out to you? You may be staring at the younger version of Pierre Thomas. I went as far as to tab Johnson as a 3rd Round selection for the Saints in the draft when I did my ‘Way Too Early 7-Round NFL Mock Draft’.

"Analysis: Duke Johnson draws a specific comparison to Buffalo Bills running back, C.J. Spiller. He fits the New Orleans Saints offense perfectly. At only 5’9″, 206 pounds, Johnson has a quickness and explosiveness that any team could benefit from. I’m refraining from using a Darren Sproles reference, but this guy would bring a missing element to the backfield in 2015. He isn’t the strongest of inside runners, but that’s not where his strength lies. His ability to ‘turn on a dime’ and ‘shoot out of the gate’ is appealing, but in the same breath, his injury history won’t make him a full-time starter. He’d be in a great system."

No matter how the New Orleans Saints choose to address their running back position over the next couple of months, you can bet that they won’t be settling with what they have.

Next: The five worst New Orleans Saints free agent signings under Sean Payton

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