New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram is often left out of many lists of the NFL’s best.
The annual NFL Top 100 list is nearing it’s halfway point, and though it has very little significance and may or may not be voted on by actual NFL players, it appears Ingram is on the outside looking in.
With OTA’s starting to get into full swing, and those number crunching, brave lunatics starting their fantasy football drafts before training camp, we are in the midst of “ranking season”. Anything that can possibly be charted and measured are assigned their proper ranking by countless writers and fans alike.
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The constant ranking and re-ranking of players is undoubtedly due to the Fantasy Football numbers game which, fair or unfair, means whoever produces the most is going to be heralded week in and week out as the best among their position group. Rob Gronkowski is the holy grail fantasy pick at tight end, routinely putting up tremendous numbers. And not one sane person would fight you if you said Gronk is running away with the best Tight End in football. Antonio Brown is generally considered to be the best wide-out in the sport, with the likes of Julio Jones and Odell Beckham Jr.
But in the backfield, it’s a little bit different.
Turnover at running back year to year fluctuates at a maddening level. The torch of the group’s elite changes seemingly every year with few mainstays. It’s such a hard thing to predict. Ask any Fantasy Football fan and they’ll talk your ear off about how their first round halfback flamed out by Week 5 and curse how they didn’t have the foresight to pick up a guy like Matt Asiata, who scored NINE touchdowns in 2014, which was tied for the third-most. Many good NFL players will fall by the wayside due to this line of thinking. Nuts to good pass protection, vision, decisiveness and any and all mentions of offensive line play, it’s a numbers game through and through for better or worse (It’s worse).
Mark Ingram is a guy who does not benefit from numbers and box score scouting.
When he was drafted in 2011 out of Alabama, the Heisman trophy winner was projected to solidify a backfield that had mainly been platooned to that point. Reggie Bush was taken with Payton’s first pick as head coach of the Saints, and while he was electric when he burst onto the scene, he never quite outplayed fan favorite Pierre Thomas. With the Ingram selection, this regime had a second chance to have a true featured back.
His rookie year was largely a crash course in the NFL. With the electric lightning bug the Saints captured in free agency that was Darren Sproles, there was very little pressure for Ingram, who posted only 474 yards and five touchdowns in 10 games. This would not be the last time Ingram would miss significant time due to injury in his NFL career, as staying healthy has been one of the primary roadblocks in Ingram’s road to relevancy. But the offense was so explosive his missteps were rarely felt, as the Saints consistently powered a 6th ranked rushing attack to form the number one offense in the league that year.
2012 was a forgettable year for Ingram, who had not quite taken the reigns of the offense. It is the only year he has appeared in all 16 games during the regular season.
In 2013, another leap was projected for him, and for the second straight year, he was largely disappointing. Aside from a 145 yard thrashing of Dallas (And the birth of MAAAAAAAARK INGRAM) he was completely ineffective, only managing around 35 yards per game (30 without the whipping of Dallas) while posting a career low in attempts with only 78. It was his least healthy year by far, and though he finished the season strong by running exceptionally well versus Philadelphia on the road in the playoffs, he never quite lived up to the hype he gained against the Cowboys.
2014 was the first year we began to see the player that Ingram is today. Ingram to this point had been a guy who always looked to bounce everything outside and look for the home run play. In his third year, he finally learned the value of patience. He ran for a career high in yards (964) and touchdowns (9). He was able to stay on the field and be competitive in doing so. There were several games in 2013 where he would put up under 20 yards a game, sometimes less than 10. In 2014, he averaged 74 rushing yards per game, about double what he had put up in previous years.
2015 was an odd year for Ingram. He took a step back in yards and touchdowns, but it was by far his most efficient season running the football. He ran for a respectable 4.6 YPC while becoming an integral part of the passing offense, collecting 50 receptions for 405 yards. It was his first year without Ben Grubbs, but his first year with new center Max Unger, a pro bowler from Seattle.
Ingram’s career numbers are 3,195 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns.
So in the spirit of OTA’s and the season of ranking, is Ingram a top 10 running back?
Well, it’s not that simple.
There are MANY different factors that contribute to this.
For one, Ingram, though the plan may have been to feature him instead of having him co-star, he’s done just that. Just last year, the team gave out a bigger contract to C.J. Spiller to bring him in as a sort of “Darren-Sproles-turned-up-to-ten” role. While that went fell short (Very short, in fact. Spiller only rushed for 100 yards on the season and no rushing touchdowns. Part of this is due to health and the lack of consistency on the offensive line, but he fell way short)
Ingram has always shared a backfield, which will always take carries away from him and thus effect his numbers. The Saints have had a good amount of 100-yard rushing games, but barely any 100-yard rushers.
While the team tried to phase out the necessity for guys like Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles, they’ve just always been integral parts of the passing game. Add in the fact that Ingram is still budding as a pass catcher and will probably never be a plus pass protector, and it makes it that much harder to stay on the field.
Even Ingram’s last true tandem in the backfield with Khiry Robinson took away plenty of opportunities for carries away. Even with 76 and 56 attempts in 2014 and 2015, he still stole chances from Ingram, especially on the goal line. Which is a great move by the Saints, as Khiry was at his best when he only needed to get a few tough yards, but frustrating for Ingram, who is still trying to prove himself even after his rookie year and subsequent extension.
And with the re-signing of Tim Hightower and Travaris Cadet, along with the return of CJ Spiller and high upside draft pick Daniel Lasco, this may just be the way things are now. And that’s okay, it’s very rare that a guy will truly get a sizable bulk of any teams carries. Jamal Charles is an amazing talent and he’ll be fighting for touches with several other players. Ingram will feel it more than others because of the way Sean Payton has historically used the position. The numbers will take a hit, but it doesn’t mean Ingram is any less efficient.
Ingram’s health has also played a huge factor in his perception as a top 10 back. Ingram has missed 18 games due to injury in five years, which doesn’t even account for the games where his carries were extremely limited because he was so banged up.
All these factors play into Ingram’s chance at success. What about when he’s actually on the field, making plays? What does he give you?
Well, a damn fine player.
Ingram has shown tremendous growth since his slow beginnings. He’s able to get in between the tackles and churn out tough yardage if need be, but he’s at his best on stretch plays to get him to turn upfield. He’s shown the ability to hit the home run play with his career long 70-yard run versus the Redskins this year.
While not a bruiser, he has a penchant for running out of arm tackles with ease because of his explosiveness and nose to get north towards the end zone. He’s not a natural pass catcher, but he looks fluid enough to be able to catch a swing past and burst upfield. It’s why Ingram was 11th in the league in yards after the catch (YAC), good for fourth among running backs.
It feels kind of odd to ask if Ingram is a top 10 back then spend about a paragraph about what kind of player Ingram is, but this story is more about what it really means to be a top 10 running back.
Maybe there should be more obligation by Ingram to emerge as a lead back, but in New Orleans he may never get the carries necessary. Some backs need consistent touches to settle into a groove. In games where he consistently gets fed over and over like the Dallas game in 2013 and the Colts game this past year, he has done some amazing things. But in both those games the Saints faced some pretty porous defenses.
It seems every talking point about Ingram has put up comes with an asterisk, fair or unfair.
With the way the Saints operate on offense, Ingram may never get the national recognition he deserves. Asking if he is a top 10 talent is not a fair question. It’s more about asking what tier he is in.
To reference a point I made earlier, when it comes to running backs, there’s just no point in assigning numbers because there is just so much turnover year to year. A better way to look at it is in a “Tier” system, similar to the way some quarterbacks are described as elite.
Adrian Peterson, Le’Veon Bell, and (though it may be a little premature) Todd Gurley are simply on another level than the others. In an NFL that has valued platoons over a true feature back, these three are so talented that they transcend modern offenses. Gurley runs violently and with great vision, while also being very decisive in his running, a rare trait for a rookie. Bell is so multi faceted as one of the best receiving backs in the NFL, as well as a great pass protector on top of being a punishing runner. And Peterson is the OG- plain and simple. At 31, he is still just as likely to run you over like roadkill as he is to blaze past you; the old man’s still got it.
After that, there are a bunch of guys with question marks. Like, a lot of guys.
This is where the majority of household names are. Jamal Charles, LeSean McCoy, and Eddie Lacy as well as players who are big risers who may be on the brink of breaking out. They’re there every year, your Doug Martin’s/ Thomas Rawls‘ etc. But for every C.J. Anderson who explodes onto the scene and is consistent the next year, there’s a Zac Stacy, who went on a tear in one year only to come crashing back down to earth. So while what Rawls brings to the table may look better than what Ingram has put together thus far, it’d be near impossible to make a case that Rawls is better than Ingram outright.
I wont rank ever back in the NFL, or even talk about how many tiers they are. But it’s important to define our terms. There is an elite tier: These are the guys who are supremely talented who have been consistent over a long period (Gurley does get the benefit of the doubt here. I feel that comfortable about him) whose production and play may fluctuate a little without moving too much in the order. To me, a guy like Eddie Lacy is the perfect example of this. He has great talent, and is largely relevant for a while, but he struggles with consistency and his game is a little one-dimensional. Beyond that “Good” tier is a tier I’m a little tentative naming. Is is a mediocre tier? A middling tier? It’s tough to say. They’re a tick bellow the rest, whether it’s their fault or some lingering problem or bad situation and I’ll leave it at that.
So what is Ingram? Should his situation and plethora of injuries keep him from being acknowledged as one of the game’s top talents?
To me, it goes like this. (Names are in no order, and I’m only doing the first two tiers)
Elite Tier: Adrian Peterson, Le’Veon Bell, Todd Gurley
I do think Ingram has had a rough go of it to begin his career. But his talent is undeniable. So is Mark Ingram a top 10 running back? I think so right now. But with Ezekiel Elliot in the league, and the rise of the likes of Thomas Rawls, Devonta Freeman and Lamar Miller, I think they could push him.
It’s safe to say Ingram has had a lot working against him, living in a pass first offense with a bevy of other backs to split carries with, but it shouldn’t detract from what kind of player her is. At 26 years old, he is still finding new ways to improve his game as seen this year when his pass game numbers nearly doubled. Fantasy owners will continue to curse his name, but the New Orleans Saints will continue to sing his praises.
What do you think? Did you agree? Disagree? Drop a comment down below and be sure to follow me on twitter @RyanBergerWTOP