New Orleans Saints positional previews: Running Back

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Jun 14, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints quarterback Garrett Grayson (18) hands off to running back Marcus Murphy (23) during the first day of minicamp sessions at the New Orleans Saints Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 14, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints quarterback Garrett Grayson (18) hands off to running back Marcus Murphy (23) during the first day of minicamp sessions at the New Orleans Saints Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports /
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We’re back with another installment that focuses on the position previews for the New Orleans Saints roster. It’s time to look at the running back situation.

The Saints backfield is fairly crowded, with eight total players set to compete for roster spots over the next couple of months. Collectively, the black and gold regressed year over year with 1,491 yards on the ground in 2015 (24th), averaging 93.2 yards per game (24th). For perspective, the 2014 squad finished 13th overall with 1,818 yards (113.6 yards per game).

Here’s a glimpse at what they are working with for the new season.

Mark Ingram, 6th season

Mark Ingram was on pace for a career year until a rotator cuff injury sent him to season-ending injured reserve in December. Ingram arguably increased his value from 2014, adding a strong presence in the team’s passing game (50 receptions, 405 yards). He also increased his yards per carry from 4.3 to 4.6, while gaining 769 yards on the ground and tallying 6 touchdowns.

With Khiry Robinson out of the mix, Ingram is the unquestioned featured back in New Orleans. Ingram proved that he could handle a higher workload in 2015, and should be an important piece for Sean Payton’s offense in 2016.

Tim Hightower, 6th season

Tim Hightower was one of the league’s best stories last year. Although Kansas City’s Eric Berry deservedly overshadowed anyone’s comeback attempts in 2015, Hightower gained a very honorable mention. After being out of football for four years due to a horrible ACL injury, Hightower latched on with the Saints to a reserve/future contract early in January 2015. He worked hard, and had a strong enough preseason to call for a final roster spot.

However, it was short-lived, as Hightower was released just before the season opener against his former team, the Arizona Cardinals. Hightower remained patient, and would return to the Saints after the leg injury to Khiry Robinson. Hightower would only see 12 total touches from Week 9-12, but imploded after Mark Ingram went down in December. He’d finish the last four games of the season with 327 yards on 84 carries (four touchdowns), and added 129 yards receiving on 12 receptions.

After more limbo during this year’s offseason, Hightower would return to the Saints in April. Early reports from camp had Hightower backing up Ingram, which isn’t a surprise. Assuming he stays healthy, Hightower will be the insurance policy for 2016.

C.J. Spiller, 7th season

Disappointment and frustration summed up C.J. Spiller‘s first year with the New Orleans Saints. If you take away his overtime game-winning 80-yard touchdown catch and run against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 4, Spiller was practically ineffective in 2015. There was so much build up for what Spiller would bring to the Saints offensive playbook, but no one ever saw it on the field. It was fairly predictable what the team was trying to do when Spiller was on the field, and he could never get it going.

As we found out and suspected all along, the blame fell upon his knee. Sean Payton made it a point to discuss things in OTAs by saying, “He worked his butt off in the offseason to get the strength back in that knee. That’s been really encouraging.”

Make no mistake about it, Spiller is not a lock to make the team in 2016. It’s a shame that the Saints shelled out so much money for what could be another failed free agent find. However, we have to give him the benefit of the doubt right now, right?

Marcus Murphy, 2nd season

Marcus Murphy started 2015 on a very positive note after making the team as a seventh-round draft pick out of Missouri. He helped the team break a four-year drought when he returned a punt 74 yards to the house against the Carolina Panthers in Week 3. However, ball security issues became a problem in consecutive games against the New York Giants and Tennessee Titans. Because of that, he landed in Sean Payton’s doghouse and was eventually placed on season-ending injured reserve on December 16, 2015.

Some people have a misconception that I don’t like Marcus Murphy. I don’t blame them, because I said at the end of December that he could be gone in 2016, and also listed him on my ‘way too early’ roster bubble in June. It has nothing to do with like or dislike. My stance is simple. What good is it to have a one-dimensional player for the New Orleans Saints offense? Murphy is out to prove that he can do more, but that’s a very tall order having to stack up against experience and an up-and-coming rookie.

Next: Early Saints Roster Projection, Part 1

Travaris Cadet, 5th season

The return to New Orleans was extremely kind to Travaris Cadet, who showed everyone what C.J. Spiller was expected to do all along for the Saints. The sad part is that Cadet did it in fewer games. After being claimed from waivers from the San Francisco 49ers in late December, Cadet would play in the last two games for the Saints. In just two contests, Cadet had 9 receptions for 146 yards, including an 44-yard touchdown against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 16. The Saints would re-sign him on March 10.

Cadet is purely a pass catching back, but offers good value on special teams. I would imagine a battle to brew between him and Marcus Murphy, but I like his chances much better given his experience.

Daniel Lasco, Rookie

It was a little bit of a head scratching move to see the Saints use their last pick in the NFL Draft on a running back. At first, the move was highly scrutinized, and I admit that I was one of those who just didn’t understand. However, I changed my tune after I had an opportunity to think about the reasoning and logic behind the move.

Clearly, the upside is there with Daniel Lasco. He earned a mid-round grade by many, and offers a lot of versatility. In turn, that’s what Sean Payton’s team is all about. Is there really fuss to be made by having so many running backs on the roster? Probably not, given the health history of last year. Lasco is very self-aware by knowing he’ll have to make his mark on special teams to call for any consideration for a final spot. Lasco is a good change of pace back for the Saints.

Next: Saints positional previews: Quarterback

Austin Johnson, 3rd season

Unfortunately, we’re not going to have a separate column for the two fullbacks. That’s no shortage of love for the position, but the evolution of the NFL has slowly phased fullbacks out of the picture. Austin Johnson played in 10 games for the Saints last year, but it was completely clear that the team felt comfortable using tight end Michael Hoomanwanui in blocking situations. Johnson only appeared in 93 of the team’s 1,184 offensive snaps (7.8 percent).

Many forget that Johnson beat out Erik Lorig last season. I wasn’t surprised. Johnson may not add much on the stat sheet for the Saints’ potent offense, but that’s not where he has to shine. Blocking and special teams work is the bread and butter for the 27-year-old, and not to mention setting the standards for exemplary beards.

Johnson definitely gets favor for making the final roster, but will have to fight off the rookie and hope the Saints don’t try to keep four tight ends.

Sione Houma, Rookie

Here’s what you need to know about the Michigan Wolverines converted running back: Jim Harbaugh loves him.

"“What a good player Siona Houma is. We first got here, and he was out the whole spring ball. Then we went to training camp, and he got an ankle rolled up a little bit and he was going on it, he was practicing, toughing it out, yet he was only 75-80%. Then he gets healthy and he starts running the ball from the fullback position, he’s catching balls from the backfield, he’s covering on special teams, and blocking like the dickens. And then, let’s play him at tailback. He did well, acquitted himself very well there. I just think he’s a really talented player and I think he’s got a bright future ahead of him in football. too after this year.”"

Sione Houma is just trying to prove that he can contribute. Unseating Austin Johnson will be tough in itself, and Houma will have to stay healthy to keep up with him. Houma is a tough competitor who isn’t afraid to hit someone.

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