On Sunday, I began my New Orleans Saints offseason preview by discussing the quarterback position. Today, I want to focus in on the running backs.
Many questions swirled during the season as to the Saints utilization of the running back unit.
For starters, a seemingly healthy Deuce McAllister only carried the ball twice in the first three games. In a Week two loss to Washington in which the Saints blew a nine-point fourth quarter lead, the Saints sorely missed a power running threat to prolong drives and milk the clock.
Reggie Bush's performance during the 2008 season was inconsistent. Some games were spectacular. Bush had 163 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown in a Week one victory against Tampa Bay. Other games, such as the season-ending 40-yard performance against Chicago, were disappointing.
Just as he did in 2007, Bush missed significant time with a knee injury. He recently had micro-fracture surgery on his knee to regenerate cartilage.
Many fans, including myself, wonder how a running back who spends so much energy hopping out of bounds can get injured so easily.
Second-year pro Pierre Thomas emerged as a leading candidate to take the top spot on the depth chart. Despite starting just five games, Thomas led the Saints in carries, yards, yards per carry, and rushing touchdowns.
While not particularly big (5-foot-11, 215 pounds) or fast, Thomas' combination of strength, speed, and toughness makes him a viable option to get 15-20 carries per game. His 9.2 yards-per-catch receiving average and three receiving touchdowns are proof enough he can make a difference in the passing game as well.
A couple other running backs received spot duty for the Saints. Nine-year veteran, Aaron Stecker did not contribute very much offensively. He participated in six games and totaled less than 100 yards from scrimmage.
Stecker made $1.4 million in 2008 and is a free agent. With his age (33) and price tag, I don't expect the Saints to make a move to re-sign him. I expect, instead, that the Saints will go with a younger, cheaper option.
That option may come in the form of Mike Bell.
Bell, 25, also played sparingly in 2008, but made an impression on many fans. He had some overpowering runs against the Lions, but then again it was against the 0-16 Detroit Lions.
A look at 2009
Let me start with one of my all-time favorite Saints, Deuce McAllister. I think he's got enough in the tank to get 8-10 carries per game and contribute in short-yardage situations.
However, it would be a smart business decision to part ways with the eight-year veteran.
Deuce is scheduled to make $5.5 million in salary and bonuses in 2009 and would count $7.3 million towards the salary cap.
I think that Pierre Thomas will be given every opportunity to win the starting spot. He is the most complete back on the roster in terms of speed, quickness, size, toughness, and age.
While I have lobbied on this site for Bush to be traded this offseason, I think that he can be a good complement to Thomas' pounding style. He has to be used as just another option in the Saints' multi-faceted offense instead of an over-used weapon.
The big question mark on this unit is the third running back. Can Mike Bell be the option or will the Saints pick up another ball carrier?
I think the answer to both questions is yes. Mike Bell will be given every opportunity to make the roster, but the Saints will likely acquire two or three more running backs to bring to training camp.
Run, Payton, Run!
It seems that even the casual NFL fan is aware of the tremendous season that Drew Brees had last year. Brees' season could have been more rewarding had the Saints leaned a little bit more on their ground game.
The Saints ran the ball on less than 40 percent of their offensive plays. If anything, a running game would have allowed the injury-riddled defense to gain some rest. It would have also allowed Brees to cut down on his interceptions.
There is hope, Saints fans.
Sean Payton showed more of a commitment to offensive balance during the last five games of the season.
The Saints are still very capable of putting up a lot of points when they show some commitment to the run game.
In the coming months, look for Thomas and Bush both to lobby for more carries. A spirited battle in offseason workouts and training camp will serve well to both players and to the team in general.