New Orleans Saints Running Backs: Who Will Be the Starter?
The New Orleans Saints have been one of the top offenses in the league since the arrival of Drew Brees. They have been the number one offense 3 out of the last 4 years (via NFL.com). Yet, the Saints offense has struggled to have a consistent running game.
Running the ball has seemed to be the X-factor for the Saints. In their Super Bowl season in 2009 they ranked sixth in rushing yards per game. The following year the Saints did not continue that form ranking an awful 28th in rushing yards per game and were knocked out the first round of the playoffs with a mere non-existent running game.
In 2011 The Saints made it clear that they were committed to returning to running the ball when they traded a first and second round pick in order to get back into the first round to draft running back Mark Ingram. They also signed free agent running back Darren Sproles to add more talent to a much need position at running back.
In 2012 the New Orleans Saints have one of the most formidable running back groups in the NFL. Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram and Chris Ivory are all players who are capable of being starters in most NFL teams today and together can lead the Saints to the top running attack in the league.
Here is the individual evaluation of each running back.
Darren Sproles broke the NFL All-Purpose Yards record in his first season as a New Orleans Saint
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Honestly, what didn’t Darren Sproles do for the Saints last year?
In only his first season as a New Orleans Saint, Darren Sproles broke the NFL all-purpose yards record with a total of 2,696 yards.
Despite his small frame—5'6" and 190 lbs—Sproles is a much better runner than he is given credit for. Last year he led the Saints in rushing with 603 yards and also in yards per attempt at 6.9, which was among the league leaders.
In the receiving end, Sproles displays great hands and a knack for getting open in key situations. In third downs he has become one of Drew Brees’ favorite targets ranking seventh in the league in third down receptions, which was tops amongst running backs. His totals for the season were impressive for a running back ranking second in the team with 86 receptions and third in receiving yards with 710.
Darren Sproles is a different type of player. He isn’t the prototypical running back, but he is a player that does whatever it takes in order to gain positive yards for his team. This can be proven in the fact that despite his frame, he was ranked second in the NFL in yards after contact with 724.
He is a hard working and quiet leader who has worked his way to becoming one of the best all around players in the league and one who can help bring the New Orleans Saints back to the Super Bowl.
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Pierre Thomas is one of the many great stories of the Saints. He was an undrafted free agent who the Saints signed in 2007 to add depth to the new look Saints in Brees’ and Payton’s first year.
Thomas was practically non-existent during his first season until the last game of the year when he rushed for 105 yards in his homecoming against the Chicago Bears. That game of the season was a sign of what was more to come for both Pierre Thomas and the Saints.
Since then Pierre Thomas has established himself as the typical starter for the New Orleans Saints.
In the running game, Thomas possesses great vision to find the holes between the tackles, which is were most of his yards come from. Outside the tackles he doesn’t posses top end speed but has very flexible hips and great moves to elude defenders and produce big runs.
In the passing game, Thomas is probably one of the best screen players in the league. He has an exceptional ability in following his blocks and breaking tackles in screenplays that typically end up in touchdowns, with the most memorable of them all coming in the 2009 Super Bowl.
Pierre Thomas’ best attribute is one that cannot be measured solely by statistics. He is a player with a non-stop motor who gives his all in every single play. This has become evident in his marquee way to break out of tackles from several players in an almost impossible way. It is rare and almost impossible to see Thomas be tackled by one player alone. Typically it takes a group of players to bring down the always grinding and fighting Thomas. Last year he ranked eighth in the NFL in broken tackles per touch ranking above many top tier running backs such as Chris Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew and Ray Rice, to name a few.
The only downfall in Thomas’ game is his bad string of luck with injuries. In his five-year career with the Saints he has only played in all 16 games in one season—last year.
If Pierre Thomas can stay healthy he is a key member and the most likely starter for the New Orleans Saints running back group.
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Mark Ingram didn’t quite live up to the hype as a Heisman Trophy winner in his rookie year for the New Orleans Saints.
In his first year as a Saint, Mark Ingram rushed for 474 yards and five touchdowns in only 10 games with an average of 3.9 yards per carry. These aren’t numbers worthy of a former Heisman Trophy winner and first round draft pick.
Despite his mediocre numbers Mark Ingram showed a lot of promise in his first year. He began to look more comfortable and began to get into a groove in his final four games, improving his average of yards per carry to 4.375.
His season was cut short by a toe injury that caused him to miss the last six games of the regular season and the playoffs.
Nonetheless, Mark Ingram still has the potential to become an elite back in the NFL. He is a “total package” running back with his combination of power, elusiveness, vision and speed. He has the skill set to be an every down back with his ability to run, catch and pass block, which is rare in today’s game.
As a runner, Mark Ingram excels running the ball through the inside with his strong compact frame, a low center of gravity and his understanding to maintain his pad level low. He is best as a one cut runner who uses his elite vision to pick the right hole and burst through it. He also possesses a powerful leg drive, which makes it hard for defenders to arm tackle him and is always pushing the pile for extra yards.
Ingram doesn’t have top end speed but his great vision allows him to achieve big runs by finding the open running lanes. He is a powerful running back that loves to play through contact. Ball security is a strength in Ingram’s game having only fumbled twice in his career at Alabama and only once in his rookie year.
The biggest downfall in Ingram’s game is his injury concerns. In Alabama, he had a hip injury in 2009 and then struggled with minor injuries in 2010 that caused him to miss three games. As a Saint his season was cut short due to a toe injury in Week 10.
Mark Ingram has a variety set of skills that could make him a top 10 running back in the league if he is able to stay healthy and play a full season. The New Orleans Saints will look to give Ingram every chance to win over the starting role and become the featured back in this upcoming season.
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Chris Ivory burst into the scene for the New Orleans Saints in the 2010 preseason. He was an undrafted free agent out of Tiffin University, a relatively unknown small school in Ohio.
In his rookie year, he displayed his rugged between the tackles running ability and ran for 716 yards, an average of 5.2 yards per carry and five touchdowns. These were eye-opening numbers for an undrafted free agent in his rookie year. The only concern for the Saints was his lack of ball security, fumbling the ball four times in his first year.
Ivory suffered a season-ending injury in the last game of the season in 2010 that caused him to also miss the first 10 games of the 2011 season. Despite coming off an injury he still managed to average 4.7 yards per carry in the final six games of the season.
Chris Ivory is a strong and bruising back who excels in running the ball inside the numbers. His speed is very deceptive running a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash despite his big and strong build. He is not an elusive runner who makes a lot guys miss but instead can play through contact and explodes into breakout runs.
His best attribute by far is his ability to break tackles and play through contact. In 2010 he led the league averaging 19.6 percent of broken tackles per touch. Ivory seems to punish his defenders in every opportunity he gets and is a promising back entering only his third year in the league.
Chris Ivory has the skill set and potential to be a starter in this league but the depth in the Saints running back group will probably push Ivory into fourth in the depth chart. If history proves anything it is that Saints running backs struggle to stay healthy and this will give Ivory an opportunity to step in and produce as he has in his first two years with the team.
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