If the results coming out of training camp are any indication, New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram is finally ready to make good on his status as a former first-round pick and Heisman Trophy winner.
A clean bill of health and an increased focus on running the football under returning head coach Sean Payton remain the driving forces behind his breakout potential in 2013.
From the very start of camp, Saints beat writers have been complimentary of the third-year running back.
On Thursday, Mike Triplett of the New Orleans Times Picayune confidently claimed that Ingram will "turn some heads" during the Saints' preseason opener against the Kansas City Chiefs Friday night.
"Ingram has looked strong, fast, fluid and a little slimmer -- a result of being fully healthy for the first time throughout an entire offseason since he joined the NFL," wrote Triplett, who also predicted a bounce-back season for the Saints back.
Against the Chiefs, Ingram is expected to start and carry the early load with Pierre Thomas on the shelf.
While his talent has been obvious from the very beginning (see video below), staying healthy has been another task altogether for the Saints' 2011 first-round pick.
Ingram originally entered the NFL with concerns over a knee injury that plagued him at times during his 2010 campaign at Alabama. While the knee was never a major issue during his rookie season, heel and toe problems limited him to just 10 games and 122 carries in 2011.
The next offseason, Ingram underwent minor surgery to help reduce the swelling in his right knee (although not the same knee he injured in college) while also fixing the tendon in his toe that eventually led to a trip to injured reserve during his rookie season.
Saints interim coach Joe Vitt admitted to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in early November of 2012 that while Ingram hadn't missed a game, he was still on the comeback trail from his two offseason surgeries.
The early results backed Vitt's claim. During Weeks 1 through 9 last season, Ingram failed to crack 60 yards rushing in a single game. He also received 10 or more carries just once during that span (Week 2 vs. Carolina), and his yards per carry sat at a dismal 3.3.
When the knee finally starting feeling right, Ingram's production and usage spiked. From Week 10 to 17, he went over 60 yards four different times. He amassed 424 of his 602 total rushing yards, and his average carries went from under seven a game to nearly 13.
If his final eight games were extrapolated over a full season, Ingram would have finished 2012 with nearly 850 rushing yards, eight touchdowns and a 4.2 yards per carry average.
Given a full offseason without surgery or injury, he should now be expected to better those numbers in 2013.
The man doing the play-calling will likely have a heavy hand in such an improvement.
Payton, who was suspended for the entire 2012 season due to his involvement with the team's Bountygate scandal, watched his offense quickly devolve into one that all but ignored the running game. The team would finish the season ranked 29th in rushing attempts (370) and 25th in rushing yards (1,577), but it was second in passing attempts (671).
Payton will continue to rely heavily upon Drew Brees and the passing game, but the offense should more closely resemble those piloted by the Saints head coach in the past.
In 2011, when the Saints finished 13-3, the offense ranked sixth in rushing yards (2,127) with 431 attempts. During the Super Bowl season of 2009, the team finished with the seventh-most rushing attempts (468) and sixth-most rushing yards (2,106).
A return to more balanced offense is coming in New Orleans.
In fact, one of the first things Payton told his club upon returning was that "we’re going to get back to running the football," according to ESPN's Pat Yasinskas.
No player on the roster should benefit more from the shift back than Ingram, who is seeing his role expand as a runner, per Triplett. Instead of using him exclusively in the base offense and short-yardage situations, the Saints have allowed their top back to be more involved in wide-open, receiver-heavy formations.
The presence of do-it-all running back Darren Sproles and trusted power back Pierre Thomas will limit how big of an impact Ingram can make, but it's clear that the Saints are counting on him to be a major contributor. And thanks to a clean bill of health for the first time in his NFL career, Ingram is making the most out of his opportunities to start August.
Jeff Duncan of the New Orleans Times-Picayune said Thursday that if he had to pick which player had looked the best thus far in Saints camp, it might be Ingram. The third-year back has been that good.
Now, his task will be translating strong performances in training camp to both the preseason and regular season. If he can avoid the injury bug over the next four games—while continuing to stack impressive outings on the practice field—Ingram can put himself in position to finally be a major factor for the Saints offense.