New Orleans Saints Position Breakdown and Depth-Chart Analysis at Running Back
Minicamp is underway for the New Orleans Saints, and the team’s running back depth chart for the coming season appears to be loaded with capable ball-carriers.
Under coach Sean Payton, the Saints have made a name for the themselves as an explosive pass-first offense.
It must be noted, however, that in New Orleans’ most productive offensive seasons, the Saints' seemingly unstoppable passing game has been complemented by a formidable ground attack.
In 2014, the Saints will once again field a potent aerial attack, led by quarterback Drew Brees, but the key to their offensive success will lie with the effectiveness of the running game. The New Orleans backfield must pull its weight in order for the offense to achieve true balance.
Granted, there’s more to a strong ground game than simply having good running backs. The offensive line must do its part first by firing out and clearing running lanes, and the quarterback must be able to have some success through the air in order to keep the defense on its heels.
But make no mistake: Strong, powerful backs are the lifeblood of a solid rushing attack in the NFL, and New Orleans looks to have a stable of them heading toward the upcoming season.
Following is a full position breakdown of the Saints’ running back depth chart. The backs are ranked in descending order, with the starter as the last slide.
6. Derrick Strozier
The Saints are developing a bit of a reputation for finding undrafted players who go on to enjoy success in the league, and Derrick Strozier may be next in line.
The former Tulane standout went undrafted this past May, but he's in the mix to earn a roster spot in New Orleans this coming season.
Strozier played defensive back for the Green Wave, but after seeing him in action at rookie minicamp tryouts, the Saints decided to sign him to a contract as a running back.
He's at his most dangerous in the open field as a return man. He handled kickoff and punt-return duties for Tulane, but he also returned two interceptions and a field goal for scores.
His chances of making the final roster may be slim, but if he continues to turn heads at minicamp, Strozier may give the New Orleans coaching staff something to think about.
5. Tim Flanders
Tim Flanders also went unselected in the 2014 NFL draft, but the Saints didn’t take long to snatch him up as a free agent.
Of all the undrafted rookie free agents currently in camp, Flanders is one of the most talented. He’s the Southland Conference’s all-time leader in rushing and scoring, having accumulated over 5,600 rushing yards and 66 touchdowns at Sam Houston State.
Although he stands only 5’9,” he possesses a stocky, muscular frame, and his low center of gravity enables him to achieve great balance as a ball-carrier.
He doesn’t possess top-notch speed, but his acceleration and vision allow him to shoot through small openings in impressive fashion. He’s also a reliable receiver out of the backfield, and he proved himself to be tough and durable at the collegiate level.
Flanders may find it difficult to make the final cut this fall, but considering the great risk for injury at the running back position, it won’t be a shock to see him on the active roster at some point this coming season.
4. Travaris Cadet
Unlike Strozier and Flanders, Saints fans are already quite familiar with Travaris Cadet.
The third-year back was an undrafted free-agent acquisition in 2012, and he’s seen the field as a running back, wide receiver and return specialist during his time in New Orleans.
He demonstrates exceptional stop-and-start ability for a 6’1,” 210-pounder. The Appalachian State product saw action in 13 games last season, with most of his playing time coming on special teams. He averaged 26.6 yards per kickoff return, while recording five tackles in special teams coverage.
With former Saint return man Darren Sproles now in Philadelphia, Cadet is expected to assume punt-return duties in 2014, although first-round draft choice Brandin Cooks may have something to say about that.
Either way, with Sproles no longer in the picture, Cadet will likely see an increased role this year, and he should occupy an active roster spot as a third-down back for the entirety of the season.
3. Khiry Robinson
Khiry Robinson is yet another undrafted free agent in the New Orleans backfield.
The 220-pound second-year back out of West Texas A&M made an unexpected splash last season as a rookie, and he’ll be looking to build on that success in 2014.
Robinson shot out of the gates with some eye-opening performances in last year’s preseason, and he made enough of an impression to earn a spot on the Saints’ opening-day roster.
He ran for 224 yards and a touchdown on 52 regular-season carries, and he saw his role increase during the postseason. In just two playoff games, he carried 21 times for 102 yards and a touchdown.
He’s a powerfully built, downhill runner who brings a bruising, physical style of play to the New Orleans backfield.
He may be third on the depth chart at the moment, but with a solid season, he could make a strong case for himself as the future starter and featured back in Sean Payton’s offense.
2. Mark Ingram
Unlike all the other running backs on the New Orleans roster, Mark Ingram was actually drafted. In fact, the Saints traded up to select him in the first round of the 2011 draft.
It’s safe to say that his first couple of seasons in New Orleans were tremendously disappointing. He averaged only 3.9 yards per carry during those two years, and he failed to live up to the expectations that come with being drafted in the first round.
Just two games into the season in 2013, Ingram suffered a foot injury and missed the next five contests. Upon returning, however, he resembled an altogether different player.
In just his second game back, he ran wild on the Dallas Cowboys for a career-high 145 yards rushing. He appeared to be carrying the ball with a much greater sense of urgency than ever before, and he played with a fiery disposition he hadn’t previously displayed in New Orleans.
After finishing the 2013 season with an average of nearly five yards per carry, Ingram now enters his fourth year in the league. He appears to be primed for his best campaign yet in New Orleans, and he’ll almost assuredly receive a significant portion of the carries to start the season.
1. Pierre Thomas
While Robinson and Ingram appear nicely positioned for success in 2014, the Saints most complete back is still Pierre Thomas.
A highly versatile offensive weapon, the eighth-year running back brings quite a lot to the table. He’s certainly capable as a runner between the tackles, but he’s also an exceptional pass-protector. In addition, he’s one of the league’s most dangerous scoring threats off the screen pass.
Last season, he contributed just over 1,000 yards of offense to the Saints’ cause, and he led all NFL running backs in receptions with 77. He also reached the end zone five times, and there’s no reason he shouldn’t enjoy another successful season as the starting running back in 2014.
The importance of an effective ground game in the NFL can’t be overstated, and this is particularly true in playoff football.
With Thomas, Ingram and Robinson all making major contributions, the New Orleans Saints should boast a formidable three-back rotation in 2014. All three bring something different to the New Orleans backfield, and they form a nice blend of youth and experience.
If the Saints are to advance deep into the playoffs this coming season, the aforementioned ball-carriers must all be up to task when their number is called.
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