Can Khiry Robinson Emerge as Top Saints RB?

Knox Bardeen@knoxbardeenNFC South Lead WriterFebruary 18, 2014

New Orleans Saints running back Khiry Robinson (29) celebrates after running for a 1-yard touchdown during the fourth quarter of an NFC divisional playoff NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks in Seattle, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

As the 2013 season neared its end and the New Orleans Saints rumbled into the playoffs, Khiry Robinson emerged as the running back to watch.

He led the team in carries in two of the team's final three games (including the playoffs), and his 152 rushing yards during that span were second only to Mark Ingram, and only by 14 yards. He even caught the eye of Bill Parcells, who according to Fox Sports analyst John Lynch called head coach Sean Payton prior to the Saints playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks and compared Robinson to Curtis Martin.

Parcells called this week and said, ‘Sean what are you doing? You’ve got Curtis Martin right in front of your eyes, and you’re not doing anything with him. Give him the ball.’

Will Robinson's end-of-season prominence in the run game equate to a featured role in 2014? If history is an indication with this Saints offense, the answer is somewhere between "no" and "there's no telling."

Scoring, passing and the mobile, pass-catching tight end are all offensive strategies the Saints know well. A featured running back? That’s a bit of a mystery.

Four different running backs carried the football at least 15 percent of the time for the Saints in 2013. As has been the case in each season since 2009, the running back that led the team in rushing wasn’t the same guy as the year prior.

Saints Leading Rushers (yardage): 2008-2013
2008Pierre Thomas1296259
2009Pierre Thomas1477936
2010Chris Ivory1377165
2011Darren Sproles876032
2012Mark Ingram1566025
2013Pierre Thomas1475492
Pro Football Reference

New Orleans has five running backs on its roster, four of whom saw significant carries last season: Pierre Thomas, Ingram, Robinson and Darren Sproles.

Each one is under contract for the 2014 season, too, so barring a trade or some other transaction to remove one from the team, the Saints are going to have to solve another running back conundrum next season.

Who’s going to be the go-to guy?

The role for Sproles has been set, although not in stone. In 15 games he carried the ball 53 times for 220 yards, but more importantly caught 71 passes. Only three running backs in the NFL caught more.

While his receptions are spread somewhat evenly over the regular season, Sproles definitely did most of his damage carrying the ball early on. In the first six games of the season, Sproles carried the ball 30 times (56.6 percent of his total carries). He only amassed 23 carries over his final seven games.

Sproles is going to be New Orleans’ threat out of the backfield to catch passes and work as a change-of-pace runner. He’s no longer likely ever going to be the bell cow.

The same cannot be said for Thomas, Robinson and Ingram, all of whom have the ability to be the No. 1 option in the Saints rushing attack.

Thomas, who led the team in rushing last season but missed the playoffs because of a chest injury, might be a cap casualty. According to OverTheCap.com, the Saints would save Thomas’ entire $2.9 million salary if they cut him.

When Thomas was injured, Ingram and Robinson filled in nicely. Against the Philadelphia Eagles in the Wild Card Round, Ingram rushed 18 times for 97 yards and a score while Robinson added 45 yards on eight carries.

The following week both averaged more than four yards per carry against the Seahawks; Robinson gained 57 yards on 13 carries and scored a rushing touchdown while Ingram added 49 yards on 10 carries.

If that’s the kind of output the Saints can expect week after week from Ingram and Robinson, it would make sense for the cash-strapped Saints to part ways with Thomas. But how much do the Saints trust Ingram and Robinson?

Remember, Ingram’s success hasn’t come easily, and definitely not quickly or often enough. Early in his career he consistently dealt with injuries and, as late as this season, wasn’t highly regarded by the fans or the media.

Robinson is just 54 carries into his professional career after signing with the Saints as an undrafted rookie free agent out of West Texas A&M. He has promise, but are the Saints really ready to part ways with Thomas and hand Robinson and/or Ingram the lion’s share of the workload?

Don’t be surprised to see New Orleans keep Thomas for the final year of his contract as a safety net for Ingram and Robinson, whose touches will likely be increased—but within reason—as Payton does what he knows and mixes running backs into a game based on skill and matchups.

General manager Mickey Loomis met with the Saints media at the Senior Bowl in January, and in a video posted at The Times-Picayune, spoke about Ingram and how running backs are used in Payton’s offense:

There's an expectation for running backs, it's probably a little unrealistic with us because of the way Sean is able to take advantage of each guy's talents. They don't get as many of those 20-carry games where the last 10 are better than the first 10. Mark [Ingram] has been great. He's a good player, he never complains and he just wants to win, and I'm happy that he was able to show what he could do. We're looking forward to more from him.

More from Ingram in 2014—and this goes for Robinson as well—won’t mean handing the majority of the rushing duties over from Thomas. Both younger runners will be given more opportunities to shine next season, but it’s still going to be in a split situation with Thomas.

And when it comes to Robinson’s emergence, he’s still in line behind Ingram. It’s going to take another full season of Robinson showing what he did in the playoffs to get him a realistic shot at becoming the top running back in New Orleans.

For Robinson to make it to that top spot, Ingram is going to have to fall off. If Ingram progresses like he did toward the end of the 2013 season, Robinson will be blocked.

Both Thomas and Ingram will become unrestricted free agents after the 2014 season, as will Sproles. At that point Robinson may take over as the top running back in New Orleans as the Saints try to figure out whom to bring back and build around.

But in the upcoming 2014 season, expect more of the same from the Saints. The running back load will be shared by a number of backs and Thomas probably won’t be the leading rusher.

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.

Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.