The NFL season has been officially brought to a close with one of the most dominating – and anti-climactic – performances in Superbowl history. Now, each team begins anew in its attempt to climb the same mountain that the Seattle Seahawks currently sit atop. With that in mind, I thought it might be instructive to examine one of the New Orleans Saints most important – and problematic – positions: Running Back.
Over the course of Sean Payton’s tenure, the Saints have typified the “running back” by committee concept. In fact, only in Sean Payton’s first season have the Saints featured a real bell cow at the running back position—that year, Deuce McAllister ran for a hard fought 1, 057 yards and 10 TDs.
Most recently, the running game still runs through Pierre Thomas. In 2013, Thomas ran for 549 yards and 2 TDs. Pedestrian numbers by all accounts, but he also caught 77 passes for 513 yards and 3 TDs. So, he’s still a versatile threat. But a threat whose versatility is diminishing with each year. There is simply no denying that he has lost some burst and power since the 2009 Superbowl-winning season when the saints were one of the best rushing offenses in the NFL.
For that reason, Pierre Thomas split carries with Mark Ingram, rookie Khiry Robinson, and Darren Sproles. In this group, Ingram led the way with 386 yards, followed by Robinson who rushed for 224 yards, and Sproles who rushed for 220 yards and 604 yards receiving. For all of this, the Saints only gained 92.1 yards on the ground, good enough for 25th in the NFL in rushing as per CBS.com.
But the question is, “Is this a problem?” Firstly, if it is a problem, there might be signs that it is improving, and that might be coming from an unexpected place: Mark Ingram. Saints fans have long been frustrated with Ingram’s inconsistency and his apparent lack of top-end athleticism (to put it mildly). But those fans must admit that Mark Ingram showed real signs of improvement in 2013. Although his numbers were down, he was on the whole more effective, running for almost 5 yards a carry. And that’s really what the Saints want even more than production: effectiveness. First year starter Khiry Robinson also showed flashes this season, although I’m less convinced than some that he is the Saints long-term answer at the running back position. By all accounts, Ingram outplayed Robinson.
But let’s assume that the Saints intend to upgrade at the running back position… What do they do? Other than the bold decision to trade up for Mark Ingram in the first round of the NFL draft, the Saints don’t typically look to the draft to solve their running back problems. The organization prides itself on its ability to utilize talent that is suited to their team. That’s how they’ve uncovered the Chris Ivory’s of the world, and how Mike Bell had a nice resurgence as a back-up during the 2009 season. But running back is always one of the deepest and most NFL ready positions in the draft, so if they do go running back, whom might it be?
The top-rated running back prospect according to CBS.com is Kadeem Carey, the workhorse from Arizona. Judging on production alone, he’s an absolute monster who rushed for 1900 yards. Detractors might point out that he played in a Rich Rodriquez’ running-back centric spread offense that is actually not suited to what the Saints like to do.
Then there’s Tre Mason, the Auburn Heisman trophy candidate. He’s a patient, aggressive runner with real burst and great shiftiness. However, he doesn’t have the receiving stats that the Saints usually expect from their backs (that being said, Auburn rarely threw the ball… Ever.)
Some might see Carlos Hyde as a good fit. The uber-productive Ohio State running back is big and powerful, seemingly a good fit with a Saints offense that likes to spread the field with the pass and pound inside with the run. Although Hyde is tough to bring down, he doesn’t always display the power that you would think is his strong-suit.
And how about some wildcards? There’s Jeremy Hill, LSU’s star SOPHOMORE running back. He’s like Hyde… Big, powerful, but markedly faster and more explosive. Of course, there are a litany of character concerns that cannot be ignored.
And finally, how about Deanthony Thomas, the Oregon speed back. He can play running back, wide receiver, or return man and probably beat you at all three. There is the concern about his size and slenderness which might restrict him to only playing a role as a return man ala Denver’s Trindon Holiday, but if any team could find a role for this unique talent it is the New Orleans Saints.