It would be fair to say that in recent years the New Orleans Saints' backfield has become synonymous with words such as multiple or committee. Nevertheless, the elder statesman of the team's current crop of ball carriers, Pierre Thomas, remains poised to be as featured as ever heading into the 2014 season.
Having spent all eight of his professional seasons in black and gold, Thomas, 29, has blossomed from a reserve/special teamer, to change-of-pace back, all the way up the ladder to starter. Thomas has shared time with the likes of Deuce McAllister, Reggie Bush, Mike Bell, Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles through the years, and looks to team with Ingram and Khiry Robinson to form a formidable three-pronged force in Sean Payton's 2014 backfield.
Thomas saw a toe injury cut his 2013 season short as the team prepared to enter the playoffs. Playing in all 16 games, the veteran ran for 549 yards on 137 carries for a less-than-stellar 3.7 yards per rush, finding the end zone just twice on the ground. Those numbers were lows across the board for the former undrafted free agent out of Illinois dating back to the 2010 season where he only appeared in 6 games. Pierre Thomas has been a reliable option out of the Saints' backfield since 2007.
It was through the air, however, that Thomas made his biggest mark in 2013. He posted career-highs in both receptions (77) and receiving yards (513) while matching his career-high of 3 receiving touchdowns. Thomas thrived in the Saints' high-impact screen game, using his savvy and craft to maneuver behind his downfield blockers while also serving as a viable checkdown option for Drew Brees on pure pass plays.
Thomas wasn't the only effective receiver operating out of the backfield in New Orleans last year, as Darren Sproles caught 71 passes of his own for 604 yards and 2 scores. Through Sproles' three-year tenure as a Saint, the diminutive weapon averaged a shade over 77 catches and 660 yards per season, tallying 16 receiving touchdowns during that span. In a cap-cutting move, the Saints dealt Sproles to the Philadelphia Eagles in March, leaving a sudden hole in the team's offensive output.
While Thomas does not pose the same type of threat as Sproles, he is more than capable of helping compensate for that lost production, while exerting his own imprint on the team's 2014 offensive yield. He is easily the Saints' best option in the passing game, not only from a receiving standpoint, but from a pass protection standpoint as well. Entering his 8th year, Thomas is quite well-versed in Payton's offense, and has his niche in the system and a rapport with his linemen, receivers and quarterback.
Thomas has had an effective preseason, grading out as the 3rd best running back according to ProFootballFocus. The perennially underrated veteran knows that he has a chance to see an even bigger role as the 2014 season approaches.
"I know my role is going to change a whole lot this year," Thomas said. "I'm going to do more pass protection and route running. I'm improving my route running game. I'm still going to be running the ball too. I've got a few changes here and there. Whenever my name is called, I'm going to go out there and do my job. I don't complain about my reps. I don't complain about anything. I know I'm going to get the ball. I know I'm going to go out there and put myself out there on that field and help my team out. I know my name will be called."
Payton has confirmed that Thomas will still be an important piece in the team's plans, and admits that the running back's role may see a tweak or two this year.
"Every year we describe his role and then in some point of the season, it shifts," Payton said. "He is someone that knows our protections well and handles the sub offense well whether we're in third down or we're in shotgun passing formations. He's also someone that's an exceptionally smart player. Each year there's been a game or two where all of a sudden he's doing more than just that. I don't feel that this season will be an exception." Pierre Thomas has evolved into more of a receiving threat over time, but remains a capable runner.
The ultimate team player, Thomas is equally excited about his teammates, Ingram and Robinson, making the most of their 2014 opportunities. Both players, in addition to rookie receiver Brandin Cooks, will have defined roles and parts to play in terms of helping the team and compensating for Sproles' lost production.
"All of us can do the same thing and the coaches see that too," Thomas said. "You can see Mark out there spread out wide, same thing with Khiry. It's a nice rotation. We want to make sure we're unpredictable."
"I want to see those guys, how they can do, when I'm not in there for a certain play. I want to see these guys get involved in blitz pickups, protection wise, and I want to see them go out there protect our quarterback. I don't want to be the only one going out there and protecting. I know Mark can do it and I know Khiry can do it and I want to see that they can do it and I think the coaches want to see it."
Thomas, who agreed to a contract extension during the spring, also has the support of Drew Brees, who once referred to him as the game's "best all-purpose back."
"We’ve been together for eight years, so yeah, there’s a huge comfort level with him," said Brees. "He’s so dependable, so tough, so smart. And obviously we’ve been through a lot together.”
Tough, indeed, as Thomas has missed just a single game since 2010. He has battled minor knicks and knocks, as any running back does throughout the course of a long year, but the 5-11 215 do-it-all back has been durable and consistent. The toe problem cost him the chance to help his team in last season's playoffs, making this go-round even more special for Thomas, who will turn 30 in December.
The Saints' backfield will always be one of unpredictability. Who will start? Who will handle the short-yardage duties? Who will provide the change-of-pace? Will Travaris Cadet be involved much?
One thing is clear; if something, anything, needs to be done, Pierre Thomas remains a name that can be called at the drop of a dime. A run, a screen, picking up a blitzing linebacker, splitting out wide, even returning kicks, Thomas has proven he can do it all, and will continue to do such as the 2014 season beckons.