The Mysterious Mark Ingram
For the last two and a half years, Mark Ingram was driving on the Curtis Enis highway to first-round running back bustland. Then, in Week 11, he became one of two running backs in 2013 to rush for over 100 yards in a game while also averaging over 10 yards per carry (the other being Andre Ellington). Unfortunately, in his follow-up performance against the 49ers, Ingram delivered an underwhelming 29 total yards on just 7 touches.
In the never-ending search for productive fantasy running backs, Ingram’s theoretical role as the goal line/early-down back in a prolific Saints offense would be enough to make him a low-end RB2. Will he ever be able to fulfill this? Week 10 served as both his first career 100-yard game as well as the only time this season he has eclipsed even 25 rushing yards. Was his performance against the Cowboys a sign for hope or a flukish game against a historically bad defense?
Let's dig into the numbers.
Let's first examine the defense that will forever taint Monte Kiffin’s illustrious career as a defensive coordinator. Dallas has now allowed two of their last three opponents to gain over 600 yards: before October, the last time the Cowboys surrendered 600 yards in a game was…. never.
numberFire’s metrics rank Dallas as the NFL’s sixth-worst rushing defense with an Adjusted Defensive Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) of 13.76. To exacerbate matters for the Cowboys, they lost their best defender and run stopper, Sean Lee, in the second quarter. Based on what I saw that Sunday, I think Ricky Watters could roll out of bed right now and rush for 100 yards against this defense. According to NFL.com, no defense has allowed more fantasy points to running backs this year than Jerry Jones ‘Boys.
Unfortunately, New Orleans remaining schedule is fairly tough against the run. Below is a chart showing this:
|Team||Opposing YPC||Adj. NEP Rushing Defense||Rank|
The Falcons are the Saints only remaining opponent with an Adj. DRNEP outside the top 12. They face the Carolina defense twice; a defense that numberFire’s metrics view as the fifth-best against the run, and second-best overall.
The Passing Saints
The Saints offensive performance against the Cowboys was a slight anomaly. On the season, the Saints have been the second-most effective passing team, behind only the statistical passing monster that Peyton Manning has created in Denver. Their efficiency passing the ball has led them to have the NFL’s seventh-highest run-to-pass ratio (1:1.72), an unusually high rate for a team that often leads late in games.
Entering the game against Dallas, the Saints, as a team, had a rushing NEP of -17.97, ranking them 28th-best in the NFL. In the game against Dallas, they increased their rushing NEP by 18.26 (!!!). By comparison, only three teams this season have accumulated as many expected points on the ground as New Orleans did in one game! I will give you a second to remove your jaw from the ground.
While the Saints currently have two fantasy-relevant running backs in Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas (aka the Lord of Expected Points), it's interesting to note how much of their value comes through their work in the passing game.
|Player||Receptions||Targets||Rec. Yards||Rec. TDS||Rush Yards||Rush TDS||Rec. NEP||Rush NEP|
It's obvious that their dual-threat abilities are essential to their fantasy prowess. Drew Brees is comfortable and proficient throwing to his running backs out of the backfield. Sproles and Thomas are fourth and fifth in targets amongst running backs, and translate these targets to catches at an impressive rate of 86%. Unfortunately for Ingram, he simply doesn’t possess these pass-catching chops, averaging under a target per game for his career. This lack of versatility limits his opportunities in a Saints offense that is built around the passing game.
But Can He Run?
With Ingram unable to offer passing game benefits, does he possess enough value as a rusher to make up for his one-dimensional nature?
Over the past two seasons, Ingram failed to match other Saints backs on the ground, and prior to the Cowboys game, this season had been even worse. Entering the Cowboys game, Ingram was arguably the worst running back in the NFL. Our metrics had Ingram’s Rushing NEP per carry at -0.51 on 21 carries. Currently, only two running backs backs with over 20 carries are averaging worse than -0.25 NEP per carry (David Wilson at -0.41, and Benny Cunningham at -0.33). After his career performance against Dallas, his Rushing NEP on the season improved from -10.71 to -1.21, or -0.03 per carry.
With a relatively poor statistical performance, I wanted to investigate if his qualitative play seemed better. After re-watching his tape from the Cowboys game, it is clear Ingram needs to buy his offensive line or the Dallas defensive line a steak dinner or three. To Ingram’s credit, he read his holes well and displayed some of the power one would expect out of a 5’9”, 215-pound bowling ball of a man. However, on Ingram’s two 30-plus yard runs, he wasn’t touched until he was at least 25 yards down the field. In fact, both of those runs had touchdown potential if Ingram had shown the elusiveness to make one defender miss in space.
Saints Varied Offensive Packages
While the number of “featured backs” continues to dwindle in the NFL, Sean Payton takes the running back by committee idea to a Belichickian level. On the year, Pierre Thomas (New Orleans most used back) has been on the field for just 53% of offensive snaps, far outpacing Darren Sproles who is second at 34%. Mark Ingram sits at 11% of snaps this year, although that number is misleading due to amount of time he's missed with injuries.
Even still, Ingram’s season high in snap percentage is just 26%, and in his breakout performance against Dallas, he was on the field for only 21 snaps (25% of offensive snaps). Last week against San Francisco, Ingram played 13 snaps (19% of offensive snaps) and received 7 touches.
The one thing that works in Ingram’s favor is that he has always maintained a high touches-to-snaps ratio. However, in the game against Dallas, Ingram had a snaps to touches ratio of 77%, a season high by 16%, and a number that appears unsustainably high. Payton’s preference to mix and match running backs based on their varied skill sets prevents any one of them from receiving large snap counts. And with Thomas and Sproles exhibiting far more skills in the passing game, it is hard to envision a scenario where Ingram eats into their playing time too heavily.
After his performance against the 49ers, Ingram's “breakout” game against the Cowboys appears to be an aberration and not the start of a trend. However, tonight’s matchup against Atlanta does look ridiculously enticing. Our metrics have Atlanta’s Adjusted Defensive NEP at 123.71, which is last in the NFL and over 26 points worse than the second-worst defense. Their 30th-ranked rushing defense is somehow the strength of this defensive unit, as their passing defense is NFL's worst by a substantial margin.
While I imagine Drew Brees will have a big first half, it is quite possible for Ingram to become featured on the ground in the second half. I think Ingram has sneaky flex potential this week, but afterwards returns to an, at best, RB4 type and must show some consistency before becoming a relevant fantasy player.