Latavius Murray Could Be an Upgrade Over Mark Ingram for the Saints

The Saints have saved some money replacing Mark Ingram with Latavius Murray, but a look at the numbers shows they may have found an upgrade at the running back position.

Before drafting first-round running backs fell out of style (and apparently came back into style), the New Orleans Saints made a move that would raise a lot of eyebrows now, not only drafting a running back in the first round, but trading up to do so in 2011 when they took Mark Ingram.

With the benefit of hindsight, the pick paid off reasonably well. They got 106 games and 1321 carries in eight seasons out of Ingram. He became an unrestricted free agent this offseason, though, and signed a deal with the Baltimore Ravens.

Losing a guy who has seen at least 150 carries in five-straight seasons, it was a safe assumption that the Saints weren't going to let Ingram walk without adding another back to share work with Alvin Kamara, and they've done exactly that.

Before Ingram's deal with Baltimore had even been announced, New Orleans inked former Minnesota Viking (and Oakland Raider) Latavius Murray to a four-year deal.They're getting one extra year out of Murray for slightly less money than Baltimore has given Ingram.

Based on the incredibly scientific results of my Twitter poll, the general consensus seems to be that this is a clear downgrade for New Orleans. Digging into the numbers, though, there's plenty of reason to believe the majority has got it wrong.

Why Ingram Might Be Better

There are, I will admit, plenty of reasons that Ingram could appear to be the better back.

In the rushing game, looking at either yards per carry or Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per carry, a measure of how many points a player adds to his team's expected total on any given play, Ingram looks to be far more efficient. He also has an edge in Success Rate, which measures the percentage of carries on which a player generates positive NEP.

Player Y/C RNEP/C Success Rate
Mark Ingram 4.5 0.03 43.0%
Latavius Murray 4.1 -0.02 36.1%

So while yards per carry isn't a great stat for really uncovering how efficient a back is, the advanced numbers also hold up very well for Ingram here. He contributes positively to his team's expectation on 6.9% more carries than Murray, and every 20 carries, on average, Ingram contributes 1 more point to his team's expected total than Murray does.

He's also put up better numbers in the passing game. Over their careers, Ingram has averaged 5.59 receiving yards per target, compared to 5.45 for Murray. Ingram has also ranked ahead of Murray in pass blocking efficiency, per ProFootballFocus, in each of the last two seasons.

Why He's Not

We can't just take those numbers at face value, though. It's almost impossible to completely separate a player's numbers from the context of their offense, but we can certainly work towards doing that.

Playing in one of the best offenses in NFL history, it doesn't come as a surprise that Ingram has had some big success. We can't write off the possibility that his presence played a big role in that (a quick look at Drew Brees' numbers says that we probably could, but that's a task for another article), but we can look at his numbers relative to his teammates to see just how effective he was.

In this table, "Teammate" refers just to other running backs on the team, and "Adj. Line Yards" refers to his team's ranking in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Line Yards stat, which attempts to quantify how much an offensive line is doing for a team's running game.

Year RNEP/C Teammate RNEP/C Difference Adj. Line Yards
2011 0.00 0.17 -0.17 1
2012 -0.04 0.06 -0.11 18
2013 -0.07 0.00 -0.08 7
2014 0.04 -0.05 +0.09 2
2015 0.07 -0.04 +0.11 13
2016 0.06 0.04 +0.02 1
2017 0.04 0.25 -0.21 2
2018 0.02 0.07 -0.05 2

Two big takeaways here: the Saints' offensive line has been incredible at run blocking over Ingram's career, and his teammates have generally been more efficient than he has. As mentioned above, he has a career 0.03 Rushing NEP per carry, while his teammates' collective average has been 0.07 -- a gap of about 0.04 Rushing NEP per carry.

Over the only three seasons in which he did beat out his teammates in that stat, the Saints' backfield was largely a mess. Second on the team in carries in that time was Tim Hightower, with 229, and third was Khiry Robinson with 132. Hightower made his debut with the Saints in 2015 after missing more than half of the 2011 season and the entirety of the 2012, 2013 and 2014 seasons. Robinson, after leaving the Saints following his third year in the NFL, notched only eight more carries in his career. Not exactly stiff competition.

And here's a look at the same for Latavius Murray.

Year RNEP/R Teammate RNEP/R Difference Adj. Line Yards
2014 0.05 -0.20 +0.25 28
2015 -0.07 0.06 -0.13 19
2016 0.04 0.05 -0.01 11
2017 -0.03 -0.09 +0.06 19
2018 -0.02 -0.07 +0.05 23

By comparison, Murray has dealt with run blocking that has typically ranged from below average to terrible. He only averages -0.02 Rushing NEP per carry, but his teammates have been much worse, averaging -0.07.

So, over their careers, Murray has a Rushing NEP per carry 0.05 points better than his teammates, while Ingram has a mark 0.04 worse than his teammates. Murray may have been less efficient in a vacuum, but football isn't played in a vacuum. Ingram appears to have been rushing behind a far better offensive line and playing in offenses that have been much more conducive to rushing efficiency than Murray has.

There's also not a ton of need to be concerned about the differences in the passing game. That gap in their career yards per target I mentioned above (5.59 for Ingram and 5.45 for Murray) would have been the difference between finishing 25th or 27th among running backs that saw at least 30 targets last year. Essentially a meaningless difference, and one that comes with one of the two players seeing their targets coming from a future Hall of Fame quarterback in one of the league's most efficient passing offenses.

The difference in pass block efficiency has also been pretty negligible -- Murray still ranked above average among backs with at least 30 pass blocking snaps in each of the last two seasons, and Ingram only saw 88 combined pass blocking snaps in those seasons anyway. If we look at their respective efficiencies applied to an 88-snap sample, that would only account for a difference of about 7 pressures. Over two seasons, that's only one pressure every five games or so -- not something that looks to be a deal-breaker.

It's hard to make definitive statements when comparing two players in the NFL, since there's a massive amount of uncertainty baked in. Once we adjust for the context of their offenses, though, it becomes a lot easier to rule out the idea that Ingram is necessarily the better back than Murray. We've seen Murray be more efficient than his teammates on two different teams so far, and if he can even come close to doing that in New Orleans, he's likely looking at better numbers than Ingram produced.

2019 Fantasy Football Outlook

With truly identifying "talent" between two players proving nearly impossible (especially when we're not looking at the extremes), and with volume being the big key to success in fantasy football (especially at the running back position), there's not a ton of value in trying to identify talent. At best, it's almost never actionable, and at worst it could even be harmful, especially if you start to ascribe any sort of certainty to your talent evaluations or if you assume volume will follow your assessments.

If we completely ignore a potential difference in talent, this is a terrific landing spot for Murray's fantasy value.

Even with Alvin Kamara around eating up lots of work, Ingram finished 32nd among running backs in fantasy scoring (and 28th on a per-game basis) last year and in 2017 he finished 6th (8th per game). Even with a four-game suspension, he was being drafted as the 22nd running back off the board last year (per FantasyFootballCalculator), and his performance wasn't far off that ranking.

Not everybody's going to ignore talent, though. With it looking like the general public believes Murray is a downgrade from Ingram, we could see Murray priced well below where we've seen Ingram in years past.

That already creates plenty of appeal in targeting Murray, and if you start to give any weight to the potential that Murray might actually be a better back than Ingram, things start to get really interesting.

It's still incredibly early in the offseason, so it will take some time to see how the market shakes out as volume picks up, but you should have your eye on Murray as a potential steal if he falls into the mid-to-late rounds of your fantasy football drafts.