At The University of Alabama, running back Mark Ingram is a legend. In 2009, he set the Crimson Tide’s single-season rushing record with 1,658 yards. More notably, he is the lone Heisman Trophy winner in the school’s storied history.
In the 2011 NFL draft, the New Orleans Saints gave up a second-round pick and a 2012 first-rounder to trade up to 28th overall in order to select Ingram. Draft pundits praised the pick, and Saints fans felt they were getting rare talent at the running back position in the Big Easy. So far, that hasn't been the case.
Following two subpar seasons, the Saints rolled over competition in the NFL, winning their only Super Bowl in the team’s history during the 2009 season. Their offense ranked first in Net Expected Points (NEP), fourth in Passing Net Expected Points, and seventh in Rushing Net Expected Points throughout the season (all numbers adjusted for strength of schedule). To learn more about NEP, click here.
The following year, the Saints played well enough to make the playoffs, but they lost in the first round to the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks. This was the game where Marshawn Lynch showed the world what beast mode really meant. Although Drew Brees and the passing game were great as always, the running game dipped to a low that season, ranking 17th in rushing offense.
There was something missing from the usual-electric Saints offense.
Ingram Is Drafted
When it came time for the 2011 NFL Draft, Saints owner Tom Benson, general Manager Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton knew that they needed a game-changing back. Their best running back was Pierre Thomas, whose numbers dipped dramatically in 2010.
|Year||Rushing NEP||Rushing NEP per Rush||Success Rate||Reception NEP per Target|
Thomas looked great in 2008 and 2009, collectively adding 15.18 and 17.35 points to the scoreboard throughout the season when he rushed the ball. In 2010, though, he negatively contributed to the Saints rushing game. New Orleans had long been a running back by committee group under Sean Payton’s reign, but Deuce McAllister was gone, and someone needed to come in and be the workhorse back.
After paying a hefty price to move up to the 28th overall pick, the Saints selected Ingram, and fans were ecstatic about the selection.
Unfortunately, Ingram’s rookie year was not necessarily what the team was hoping for. He carried the ball 122 times for 474 yards and 5 touchdowns. His Rushing NEP, at 0.21, was average at best, but it looked downright poor compared to his teammates, who rushed under similar circumstances.
|2011||Rushing NEP||Rushing NEP per Rush||Success Rate||Reception NEP per Target|
As you can see from the chart above, one of the preseason front runners for Offensive Rookie of the Year came in dead last within his own team in running back production. Although he ranked 20th out of 51 running backs with at least 100 carries in Rushing NEP, his teammates outshined him in just about every aspect.
Ingram's Second and Third Year
In terms of actual production, Ingram’s performance has dropped significantly. He hasn't been able to gain any sort of momentum, and his flash plays have been very rare. Here’s a look at Ingram’s NEP numbers for this first three seasons in the league.
|Rushing NEP||Rushing NEP per Rush||Success Rate||League Rank|
It's important to note a few things in this chart. First, Ingram's ranks aren't horrendous, but when compared to his teammates, Ingram has seen the worst Rushing NEP on the Saints in each of his first three seasons in the league. So while he's not terrible versus competition, much of that has to do with the fact that running on the Saints is an easier task than other teams in the NFL. Drew Brees has a lot to do with that.
And speaking of which, receiving isn't necessarily an area that is a positive for Mark Ingram. With only 24 career receptions, he's been a complete afterthought in the Saints passing game. In the time that Ingram has been in New Orleans, Pierre Thomas has racked up 166 receptions while Darren Sproles has garnered 232. Even though the Saints use running backs in the passing game a lot, Ingram hasn’t been a part of it, contributing a lot to his playing time. The Saints have also had a history with Drew Brees at quarterback to be one of the more pass-oriented teams in the league. In the past four seasons since their Super Bowl winning season in 2009, they have ranked in the top five in the NFL in pass-to-run ratio.
|Year||Pass to Run Ratio||Percentage of Pass Plays||League Ranking|
With the Saints spending over 60% of their plays on the passing game and Ingram not being a crucial part of that, things aren't looking up for Ingram.
What's Next for Ingram?
In a bit of a surprise over the offseason, the Saints traded Darren Sproles to the Eagles for a fifth-round draft pick. It was Sproles’ last year of his contract with New Orleans, and the trade cleared $3.5 million off the books for the team.
In terms of the passing game with running backs, it's been all Sproles and Thomas for the past three years, with Ingram being sidelined in these situations. With Sproles gone in 2014, this means that either the Saints will steer away from their typical offensive style, or allow a running back like Ingram or even younger guys Khiry Robinson or Travaris Cadet in on the passing game. Even at Alabama, though, Ingram wasn’t a huge part of the passing game. He had 60 receptions in three years in Tuscaloosa, so although he’s capable, it’s not his forte.
Meanwhile, Khiry Robinson had 38 receptions for 430 yards and 4 touchdowns during his senior year at West Texas A&M, in addition to his 1,832 yards and 15 scores on the ground. I expect Sean Payton and company to keep with the same style offense, but the question remains which running back will replace Sproles’ role. Given the Saints history of making something out of undrafted running backs, I wouldn't be surprised if that man was Robinson, but the job seems to be wide open for taking.
The Saints opted to not pick up the fifth year on Ingram’s contract, so at the end of 2014, he will become an unrestricted free agent. Will this incentive end up helping out both parties?
numberFire’s Fantasy Football Rankings have put Ingram at number 145 overall and the 42nd-ranked running back, surrounded by players like Shonn Greene, LeGarrette Blount and former Saint Chris Ivory. It seems like his upside may be capped due to his lack of receiving prowess, so the ranking makes absolute sense.