Is Mark Ingram's Production Here to Stay?

After rushing a career-high 24 times for 172 yards and a score last week, just how effective has Mark Ingram been this year?

We haven't seen a true lead back on a Sean Payton Saints team since his first year as head coach in 2006 - Payton has only had one running back, Deuce McAlister, that has eclipsed 200-plus carries in a season.

He may need to start rethinking his philosophy.

Mark Ingram started the 2014 season on a tear, posting 165 total yards and 3 touchdowns in his first two games. Following the departure of Darren Sproles to Philadelphia, there figured to be less competition for snaps between Ingram and his fellow backfield mates in Pierre Thomas, Khiry Robinson and Travaris Cadet.

While the snap counts to start the season weren't necessarily in Ingram's favor, the carries certainly were. Ingram's rushing attempt total during the first two games equaled the combined efforts from the rest of the Saints' backfield. Ingram seemed primed to finally have a breakout year before fracturing his hand at the end of Week 2, forcing him to miss the next three games.

After a presumably rushed start back to the lineup following the team's bye, Ingram had a poor outing against the Detroit Lions, as Payton eased him back into the lineup. However, Ingram followed that up with a monster stat line of 172-yard game against the Packers during prime time last week, consequently solidifying himself as the most-efficient running back of 2014, pacing the league as its Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) leader.

For those unaware of numberFire's metrics, NEP quantifies a player's contribution to his team’s scoring output based on how that player performs versus what is expected of him. These numbers can provide a sense of efficiency of just how well a player is performing against his peers.

Rush NEPRush NEP RankRush NEP/CarryRush NEP/Carry RankTotal NEPTotal NEP Rank
Mark Ingram16.211st0.281st16.838th
Justin Forsett13.892nd0.132nd15.469th
Chris Ivory11.013rd0.113rd17.086th
Arian Foster9.384th0.067th21.054th
Le'Veon Bell8.655th0.067th35.771st

Out of running backs with over 50 carries, Mark Ingram ranks first in Rushing NEP, first in Rushing NEP per carry and 8th in Total NEP, which factors in receiving. Generally speaking, it's much easier to accrue a high NEP score by picking up chunk or big-play yardage through the air via receptions for running backs. The fact that Ingram's Total NEP rank is so high on only seven receptions makes it even more impressive.

Ingram is by no stretch of the imagination the best playmaker for New Orleans, as tight end Jimmy Graham easily takes that award topping all skill players in Total NEP. Having a routine 5,000-yard passer in Drew Brees direct this offense makes it difficult for Payton to stray from what has been working so well during the nine years he and Brees have worked together.

However, Ingram's effectiveness should not go unnoticed by Payton, as he not only leads the league in Rushing NEP, but could help lead the Saints to victories as well. With Payton rushing the ball only 38% of the time (third lowest in the NFL), he may need to start thinking about revising his offensive game plan to help get his 3-4 Saints team back in the hunt of the NFC playoff race.

Can Ingram Keep it Up?

Ingram's remaining schedule looks very favorable. It's particularly good during fantasy football playoffs, too, where Ingram faces a stretch of bottom-tiered rushing defenses.

Saints Remaining ScheduleOpponentDefensive Rushing NEP Rank
Week 9@ Carolina25th
Week 10vs San Francisco11th
Week 11vs Cincinnati30th
Week 12vs Baltimore4th
Week 13@ Pittsburgh26th
Week 14vs Carolina25th
Week 15@ Chicago24th
Week 16vs Atlanta31st
Week 17@ Tampa Bay5th

While Ingram is somewhat in a timeshare running back rotation, he's already proven to be the most effective back on the Saints squad. Injuries to the other backs have provided Ingram a golden opportunity to seize in the coming weeks. Pierre Thomas will likely be out for a couple of weeks due to an injured shoulder and ribs. Khiry Robinson will miss this week's game due to an injured forearm and will likely be questionable for Week 10.

This leaves Ingram as an excellent play this week as the undisputed lead back against a Carolina defense giving up the second-most rushing yards in the NFL, and one that ranks 30th against the run according to our metrics.

Mark Ingram has shown the ability to produce when provided the opportunity by Sean Payton. With a favorable schedule and talented offensive line in front of him, the only thing preventing Ingram from keeping up this production is Payton's play calling.