Why Mark Ingram Is a Sneaky Fantasy Football Option in 2015

Most people are upset Mark Ingram has re-signed with New Orleans, but there are reasons to be thrilled to see him back in gold and black.

I would never expect a man who stands five-foot-nine and weighs 215 pounds ever to be considered for casting as super-spy James Bond, but during this exciting NFL offseason weekend, one piece of explosive news somehow slipped through the cracks. Announced Saturday, running back Mark Ingram re-signed with the New Orleans Saints for a substantial $16 million over four years.

And somehow -- with all of the other trade and free agent mayhem happening -- no one noticed.

This is why I am personally writing to the Ian Fleming estate to have them consider Ingram as the next actor in the lead role of the 007 thrillers: Mark Ingram is the sneakiest lock to be a starting fantasy running back in 2015. With his silenced gold and black cleats and an Aston Martin-esque chassis of his own, this 2014 feature back is poised to take the fantasy landscape by storm once again and escape unscathed once more.

So why hasn’t anyone noticed?

The Back Who Trucked Me

Let’s examine this Man of Mystery himself first. Mark Ingram was the 28th selection of the 2011 NFL Draft out of Alabama, heralded as an instant star. He broke onto the NFL scene as a 21-year-old running back in, theoretically, a lead role; he had no expected competition for the job and was a star with the SEC powerhouse Crimson Tide. Everyone expected him to be that rarest of fantasy assets: a young star instantly molded, who would lead his franchise’s ground game for a decade.

Well, he did technically lead the New Orleans Saints’ backfield, but it wasn’t pretty. From the 2011 to 2012 seasons, Ingram had the most rushing attempts of any New Orleans runner but was nearly matched by three of his teammates -- Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles, and Chris Ivory -- both of those years. He was solidly behind Thomas in touches in his rookie season, and nearly fell behind again in 2012, his sophomore year. Yet in 2014, once given a full plate of touches, Ingram broke out in a big way and was the ninth-best qualifying running back in PPR scoring formats on a points-per-game basis. Did he not deserve this laud coming out, or was there always a greater plan in place?

To answer this question, we will examine Ingram’s career through the lens of numberFire’s signature metric: Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP is a measure of how much a player contributed to his team’s chances of scoring on any given play from any given point on the field. By giving traditional statistics probability context, we can more truly assess value and production for a player or an entire unit. How does Ingram match up?

The table below shows Mark Ingram’s career numbers in terms of Rushing NEP and Reception NEP. His ranks among backs with at least 50 carries in each season also appear. Was Ingram worth it, or was his breakout campaign a fluke?

YearAgeRushRush NEPRecRec NEP
2011211220.21 (26th)110.06 (60th)
201222156-6.99 (37th)60.12 (60th)
20132378-5.72 (32nd)72.73 (44th)
2014242269.88 (10th)29-2.77 (67th)

We can see that Ingram has slowly progressed each year in terms of his running ability in the NFL. While playing an even split in his rookie year, it seems that defenses might not have known how much of a threat the bruising back would be, but in his second and third years, this was capped, and then workload reduced his value even more. However, his his raw Rushing NEP, his per-attempt Rushing NEP, and his Rushing NEP ranks have all steadily improved to this point.

Ingram’s major hole to his game has remained; he is not a particularly good or efficient receiving back. His value in Reception NEP has fluctuated severely over his four years in the league, but that shouldn’t scare you off from a player who had a phenomenal rushing year that appears sustainable, behind a finally-improving offensive line (the Saints were 12th last year in run blocking per Pro Football Focus’ grades).

Why, then, is he still sneaking by the fantasy community?

For Your Lineup Only

The other big perception that prospective Mark Ingram owners have to be willing to shake is that the New Orleans Saints’ offensive situation is a mess for running backs. The thought is that Sean Payton’s play calling is simply a vehicle for Drew Brees to rack up passing statistics, and on top of that, the run game is ineffective even when they use it. How does that hold up when we look at the numbers?

This table shows the Saints’ offensive numbers through the last five years, in terms of play call ratio, and Adjusted NEP (adjusted for strength of opponents), as well as their ranks in these categories. What do we find?

YearPassRushP/R RatioAdj Rush NEP
20106863801.81 (3rd)-13.99 (18th)
20116864311.59 (4th)43.88 (4th)
20129763701.88 (4th)15.24 (10th)
20136893901.77 (5th)2.80 (15th)
20146894061.70 (5th)16.87 (5th)

Sure enough, as the pass-to-run ratio indicates, New Orleans has been one of the biggest proponents of the aerial game for the last five years, and while that appears to be trending away somewhat, it’s in no danger of changing any time soon. That said -- while the team has been in the bottom quarter of the league even in raw rushing attempts (proving it’s not just percentage of a large volume of total plays) -- the run game has been quite effective every year since Mark Ingram came into the league. Three top-10 finishes in Adjusted Rushing NEP, and the other a top-half finish, shows that whatever is happening, it’s working.

The threat of a future Hall of Fame quarterback's airing the ball out is likely enough to keep defenses on their heels, as Ingram and his cohort dominate the ground. There has been a steady progression toward a more solid run game for these Saints, and Ingram himself has been progressing steadily in this system as well. With the financial investment that the team has made in Ingram over a long span of time for a running back -- not to mention that the toughest competition for him will come in the form of former undrafted free agent Khiry Robinson and street free agent Tim Hightower -- I feel comfortable saying that they see quality in him too.

For a player who will be turning just 26 in December, with the lack of workload he has seen in his career thus far, Ingram's re-signing with the Saints makes him the Daniel Craig of fantasy backs for 2015: the sexiest option that you never saw coming and from whom you now can’t look away.