Should You Draft Mark Ingram or C.J. Spiller in Your Fantasy Football PPR League?

The Saints' backfield promises to be explosive this season. Which back is worth owning in PPR leagues?

The New Orleans Saints have long been a frustrating team for fantasy owners who use their running backs. While not exactly Bellicheckian in his disdain for fantasy players, coach Sean Payton has long employed a split-duty approach to running backs touches.

This approach hasn’t necessarily resulted in the typical two-down bruiser/third-down pass-catching specialist division of labor, either. Since 2006, the Saints have had at least two running backs receive at least 80 rushing attempts in all but the 2013 and 2014 seasons.

They’ve also had five seasons in this timeframe where at least two running backs in the same year received at least 45 targets through the air.

Yeah, Sean Payton hasn’t been too kind to us.

But offseason moves -- including the trades of Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills -- point to the team balancing out their offensive attack between the pass and the run.

And there’s reason for optimism headed into the 2015 season where, based on coaching statements and offensive personnel changes, we may have two start-worthy tailbacks in Mark Ingram and C.J. Spiller.

For now, the conventional wisdom is that Ingram will serve as the team’s primary rusher while Spiller will receive the lion’s share of work in the passing game.

Fantasy drafters will likely come to a late third-round/early fourth-round crossroads in which Spiller and Ingram are both remaining on the board. And in PPR leagues, according to, Spiller and Ingram’s average draft positions are back to back at 37 and 38, respectively.

So, who should you pick come draft day? Let’s take a look at the case for each.

The Case for Mark Ingram

Mark Ingram’s career, up until 2014, could accurately be described as a big disappointment in terms of fantasy production. But owners taking one last swing drafting Ingram at a rock-bottom price were rewarded handsomely for their acumen with a 964-yard, 9-touchdown 2014 season, all of which occurred in 13 games.

Ingram has ample opportunity to expand on those numbers in 2015. The Saints have openly talked about balancing their offensive attack. Ingram figures to be the primary beneficiary of this based on his career consistency.

 Mark Ingram Career Rushing Production

Year Rushes Rushing NEP Rushing NEP per Rush Success Rate
2011 122 0.21 0.00 46.72%
2012 156 -6.99 -0.04 40.38%
2013 78 -5.72 -0.07 39.74%
2014 226 9.88 0.04 45.58%
Career 582 -2.62 0.00 43.64%

CJ Spiller Career Rushing Production

Year Rushes Rushing NEP Per Rush Success Rate
2010 74 -10.17 -0.14 41.89%
2011 106 12.79 0.12 45.28%
2012 207 25.45 0.12 49.28%
2013 201 -12.74 -0.06 34.83%
2014 77 -15.7 -0.2 31.17%
Career 665 -0.37 0.00 41.28%

As you can see, Ingram put up the best numbers of his career in terms of total Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP), and Rushing NEP per rush in 2014.

For the unfamiliar, NEP is numberFire’s metric for determining performance above-or-under expectation in a given in-game situation. With expectation determined by a number of football variables including down-and-distance to go, performance above expectation results in positive NEP, and vice versa. You can learn more about NEP here in our glossary

But overall, Ingram has posted above average numbers in terms of per-rush efficiency with a 0.00 Rushing NEP per rush over the course of his career. While Spiller’s per-touch efficiency has been nearly identical, the difference in averages between Ingram’s best and worst seasons (0.11 Rushing NEP per rush) suggests far more consistency than that of Spiller (0.32 rushing NEP per rush).

This is also shown by Ingram’s Success Rate in comparison to Spiller’s, where Ingram bests Spiller 43.64% to 41.28% over the course of their careers.

Opportunity-wise, if the Saints return to their 1.21:1 pass-to-run ratio from 2009, there will be approximately 470 rushing plays for the taking among the Saints backs.

If we assume, as all reports indicate, that Spiller will be utilized primarily as a pass-catching back in the mold of Darren Sproles circa 2011-2013, then he shouldn’t get more than 120 of those carries on the ground. And it appears that Khiry Robinson is once again the odd man out of the Saints backfield heading into 2015, so expecting more than 70 to 100 carries out of him would be foolhardy.

That leaves approximately 280 carries for Ingram in 2015; a solid, near bell-cow status workload, that only four running backs across the league topped in 2014.

And with a more balanced offensive attack, it’s likely Ingram can reach or exceed his career average of 4.2 yards per carry, and match or exceed last year’s nine touchdowns, given the expectation that he will gobble up nearly all of the goal-line work.

Given his career consistency, a renewed team focus on running the ball, and the opportunities for carries looking like it could touch 300, Ingram is the safer choice between the two Saints running backs. 

The Case for C.J. Spiller

C.J. Spiller’s career, needless to say, took a turn for the better when he signed on the dotted line with the Saints. Spiller was electrifying in 2012, garnering over 1,650 all-purpose yards and busting out a ridiculous 6.0 yards per carry average.

But since, Spiller has only managed to put up middling numbers due in equal part to injury and being in an overall ineffective offense in Buffalo in 2013 and 2014.

It’s the upside Spiller showed in 2012, though, that makes this such an interesting debate, and the stars may be aligning for him to reproduce that 2012 magic.

First, regarding the Saints rushing attack, Spiller will move to a team that, according to Football Outsiders, graded out second in the league in overall run blocking. The Bills? 26th And the Saints re-upped on their commitment to keeping their run-blocking unit solid by trading Jimmy Graham for Pro Bowl center Max Unger.

So even if Spiller is set to cede most of the rushing work to Ingram, expect him to do more with the 100-plus rushes he does receive than he was able to do his last two seasons in Buffalo.

But there’s no guarantee that, should Spiller be as effective as he was in 2012, he will remain relegated to change of pace duties and passing down work. How effective was he in 2012? Insanely effective.

Since 2000, there have been 345 total seasons for running backs toting the rock 200 or more times. Spiller had the 14th best season of these in terms of Rushing NEP per rush.

So even if Ingram is having a really good season, I find it hard to believe that Sean Payton, he of onside-kick-to-start-the-second-half-at-the-Super-Bowl fame, will stick to keeping Spiller in a niche role if he’s pumping out those kind of numbers.

But even if he does relegate Spiller to a minor rushing, but major pass-catching role, in PPR leagues, Spiller figures to remain a force to be reckoned with. 

Season RB Targets % of Targets to Lead Receiving RB
2006 213 57%
2007 188 52%
2008 165 44%
2009 140 49%
2010 113 37%
2011 198 56%
2012 194 54%
2013 204 44%
2014 165 33%

With Payton and Drew Brees directing 48% of running back targets through the air dedicated to the highest targeted back since 2006, and an average of 176 targets per season to all Saints running backs, Spiller should conservatively receive a minimum 84 targets via the air.

This doesn’t even account for the fact that Ingram basically has stone hands and has received no more than 29 targets in a single season.

It also doesn’t account for the fact that neither Pierre Thomas, nor Travaris Cadet, who together monopolized 64% of the team’s running back-directed targets in 2014, are both no longer with the team.

Assuming Spiller maintains his 77% career catch rate, he would reel in 65 of those targets. And this season Drew Brees will be feeding him the ball, so that catch rate could be even stronger.

It may be more realistic to predict that Spiller will accrue a percentage of targets closer to the high end of what Payton’s offense has historically afforded the lead receiving back. If Spiller garnered 57% of running back targets via the air, he’d reel in 77 receptions. And with a career average of 7.6 yards per reception in Buffalo, it’s not inconceivable to assume Spiller could reach 600 yards via the air alone.

Sometimes, in order to win fantasy championships, you have to swing for the fences. In this regard, Spiller’s outrageous upside may prove to be a gamble worth taking over the safety Ingram offers. 

numberFire Projections

Name Rushes Rush Yards Rush TDs Receptions Rec. Yards Rec. TD's PPR Fantasy Points
Mark Ingram 237.35 1062.65 8.16 16.34 103.35 0.05 176.64
C.J. Spiller 116.83 381.29 1.92 59.77 449.41 8.83 176.32

We currently project Ingram and Spiller to finish less than a half of a point away from each other in terms of PPR fantasy production.

So what am I doing come draft day in this scenario?

Given the negligible difference in our projections between the two, I’m going with Spiller’s upside because I think he has more of an opportunity to make waves on the ground than Ingram does via the air.

But a solid case can be made for both of these backs in an offense captained by a sure-fire Hall of Famer in Drew Brees.