Without Mark Ingram, Don’t Expect to Find Much Fantasy Football Success in the Saints' Backfield

The Saints will look to Tim Hightower and C.J. Spiller to replace Mark Ingram, who's now out for the year. And it's not looking good.

In a year chock-full of season-ending injuries, particularly at the running back position, Mark Ingram had been one of the few bastions of reliability from backs drafted in the early rounds.

Through 13 weeks, Ingram stands as fantasy football’s fourth-highest scoring running back, averaging just about 12 points per game in standard scoring leagues.

But, like many other top running backs before him, Ingram will soon be hitting the free agent pool after the Saints placed him on injured reserve Wednesday.

NFL Network’s Rand Getlin reported early Wednesday afternoon that Ingram’s season was in jeopardy due to a shoulder injury.

It was confirmed later by multiple reports that Ingram would in fact be placed on injured reserve, ending his season with 1,174 total yards and six touchdowns.

After already losing Khiry Robinson with a broken leg in Week 8, the Saints are left with C.J. Spiller and Tim Hightower to attempt to replace Ingram’s production.

What Are the Saints Losing?

Following an impressive 2014 campaign, Ingram had continued building upon last season’s success in 2015.

Ingram was on pace for his first ever 1,000-yard season, posting 769 rushing yards through 12 games, good enough for a 4.6 yard per carry average. He’d also improved as a receiver, catching 50 passes -- nearly doubling his previous career high of 29, set just last year -- for 405 yards.

According to numberFire’s signature metric,  Net Expected Points (NEP), Ingram has been on of the more efficient running backs in the league. He currently ranks 13th among 39 running backs with at least 100 carries with a -2.22 Rushing Net Expected Points score.

NEP measures how many points a player adds to his team’s point total based on historical expectation. You can read more about NEP in the glossary.

Per Football Outsiders, Ingram had handled 62.5 percent of snaps in the Saints backfield, far outpacing Spiller (18.6 percent) and Hightower (2.2 percent), who was activated in Week 9 following Robinson’s injury.

Replacement By Committee?

Numerous reports from Saints beat writers have already speculated that Hightower and Spiller will form an ever-dreaded running back-by-committee (RBBC) to replace Ingram.

Overall, the Saints' rushing attack ranks 16th in the league, per numberFire. But the Saints remain a pass-first team, averaging 94.4 rushing yards per game -- 25th in the league -- while running on only about 35 percent of their offensive plays.

In limited action this year, neither Hightower or Spiller have been particularly impressive.

Running Back Rush Attempts Rushing Yards Yards Per Carry Snap Percentage since Week 9 Rushing NEP
Tim Hightower 12 48 4.0 7.5% 0.36
CJ Spiller 31 108 3.5 16.3% -4.7

Note: Since Hightower was first activated in Week 9 against Tennessee, Spiller has carried the ball 11 times for 30 yards (2.7 yards per carry).

Spiller has had a particularly disappointing season. After signing a four-year, $9 million guaranteed deal with the Saints in March, there was speculation that Spiller would have a significant pass-catching role on the offense to complement Ingram’s power.

That has never come close to fruition. Instead, Spiller has mostly been a non-factor on offense. On the season, he’s played 18.6 percent of the team’s snaps and carried the ball 31 times for 108 yards. He's had 29 receptions for 216 yards and two touchdowns, only sixth best on the team in terms of receptions.

Hightower, on the other hand, hadn’t recorded an NFL carry since 2011 before he saw his first carries in Week 10 against Washington. In the four games that he’s been active, Hightower has rushed only 12 times for 48 yards. The majority of his production came in Week 10 when Ingram missed time due to an injury during the game.

In that Redskins game, Hightower rushed 11 times for 46 yards, compared to Spiller’s eight carries for 24 yards. With Ingram missing much of the game, Spiller played 32 percent (18) of the offensive snaps and Hightower played 28 percent (16) snaps, according to Football Outsiders.

The Upcoming Schedule

Running back-by-committees are typically best approached with caution, and with the less than stellar production we’ve seen from Spiller and Hightower, that certainly applies here.

Additionally, the Saints upcoming schedule does not appear kind for running back production.

This week, the Saints travel to Tampa Bay to take on the Buccaneers’ eighth-ranked rushing defense, per numberFire’s schedule-adjusted metrics. In Week 15, the Saints host the Lions (18th) and in Week 16, the Jaguars (16th) will travel to New Orleans.

These three teams have been quite stingy to running back production over the past five weeks. Combined, the three defensive units have allowed only two running backs to produce top-15 fantasy production.

In Week 9, Chris Ivory ran for 26 yards on 23 carries, but scored two touchdowns against Jacksonville, good enough to be RB11 that week. Darren Sproles came in as RB 14 in Week 11 against Tampa Bay, running for 21 yards on six carries, but he also caught three passes for 38 yards and one touchdown.

For those that will still be playing in Week 17, the Saints travel to Atlanta to take on the Falcons’ 15th ranked run defense.

Is There Fantasy Goodness to Be Had?

With Ingram out of the picture, the Saints' backfield appears headed toward a place where only owners with the bleakest of running back situations can venture.

The 29-year-old Hightower is in the midst of his first football action in four years, and despite the Saints investment in Spiller, they’ve shown very little to lead one to believe that he can be a significant part of the offense.

If Hightower becomes the Saints goal line back, as ESPN’s Mike Triplett has speculated, he could fetch some fantasy value. Of Ingram’s six touchdowns on the season, four have come within the opponent’s five-yard line.

The Saints are averaging 24.9 points per game and own the league’s eighth best offense, per numberFire, possibly providing some scoring opportunities for Hightower despite the tough matchups ahead.

Perhaps you’ve earned a first round bye and have an extra roster spot to pick up either Hightower or Spiller to see how things develop, but if you’re planning to start one of this two in the first round of the fantasy playoffs, good luck.

You’re most likely going to need it.