New Orleans Saints Roster Review: Running Back

Khiry Robinson hopes to silence the naysayers about the Saints rushing attack in 2014. - Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It was a season of highs and lows for the Saints' rushing attack. Is it time for a change or should the same crew get another shot at improving the Saints' inconsistent running game?

When Sean Payton returned to the New Orleans Saints in 2013, there was one thing that he said that stuck in the minds of hopeful Saints fans. We have to run the ball more and have to run it more effectively. A more balanced attack in 2009 and 2011 resulted in two 13-3 seasons, so that certainly made a lot of sense.

So how did the running game do in 2013 versus the previous seven seasons? Eh, not so good.

SEASON ATTEMPTS RUSHING YARDS YARDS PER ATT TOUCHDOWNS
2013 391 1,473 3.8 10
2012 370 1,577 4.3 10
2011 431 2,127 4.9 16
2010 380 1,519 4.0 9
2009 468 2,106 4.5 21
2008 398 1,594 4.0 20
2007 392 1,466 3.7 14
2006 472 1,761 3.7 19

***

During the regular season, the Saints' rushing attack did not show the improvement that we were all hoping for. By putting up bottom 3 numbers (comparing the last 8 years) in every statistical category mentioned above, fans pointed fingers not only at the running backs, but also at the offensive line. Both groups definitely deserve their fair share of the blame. The part that is somewhat puzzling is the fact that only 2 players were missing from last season versus this season (running back Chris Ivory and left tackle Jermon Bushrod). One would think that getting the genius of Sean Payton back along with returning most of the same familiar personnel would have done the Saints some good in accomplishing the goal of an improved running game.

The encouraging part to all of this is the fact that the running game really started to click in the postseason with a 36 carry, 185 yard performance against the Philadelphia Eagles and a 26 carry, 108 yard performance against a tough Seattle Seahawk defense. There weren't too many regular season games that could even compare to these two postseason performances, as the Saints failed to rush for 100 yards in 11 regular season games.

So the questions remain. What needs to change? Will we see a change at the running back position in 2014 and do the Saints still have the pieces necessary to make the improvement next season that they fell short in making in 2013?

***

Pierre Thomas: signed through 2014

Age To Start 2014: 29

2014 Cap Hit: $2,900,000

For only the second time in his 7 year career, Pierre Thomas led the Saints in rushing attempts (147, almost twice as many as Mark Ingram's 78). The 2013 season was a perfect opportunity for PT to finally prove that he was a legitimate starting running back in the NFL and he responded by averaging only 3.7 yards per carry, by far his worst mark excluding his injury shortened 2010 season. Thomas was second on the team with 77 receptions, but only averaged 6.7 yards per catch, which was his worst total as a Saint. I am a big fan of Pierre Thomas, but I think it's time to face the fact that PT is not the guy that should lead this team in carries. After receiving more work following the turf toe injury to Mark Ingram, Thomas seemed to run out of gas during the Saints' final stretch run with 30 carries for only 63 rushing yards and 1 touchdown in his final 5 regular season games. Actually, when you think about it, Thomas rushing the ball at the end of the season was comparable to what Ingram produced to start the season. He still may be the best all around running back on the roster, but his lack of consistency this season was a little surprising. While the Saints try to figure out what to do with their current cap situation, cutting Pierre Thomas would cost them nothing. It is not something that I would want to see, but is a possibility with Thomas approaching that dreaded 30 year old mark.

***

Mark Ingram: signed through 2014

Age To Start 2014: 24

2014 Cap Hit: $2,359,875

Ingram started the 2013 season running softer than the Snuggle Bear. Then, the Saints hosted the Cowboys, and Ingram ran like a man possessed making Saints nation wonder "who the hell is THIS guy"? Ingram really didn't build on that performance immediately following that game, but really turned it on at the end of the season with 44 carries for 249 yards (5.7 yards per carry) in the last 4 games (including the postseason). While Saints fans certainly aren't fully confident in Ingram's ability just yet, you have to admit that you feel a little bit better about him today than you did 3 or 4 months ago. He's 24 in a contract year, so his window of opportunity with the Saints is closing. It may be a foolish assumption to think that Ingram could be a difference maker in his upcoming 4th season in the NFL, but if Ingram can continue to improve following a nice finish to the 2013 season, we may finally find it in our hearts to forgive him for underachieving for most of his early NFL career. Cutting him would cost the Saints close to $1 million and trading him would get the Saints little value in return, so I expect for Ingram to be a Saint next season. Let's hope his time to shine has finally come.

***

Darren Sproles: signed through 2014

Age To Start 2014: 31

2014 Cap Hit: $4,250,000

You may have noticed that this is the 3rd consecutive running back due to be a free agent following the 2014 season. While Sproles did catch 71 passes in 15 games, his production seemed to dip considerably in the second half of the season. In New Orleans, Sproles is coming off of his lowest season in rushing yards, receiving yards, and receptions. Sproles' numbers have declined in each season as a Saint, while his cap hit continues to increase. He's one of the most exciting players in the NFL to watch play the game, with his short frame, overall toughness, and blazing speed. But in 2013, it looked like Sproles may have lost a step. He isn't as effective in the return game either, having maybe his worst season as a return man in his exciting nine year career. The weapon that is Darren Sproles is more of a luxury versus a necessity, so do not be surprised if the Saints entertain the possibility of actually cutting him. Like I said about PT, I really would hate to see this happen, but this is a move that could make sense. The Saints would only be responsible for $750,000 of Sproles' salary, leaving the Saints with an extra $3.5 million to play with. However, Sproles means so much to this passing game that he may be worth every penny of his salary, but we should be cautious with him entering his age 31 season. Besides, the pattern is showing for more decline in 2014.

***

Khiry Robinson: signed through 2015

Age To Start 2014: 24

2014 Cap Hit: $495,333

The undrafted rookie free agent out of West Texas A&M showed a hunger to make his presence known in this backfield in 2013. Like Ingram, Robinson really started to show his potential late in the season with 33 carries for 152 yards (4.6 yards per carry) and one touchdown in his last 3 games (including the postseason). With his rookie season over with and done, Khiry needs to work on his ability to block and become a productive receiver out of the backfield. Robinson was an effective pass catcher in college, so he certainly has the potential to be even better in 2014. He could be the next Pierre Thomas, or possibly even better. With the low cap hit and a surprising start to his NFL career, it's pretty safe to assume that Khiry will be on the roster in 2014.

***

Travaris Cadet: signed through 2014

Age To Start 2014: 25

2014 Cap Hit: $571,667

Cadet didn't have much of a role in 2013. On special teams, Cadet only returned 9 kicks. While one of those returns went for 82 yards, his other 8 returns averaged only 19.6 yards. He seems like a player who will have to earn his roster spot in the preseason because it would only cost the Saints $1,667 to cut him, saving the team $500,000 for someone who may be better for a special teams unit that needs a boost.

***

Jed Collins: signed through 2014

Age To Start 2014: 28

2014 Cap Hit: $555,000

Jedidiah has become a pretty dependable fullback for the Saints. It appears that Austin Johnson is still hanging around to push him for the fullback roster spot, but it seems pretty likely that Jed will be with the Saints in 2014. However, if someone happens to beat out Jed for a roster spot, cutting him wouldn't cost the Saints anything.

***

Free Agents and the NFL Draft

Well, it seems like every year the Saints bring in some undrafted free agent to compete for a roster spot at running back. Usually, that ends up being a success. Unless the Saints see a running back in the mid to lower rounds of the draft that can't possibly be passed up, I would assume that the Saints will bring in another motivated undrafted free agent to push the incumbents. With the exception of Darren Sproles being signed (during the offseason of the strike), the Saints during the Payton era have not been a team to look at signing veteran free agents at the running back position. I would be surprised if this season was any different.

***

The main cogs of this backfield are aging and the majority of the rushing attack will be free agents after this season. It will be very interesting to see if the Saints keep the entire band together and roll with a four headed monster or if they decide to let one of the main pieces go. I guess it depends on who is most to blame for the disappointing running game in 2013.

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