When Saints fans think about the Sean Payton era, there are many accolades and contributions that immediately come to mind. Of course, the magical 2009 season, the signing of Drew Brees, the emergence of lower round draft picks like Jahri Evans, Carl Nicks, and Marques Colston, the record setting offenses. We have enjoyed an era of success that no Saints fan takes for granted. This is due to smart talent evaluation and a coaching staff that seems to get the most out of players that may not have been highly thought of by the draft "experts."
Since 2006, the Saints have drafted two running backs in the first round. Reggie Bush was the obvious pick in 2006 as the Saints so desperately needed a game-changer on offense following the 3-13 season. Reggie had some great moments in a Saints uniform, but never became the Pro Bowl stud that he was expected to be. The off-season of 2011 featured the lockout and an improbable return for Reggie, leading to the drafting of Mark Ingram. When the lockout ended, the Saints were able to add the dynamic Darren Sproles to the mix. So far, Ingram has also failed to meet his lofty expectations. However, the Saints have adopted what seems to be a yearly tradition: finding undrafted running backs who can contribute to the team in some way.
It all started in 2007, with an undrafted free agent out of Illinois. While the Saints roster already had Deuce McAllister, Reggie Bush, 4th round pick Antonio Pittman, and veteran Aaron Stecker, it was Pierre Thomas who emerged during the 2007 preseason. With 33 carries for 190 yards (5.8 YPC), 3 rushing TDs, and 6 receptions for 95 yards, the production of PT could not be ignored. Pittman never received a regular season touch as a Saint and Pierre Thomas is still a major part of this offense today.
While 2008 was Lynell Hamilton's first preseason, it was 2009 that earned him serious consideration for a roster spot. After 40 carries, 177 yards (4.4 YPC) rushing and 10 receptions, 104 yards receiving during the preseason, the Saints had a player who could contribute if/when Deuce, Reggie, or Thomas went down with an injury. Hamilton did have his number called a few times during the Saints' Super Bowl run, which included a TD run in the 45-14 victory against the Cardinals in the divisional round.
The 2010 preseason introduced Saints Nation to Chris Ivory. I remember being amazed by how hard this kid ran. His lone reception was a 76-yard TD. With Deuce no longer on the team, it seemed like the Saints found their next bull rusher. Ivory went on to lead the team in rushing in his rookie season and instantly became a fan favorite. This year, the Saints traded this undrafted free agent for what turned out to be an opportunity to draft the potential Saints nose tackle of the future, John Jenkins.
In 2011, another undrafted rookie free agent running back had an impressive preseason. Joique Bell had 31 carries, 182 yards (5.9 YPC), 1 rushing TD, with 9 receptions for 139 yards. This time, the Saints were so loaded with running backs (Sproles, Thomas, Ivory, Ingram) that this kid never had his shot in a Saints uniform. In 2012, he was arguably the Detroit Lions' most consistent all around RB, averaging five yards per carry while adding 52 receptions for 485 yards.
It happened again in 2012. This time, Travaris Cadet's preseason impact was enough to force the Saints to carry five running backs. While he had a rather mediocre 39 carries for 132 yards, he had an impressive 30 catches for 246 yards and 2 TDs in 5 games. He also had a decent showing as a return man, which ultimately was his main role during the regular season.
Does Khiry Robinson have what it takes to continue this trend of unexpected running back talent?
Robinson transferred to West Texas A&M after earning his associate's degree from Blinn College. In 2012, Khiry was a huge part of the offense, rushing for 1,621 yards (6.6 YPC) with 15 TDs in 13 games. He also added 38 receptions for 430 yards and 4 TDs. At 6'0", 220 pounds Robinson certainly passes the eye test with his tough, physical running style while having the ability to make tacklers miss. He doesn't have excellent speed (about a mid 4.6 sec in the 40), but seems to have good instincts. Just take a look at this video. I simply see Chris Ivory type of potential here, except with better hands.
While most of us may not have heard of Khiry Robinson, many analysts of the college game looked at Robinson as a sleeper in this year's draft. Most of them love his all around game (including his pass blocking ability) and his natural football instincts. He has not had the opportunity to play against the better defensive talent at the college level, but there have been plenty of NFL players that have followed the same path of emerging from a smaller school. If Robinson proves to have an excellent work ethic and continues to develop, he may be the next running back to have a big preseason. A preseason that Coach Payton simply cannot ignore.
The Saints seem set at running back in 2013. Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram, and Pierre Thomas are locks to make the roster. It seems likely that Cadet is part of the future plans as well. However, if Robinson continues to prove that he has the ability to run hard, block, and catch the ball out of the backfield, Cadet's future with this team may be on the line. I know it's too early to tell, but recent history tells us not to count out the new running back in camp. I'm looking forward to seeing if Robinson is the real deal and if the Saints found another diamond in the rough.