It’s only natural that fans will look to next year as the New Orleans Saints trudge towards the end of the 2016 season. Between free agency and the NFL Draft, the Saints will have opportunities to upgrade their roster and compete again in the twilight of quarterback Drew Brees’ career.
One position that has fans buzzing is the running back. Mark Ingram is locked in as the starter and, as talented as this class may be, no rookie is going to unseat him. Ingram has developed nicely into an all-around pro, adding elements to his game like blitz pick-up and receiving ability.
But the team needs a compliment to Ingram in the backfield. Ingram can’t do it alone, and the offense has seen its wings clipped by lacking an effective pass-catcher at running back. Brees’ squad of receivers have been their most potent when they could dictate matchups and get guys like Darren Sproles and Reggie Bush lined up against ungainly linebackers in coverage.
Travaris Cadet has done his best for New Orleans, but he can’t make the roster of any other NFL team. He’s not someone you want to lean on in critical two-minute drill situations. Rookie Daniel Lasco has the makings of an elite special teams player and could be a contributor on offense if he stays healthy. Second-year draft pick Marcus Murphy has struggled to get on the field. Veteran Tim Hightower is a backup for Ingram and doesn’t have the right skills set to thrive in this role.
So, let’s look to the draft for prospects who could hear the Saints call their name next spring:
Christian McCaffrey, Stanford
McCaffrey announced his early entry into the 2017 NFL Draft last week and should be on the Saints’ radar. The former Heisman Trophy candidate has posted monstrous stat lines in the PAC-12, scoring 31 career touchdowns from scrimmage and averaging 138.6 yards from scrimmage per game.
As an important piece of Stanford’s passing attack, McCaffrey has averaged 3.3 catches and 38.5 receiving yards per game the last two years. He has the size (6-foot-0, 200-pounds) to get tough yards up the middle, too, having ground out 3,915 yards on 631 carries in his career – an impressive rate of 6.2 yards per carry.
He’s an elite asset on special teams, too: McCaffrey has averaged 27.2 yards per kickoff return and an even 9 yards per punt return as a starter the last two years. McCaffrey has the athletic tools and experienced savvy to be successful in the NFL, and is the best possible fit for the Saints at running back in the first two rounds of the 2017 NFL Draft. McCaffrey could be the steal of the draft if he’s still available at the Saints’ pick in the second round, which may be possible given the glut of top-end talent at the position.
Wayne Gallman, Clemson
The Saints probably shouldn’t take a “want” like running back in the first or second round when they have so many “needs” at positions on defense. So a guy like Wayne Gallman in the third or fourth round makes a lot of sense. Gallman is a true three-down player for Clemson, seeing a huge share of his passing-down snaps in blitz pickup. Gallman has a rare understanding of how to square up against pass-rushers and track moving targets before making contact to keep his passer clean.
He can also make plays with the ball in his hand, though he hasn’t been given many chances thanks to Clemson’s pipeline of wide receiver talent to the NFL (Gallman’s teammates include 2017 standout prospects in Mike Williams and Artavis Scott, as well as New York Jets receiver Charone Peake). Gallman has a great feel for setting up his blockers on screens and keeping his feet churning through contact to bowl over defensive backs and fight for extra yards.
Physically, Gallman (6-foot-1, 215-pounds) recalls former New Orleans Saints running back Pierre Thomas. He could form a bruising tandem with Ingram to gash teams on the ground and through the air much like Thomas once did.
Matt Dayes, North Carolina State
The Saints could very well choose to forego adding another running back until the last day of the draft, in which case North Carolina State’s Matt Dayes comes into play. Built more like Darren Sproles than any other back on this list (listed at 5-foot-9, 203-pounds), Dayes has impressive receiving ability with 97 career receptions to his name. He’s put some hides on the wall as a ball-carrier, too, notching 374 carries, 1,984 yards, and 22 touchdowns in his last two years.
The most impressive aspect about Dayes’ game is his vision despite a lack of height. He has the spatial awareness to adjust to off-target passes and seems to always know where the first-down markers are. Dayes can force missed tackles as easily as he can lower his shoulder – lower than defenders can get theirs’ – and barrel through guys in the open field. That low center of gravity is part of the same bag of tricks that Darren Sproles continues to punish defenses with.
His lack of stature will be a knock on him come draft day, as well as NC State running a platoon in the backfield until his senior year, which limited his opportunities. Some team will get Dayes as a steal in the fifth round, and I’d love for it to be the Saints.
Kalif Phillips, UNC-Charlotte
If you’re looking for a sleeper at running back in the 2017 NFL Draft, Kalif Phillips may be your guy. The senior was the unquestioned leader of Charlotte’s young football team on offense (the team was just formed back in 2012) and established school records in carries (737), yards (4,020), and touchdowns (43). Phillips is a tenacious runner who has yet to leave any yards out on the field. He was also the team’s top receiving option out of the backfield, ranking fourth behind the receivers with 20 catches in 2016. There isn’t much on offense that the 5-foot-11, 220-pound Phillips hasn’t done.
Phillips was asked to do a lot for Charlotte and certainly answered the call. He took on the lion’s share of carries in his career there and put up some impressive numbers despite being surrounded by suspect levels of talent. It’s not like he padded his stats against the dredges of college football, either: Phillips’ 19-carry, 125-yard effort against the 2015 Temple Owls (which saw defenders Tavon Young, Matt Ioannidis, and Tyler Matekavich drafted last spring) is an impressive microcosm of his career.
He was regularly tapped to be a Game Captain and has a great off-field profile: Phillips will graduate with a degree in special education and spent spare time from practice and his studies volunteering at Charlotte-area elementary schools to mentor young children. Given his school’s low profile and an unusually deep group of running backs, Phillips should be available late in the draft and could find a great fit in New Orleans.