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New Orleans Saints position outlook: Running back has a few question marks after Mark Ingram

The Saints enter 2017 with two stable and definitive options at running back. So, where can they turn to for help?

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

There’s no other way to put it, but the New Orleans Saints have to get things right in 2017. After three straight subpar seasons that have seen the club go 7-9 in each year, it could very well be the final chance for Sean Payton to rekindle his magic. Changes are already here as the team parted ways with five assistant coaches.

We continue our series that focuses on next year’s Saints by position. As a reminder, this takes into account any free agents, free agent targets, players set to return, and some potential draft options.

What the Saints are working with

  • Mark Ingram: After earning his first 1,000-yard season (and I stress earned), Ingram paid it forward by honoring his offensive linemen. For him to become the first Saints back in 10 years to hit the mark, it’s quite an accomplishment. Perhaps the best part about Ingram’s feat is that he averaged 5.1 yards per carry for the year. He’ll naturally look to build on his successful season as he faces the back half of his four-year deal.
  • Daniel Lasco: The seventh-round selection impressed many out of the gate, and was more of an asset on special teams for the Saints. Bothersome hamstring and knee injuries negated Lasco from seeing more action, but he still managed to play seven games in his rookie season. He’s the epitome of a Sean Payton back, and should make a big leap in 2017.
  • Marcus Murphy: After appearing in just one offensive snap in his rookie season, Murphy equaled that output in 2016. Murphy logged just three games for the year, and in the times he was able to see action, he had major inconsistencies. I’d dare say he’s on a short leash entering next season, as he’s easily replaceable.

Free Agents

  • Tim Hightower: The Saints took a chance on Hightower way back when, and it paid off. Set to turn 31 in May, the future still looks very bright for the veteran. He has been a great change of pace to Ingram, and he clearly has a passion for the game. However, another return to the Saints might command a little more compensation than just the veteran minimum.
  • Travaris Cadet: After the failures of C.J. Spiller, the offense had Cadet fit in as the Darren Sproles-like option for the season. Of his 247 snaps in the season, 224 were him being used as a receiver. He could return to the team on a relatively inexpensive deal, but a better pass-catching threat could present itself.

Free Agent targets

  • Matt Asiata: Without Adrian Peterson in the mix for the Vikings, Asiata saw plenty of action. Although he split time primarily with Jerrick McKinnon, the former Utah product turned in six touchdowns in 2016 and averaged 8.2 yards per catch on 32 receptions. Should Hightower leave, Asiata could be a viable option as Ingram’s backup.
  • Reggie Bush: It might have been the most disappointing season for Bush, who ended up finishing the season with -3 rushing yards. The sad part is that he played in 13 games for the Bills, and wound up with just 19 total touches on offense. At this stage of his career, Bush could rejuvenate or at least close out his career on a relatively cheap deal where it all started.
  • Dexter McCluster: A freak home accident sent McCluster to injured reserve in early November, part of the Chargers swing of bad luck with players. He can do a bit of everything for you, but at this stage of his career add more value to the return game while being able to fill in as needed on offense. Of course, you’re taking a risk with a guy who hasn’t played a full season since 2012.
  • Rex Burkhead: Burkhead certainly turned in some decent numbers for the Bengals, but really came on as one of the late bloomers of the season. He has the versatility you’d desire for a Saints offense, which includes special teams. Other teams besides the Saints will be in line to pay for his services, however.

Draft possibilities

As a reiteration, I’ll give you a mix of what the Saints could get in the high, mid, and low value out of the NFL Draft.

  • High - Jeremy McNichols: It’s highly unlikely that the Saints use a high pick on a running back. While most of the focus centers around Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook, and Christian McCaffery, this Boise State underclassman certainly puts together some nice film. The 5-foot-9, 212-pound back took over for Jay Ajayi after he went to the pros, and continued the long-standing success of Broncos running backs.
  • Mid - Matthew Dayes: When you think of Saints running backs, you think about versatility being a huge draw. With Dayes, you get that. He could easily become a rotational back and be successful in rushing and passing. He was used in the slot by the Wolfpack, and is overall just a tough guy to bring down. His stock could rise tremendously after the Senior Bowl.
  • Low - Kalif Phillips: He might be one of the best kept secrets in college football, and that’s okay. Coming from UNC Charlotte, you wouldn’t expect a ton of attention. However, this small school back some 100-yard performances against Temple, Florida Atlantic, Marshall, and Southern Miss. He’s certainly a sleeper because he can do it all.

In a nutshell

The Saints will have plenty of questions to answer when it comes to running backs in 2017. Obviously, the offensive line had a huge hand in creating run lanes last season to help fuel the team to a 16th overall ranking at 108.9 yards per game. When the Saints have been able to find success running the ball, it certainly has helped. A heavy dose of Mark Ingram is just what the doctor ordered, and it looks like we’ll have to wait and see who else joins the backfield fun.