The New Orleans Saints produced a historic running back tandem in 2017. With one of their 3rd round selections in the 2017 draft, the Saints added running back Alvin Kamara from Tennessee. Kamara was expected to add a pass catching threat to compliment the rushing talents of veteran back Mark Ingram, similar to what the team had in Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles. What they got instead from Kamara was a performance that earned him NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year as he put himself in the conversation as one of the league's top offensive weapons. Not to be outdone, Mark Ingram had the best season of his seven year career, and both New Orleans backs made the Pro Bowl. Ingram and Kamara combined for 3,094 total yards, just shy of 50% of the total yards from scrimmage by the New Orleans offense in 2017. The team was dealt a big blow when it was announced this spring that Ingram will miss the first four games of this season due to league suspension. In today's training camp preview, we take a look at one of the positions that was key to the Saints offensive success a year ago.
Key Losses: John Kuhn (free agent)
Key Additions: Terrance West (free agent, Ravens)
The Saints biggest loss at this position is obviously Ingram missing the first four contests. New Orleans begins the year by hosting division rival Tampa Bay, who will be without a key player themselves in quarterback Jameis Winston (serving a 3-game suspension due to misconduct) to begin the season. The Saints then host the Cleveland Browns in week two, followed by road trips to hated rival Atlanta and the New York Giants in weeks three and four, with Ingram scheduled to return in a week five game at home against Washington. Ingram has been one of the league's most underrated running backs over his seven year career, and has been a huge part of the team's offensive success over the last four seasons in particular. He needs just 735 yards rushing and five touchdowns to pass Deuce McAllister for the top mark on the Saints all time list in both categories. Ingram's 12 rushing touchdowns a year ago is the second highest total in franchise history, and with a 1,000-yd. effort again in 2018 he would become just the second back (McAllister) in team history to accomplish the feat in three straight seasons. There are some questions about Ingram's contract status beyond this year, but he will certainly be a big part of the New Orleans offense again this season. He has made himself into an every down back, working hard to improve his receiving skills and pass blocking abilities since entering the league. Ingram is a rugged runner between the tackles, with an underrated burst once at the second level of the defense and a capable receiver out of the backfield. The Saints are one of the few teams that still utilize a fullback fairly often, and Zach Line filled in admirably enough when veteran John Kuhn struggled with injuries a season ago that the team re-signed him this offseason. Line is a devastating lead blocker, and has also proven to be an effective checkdown option near the goal line.
Alvin Kamara established himself as one of the most versatile offensive weapons in the league quickly once becoming one of the offense's focal points near the quarter point of last season. He finished with 826 receiving yards to lead all NFL backs, and his 100 targets and 81 receptions were second only to Le'veon Bell of the Steelers. Kamara surprised some with his abilities as a runner, piling up 728 yards on the ground while averaging an impressive 6.1 yards per carry. He is electric in the open field, and is a threat to score any time he touches the ball. Kamara scored 14 touchdowns in 2017, 8 rushing, 5 receiving, and adding another on a team-record 106-yd. kickoff return against Tampa Bay. Kamara is able to line up anywhere within the Saints offensive formation, and creates instant mismatches for opposing defenses.
Ingram's suspension creates a major question for the Saints offense to answer early on. There is very little experience behind their talented two-headed monster at running back within the New Orleans system. Second year back Trey Edmunds carried 9 times for 48 yards and an impressive 41-yd. touchdown run, but all took place in a victory at Buffalo. Edmunds is a bigger back with an upright and punishing running style, but not an elusive runner. Daniel Lasco returns for his 3rd season after missing the majority of 2017 with a neck injury. He carried 11 times for 32 yards the year before, but is mostly used for his standout abilities on special teams. The Saints signed Jonathan Williams off of the Denver Broncos practice squad late in the 2017 season. Originally a 5th round draft choice by Buffalo in 2016, Williams flashes excellent balance, quick feet, fluid change of direction, and good strength as a runner, but has a concerning injury history with his foot. Saints coaches are intrigued with his natural instincts and athleticism. New Orleans spent a 6th round draft pick this spring (201st overall) to draft Boston Scott out of Louisiana Tech. Although Scott's height (5'6) caused immediate comparisons to former Saint Darren Sproles, the former Bulldog has underrated strength and running ability between the tackles. His elusiveness in the open field also makes him a possibility as a kick returner, despite his inexperience in college with that role. Once Ingram's suspension had been announced, the team tried out a number of veteran running backs to bolster their depth, ultimately deciding to sign former Raven Terrance West. The 27-yr old West enters his 5th NFL season, but comes off a disappointing and injury plagued year with Baltimore. He does have 1,816 career yards along with 11 touchdowns, with the majority of his success coming in 2014 with the Cleveland Browns (171 carries for 673 yards and 4 touchdowns) and 2016 with Baltimore (193-774, 5). West offers little as a receiver, and isn't much of a breakaway threat, but can pick up the tough yardage between the tackles and a stable veteran presence in the backfield.
Despite Kamara showing the potential to take on the full workload as the team's number 1 back, Saints coach Sean Payton has said that he still plans on splitting the backfield touches during Ingram's suspension. The versatile talents of the reigning offensive rookie of the year are best utilized when Kamara is moved around the offensive formation, as he often was a season ago. The onus will be on at least one of either Williams, Scott, Edmunds, West, or even Lasco to separate themselves and earn the trust of their coaches during perhaps the most important competition of the preseason. A fierce competitor like Mark Ingram will likely return from his suspension extremely motivated, and the talented New Orleans tandem will resume keeping opposing defensive coordinators up at night. Until that happens however, all eyes will be on the New Orleans Saints backfield throughout the preseason as a group of unproven players attempt to answer one of the team's biggest questions as they enter the 2018 season.
Who is the most likely answer to fill in at running back during Mark Ingram's absence?
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