Mike Bell. Khiry Robinson. Chris Ivory. These are names that will mostly resonate with you if you’re a Saints fan, but they aren’t going to send shockwaves throughout the league. What do they have in common? They all became solid role running backs in Sean Payton’s offenses for the New Orleans Saints. Tony Jones is looking to join them this season.
A 2020 undrafted free agent signing from the Saints, Jones made waves in his first preseason appearance against the Baltimore Ravens by rushing for 82 yards on seven carries, with an 18-yard touchdown run an 28-yard carry for good measure. On top of this, Jones caught five passes for 38 yards on five targets.
While much of the discourse around the Saints’ spell has centered around Latavius Murray, Jones is making a strong bid to start to absorb some of his carries.
While Murray has been by no means bad for the Saints in his two seasons (he’s averaging 4.4 yards per carry and has nine touchdowns), he isn’t particularly strong in the passing game. Running backs in the Sean Payton system have to be able to catch, that’s why Pierre Thomas and Alvin Kamara are arguably the most successful running backs Payton has ever coached. If Jones can continue to show pass-catching ability for the Saints, expect to see him in the background frequently when Kamara is split out.
Jones also gives the Saints an ever-important dimension: Depth. Having three running backs who can move the ball opens things up a lot more for Payton and Jameis Winston than having two or, heaven forbid, one.
The misconception surrounding Jones is that he’s coming for a nonexistent running back No. 2 spot. Running back slots on a depth chart have become arbitrary, as more teams are spreading carries between players. It’s likely that Murray will still get the bulk of carries that Kamara doesn’t, but if Jones can settle into the 75-100 carry mark while still catching passes in the backfield he’ll be in good shape come next season.
The Saints need to look anywhere they can to alleviate some pressure from Kamara early in the season, and Jones is undoubtedly making a strong case to do so. Ultimately, however, it’s how he performs in the regular season that will solidify his role on the team. Preseason is an audition for an audition. So far Jones has certainly earned a callback from Payton.
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