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Faceoff: The Saints Backfield

June 27th

Clayton Gray: With the selection of Mark Ingram (after giving up a lot to trade for the pick), New Orleans is seemingly sold on the rookie's ability. However, Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush (for now, at least) are sill on the roster. Can you sort out the Saints backfield? How will these three players perform in 2011? Will they all be in New Orleans in September?

Jason Wood: I think if the Saints had their way, all three players would be back, with Reggie Bush taking a substantial pay cut. If that happens, I think it'll be a bit easier to project than some might worry, with Ingram being the feature back, good for 220-240 carries (over 16 games) and Bush playing a lot of snaps as a change-of-pace runner and, more frequently, as a slot receiver. I think Thomas would be relegated to a more traditional backup role, much to the dismay of his fantasy chances, but he would still be in line to help the team. In deeper leagues, I think Thomas is still a compelling backup pick because should Ingram get hurt, we know Thomas can be highly productive.

Mark Wimer: I'm not sold on Ingram's uber-stud, three-down-back potential for several reasons.

First, NFL scouts weren't impressed enough with him to garner Ingram a top-ten pick. If a guy who is supposed to be a lock for three-down, bell-cow status in the NFL is still on the draft board late in the first round, I take that as a sign that he isn't even near being "a sure thing" - most bell-cow studs like Adrian Peterson - round one, pick seven (or even guys perceived to be studs, like the aforementioned Reggie Bush, round one pick two in the 2006 lottery) - command a top-ten selection in the draft. Ingram didn't.

Secondly, let's not forget that the lockout has frozen contract negotiations. While we all assume that there will be a graduated rookie salary cap in the new CBA, there are still a myriad of details to work out even in that scenario (How much money is a signing bonus? How much a yearly roster bonus? How much is performance-based compensation (if any), how much is guaranteed yearly compensation? What about non-monetary conditions of the contract (conduct clauses, etc)?). Since none of the draft picks have signed, and generally speaking it takes time to negotiate, there is no guarantee that Ingram will be in camp once it starts. And we know that he (and all the other rookies) have missed countless hours of coaching sessions, countless reps in mini-camps and organized team activities, etc. With his dubious draft position, I think the lack of the normal coaching session/offseason schedule is likely to lead Ingram to a slow start - doubly true if his contract negotiations drag on during the start of training camp. The Saints' offense isn't among the simplest systems in the NFL, and it will take Ingram time to learn the playbook and on-field nomenclature.

Thirdly, Pierre Thomas is an established veteran with an innate knowledge of the Saints' complex offense, who just signed a long-term deal during the offseason. I think the much-more-likely scenario for 2011 is a split of the lead running duties between Thomas and Ingram - especially early in the season, while Ingram gets up to speed - by the time Ingram starts putting up "bell-cow" games, if he ever does this year, it may be too late for fantasy owners who burnt an early pick to acquire his services.

Regardless of whether Bush moves on to another team or not, I think we see Thomas and Ingram in a running back by committee, rotating often during games. If Bush is still in New Orleans once free agency is over, then both Thomas' and Ingrams' reception numbers will take a hit from where I expect them to be right now (I think Bush moves on in free agency).

Sigmund Bloom: Ingram is one of the keys to your draft as a potential top 10 RB who can be drafted after you've taken two, if not three cornerstone studs. His fantasy profile good as any RB prospect to come down the pike the last few seasons, and I have to disagree with my distinguished colleague, Mark.

Ingram fell in the draft because of a knee condition that could shorten his career and a very strong draft class at positions like cornerback, offensive tackle, defensive end, plus a bit of a QB hysteria. He isn't quite as special as Adrian Peterson, but he is certainly the kind of back that would be deserving of a top 10 pick in different draft classes, especially with a knee that was built to last into his 30s. New Orleans willingness to part with their 2012 first-round pick to get him shows how high they esteem Ingram, and that's the only organization whose opinion that we should really care about when evaluating Ingram's outlook anyway.

Second, Ingram is a veteran in terms of his work ethic and the polish and nuance to his game. Just about every New Orleans beat writer has said on the record that they expect him to be the feature back and they have expressed no concerns about the lockout affecting that. Ingram has been working out with the team: "He looks great. There's no doubt he's been working and he's in shape," Saints QB Drew Brees said. "He can play a pretty significant role on our offense."

Third, Pierre Thomas signed a deal for decent backup money in the offseason, and the Saints made a starter-level commitment to Ingram. Once again, those covering the team disagree with Mark on the projected breakdown of the workload between Thomas and Ingram, and I do too.

Jeff Pasquino: Reggie Bush and the Saints are both giving lip service to the idea of him being back, but if the new CBA has a minimum salary requirement then someone is going to pony up big cash for Reggie Bush to join another team. With Pierre Thomas re-signed, and cheaply I might add, Thomas is going to be the third down back to give Ingram a rest and also better protect Drew Brees against blitzes. Other backups like Chris Ivory will provide depth as the Saints could have up to 25 free agents to deal with once the flood gates open.

Look for Ingram to get 200-250 touches while Thomas spells him for the other 100-125 running back chances.

Andrew Garda: I want to add my voice to the debate on Ingram as a stud RB based on draft position - and it's one I've stated in the Shark Pool and elsewhere so pardon me if I've heard it before.

More than at any other time I can remember the value of RBs in the NFL is low. Many teams run RBBCs of varying sizes and percentages - there is no need to take a running back in the top ten because the demand isn't there. In my opinion, the only time a RB is picked in the top ten now is when a team is either 1) desperate for a back or 2) a phenomenal talent.

Ingram isn't a phenom, but that doesn't mean he isn't or couldn't be a tremendous back both for NFL and fantasy purposes. The fact that he didn't go top ten means very little - other positions of higher need within the current NFL landscape took priority as they will most of the time these days. The run on QBs, the heavy defensive flavor of the draft, along with the aforementioned RBBC mentality of the NFL contributed to an across the board slide at RB.

All that said, the single biggest impact on Ingram's value will be the health of the other RBs. Thomas, Bush - even Ivory - have injury or durability concerns. If Ingram can stay healthy - and I believe he will - even if they split carries, he'll get a large percentage of them. Thomas, as Sig mentions, got good backup money and Bush may or may not be back. even if he remains a Saint, what he does is so far from what Ingram/Thomas does that his impact on carries won't be huge.

I think Ingram gets the majority of the carries with Thomas spelling him to try and avoid the rookie 'wall' and Bush splitting out wide or playing scatback, if he remains on the team.

Matt Waldman: I would counter that you cannot judge where a player is picked and a team's assessment of his talent by comparing drafts. There are points in time where NFL teams have strong starters and there are fewer needs at a position, which causes a player to fall. Ingram's fall also had a lot to do with talk about a bad knee. Dan Marino fell due to talk about cocaine use. I think most teams feel pretty foolish about not taking Marino at the top of the first round. Steven Jackson wasn't a first round pick. Neither was Ray Rice, Frank Gore, Maurice Jones-Drew, or Arian Foster. Should I throw in Peyton Hillis to include five of the top producers in the NFL at the position? It has been oft-mentioned that most backs aren't valued as highly as they once were, but that has nothing to do with talent as it does committee systems at the position and the NFL getting a little wiser about investing that much money in a position that can get starter production from much lower picks - especially when the career longevity is so low.

The missed time due to the lockout is a good point. However, Edgerrin James seemed to do a good job after missing camp. Ingram played in a pro style offense at Alabama, and he is in New Orleans working with the team. Drew Brees says Ingram is in great shape and if Brees is working with Ingram, I'd imagine that I'd be more inclined to believe Ingram's situation is more akin to the Manning-James debut than most teams. Running back might be more complex to play than we hear the media discuss, but it still is one of the easier positions to transition in the NFL. We should also recall that a certain Saints UDFA with few reps compared to starters and first-tier backups replaced an injured Thomas and Bush last year and led rookies in rushing yardage.

I think Thomas will serve as insurance this year. I think we've also seen that long-term deals often have "outs" for owners. Look at Donovan McNabb's long-term deal last year as an example. I think Ingram is slated as the No.1 with Thomas as the reserve/break-the-glass-in-case-of-emergency back and third down back. If it's a committee, I still believe we'll see closer to 200-240 carries for Ingram and most of the red zone opportunities from inside the five.