Most teams in the NFL have at least two running backs in the stable ready to go anytime. The New Orleans Saints are in a different situation. The Saints have three backs who could likely start at any time during the regular season – a likely future Hall of Famer in Adrian Peterson, Mark Ingram, who is coming off of best season as a pro, and rookie Alvin Kamara, who has shown flashes in the preseason.
Distributing the carries in a game can be tough, especially if the backs have shown they could carry the entire load. The good thing is head coach Sean Payton and the Saints have been a similar situation before.
In 2008, the Saints had three running backs who each had more than 100 carries – Pierre Thomas, Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush. Thomas had a team-high 129 rushes for 625 yards and nine touchdowns. McAllister had 107 carries for 418 yards and five scores, while Bush had 106 carries for 404 yards and two touchdowns.
This year’s situation for the Saints is similar to that 2008 squad in that McAllister was the veteran and in his final years with the club. Peterson is the aging vet in this year’s group. Thomas was in his second year but was starting to establish himself as a versatile player similar to Ingram, although Thomas never had a 1,000-yard season. Bush was in his third season but was thought to be an explosive two-way player, although he worked well as a third-down back. That is a role Kamara could find himself in this season.
Expect Payton to use the experience of the 2008 season to work his way through what could be a difficult situation.
When healthy, Peterson has shown he is a beast of a running back. In seven of his 10 seasons, Peterson has surpassed the 1,000-yard mark, including a 2,000-yard rushing season in 2012. Peterson is a seven-time Pro Bowler, has four All Pro seasons and was named NFL MVP following the 2012 campaign.
But Peterson is 32 years old, past the age where most believe running backs start to decline. He is also coming off of a knee injury that limited him to three games in 2016. The Saints have been cautious with Peterson during offseason workouts and the preseason, giving the veteran days off as well as limiting his action during the exhibition schedule. He didn’t play in the first two games, although he had six carries in the Saints’ third game.
Ingram eclipsed the 1,000-yard barrier for the first time going for 1,043 yards and six touchdowns in 2016. Ingram also had 46 catches for 319 yards and four receiving touchdowns. Ingram has 96 catches in the last two seasons, allowing quarterback Drew Brees to have another weapon coming out of the backfield.
But Ingram has only played a full 16-game season in two of his six NFL seasons, so the Saints have to wonder if last year was just luck or if Ingram has turned the corner and can be a reliable back for a few more years.
Kamara has just nine rushes during the preseason and one catch but has made people notice when he has the ball. He had a 50-yard touchdown run and his catch went for 22 yards. Even if you take away the 50-yard burst, Kamara would be averaging close to six yards a carry. His playmaking ability is likely to force Payton to find a way to get Kamara some touches during the regular season. He could be the team’s third-down back in this situation.
The Saints could also utilize a 2-2-1 system in the first half, running Peterson or Ingram for the first two series, the other one for the next two series and Kamara for the third series. In the second half, the Saints could go with the hot hand, as runners usually get better as they get a feel for the blocking, defense and the game in general.
While it could be a distraction if it doesn’t work, using three backs would nearly guarantee the Saints would have a fresh back in the second halves of games, and it’d ensure none of them would have to carry an overwhelming load.
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