Saints running back Mark Ingram has lived in the shadow of other big-name stars for most of his NFL career—Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, Brandin Cooks, and even Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas—and has always played a seemingly subordinate role as a running back stuck in the Saints’ prolific pass-happy offense. Even now, in the midst of New Orleans’s evolution toward a run-heavy identity, the Saints’ veteran ball carrier has (happily) shared the spotlight with backfield mate and electric rookie standout Alvin Kamara.
And look, Kamara’s been incredibly explosive and versatile and fun, but Ingram’s quietly been one of the most efficient and effective running backs in the league for years now. Going back to the start of the 2014 season, the former Heisman Trophy winner has racked up 29 rushing touchdowns (tied for third most league-wide) and 3,582 yards (sixth), yet he’s remained mostly underappreciated by fans and the media at large, who have never consistently counted him among the NFL’s elite. Hell, even his own team has seemed to undervalue him—despite Ingram’s career year in 2016, when he rushed for more than 1,000 yards on 5.1 per carry and scored 10 total touchdowns, the Saints still went out and inexplicably signed another early-down back in Adrian Peterson over the offseason.
Predictably, that messy time-share didn’t work; New Orleans shipped Peterson off to the Cardinals after the Saints’ 20-0 win over the Dolphins in Week 4; and all Ingram’s done in the six weeks since is average 5.6 yards per carry on 113 totes while leading the league in yards (636) and touchdowns (eight). It’s time to give Ingram his due: The Saints bell-cow back has established himself as one of the best running backs in the NFL, full stop, and his standout 2017 campaign has helped carry the Saints to an 8-2 record and the top spot in the NFC South.
Of course, that was all pretty apparent if you watched New Orleans’s thrilling 34-31 overtime win over the Redskins last Sunday. Ingram carried the ball 11 times for 134 yards and a score, ripping off big play after big play. He struck early in the game, getting loose for a 36-yard touchdown run with under a minute left in the first quarter, and while much of the credit on that play certainly goes to the Saints’ fearsome offensive line, it was a devastating second-level juke on safety DeAngelo Hall that helped Ingram break free for the score.
The big-play back came up big in overtime as well. After the Saints defense forced Washington into a first-possession three-and-out, it was two big Ingram runs that set New Orleans up for an easy chip-shot field goal for the win. On the first, Ingram followed his fullback off the left guard, bobbing and weaving into the secondary to gain 20 yards:
On the next play, he took a crack toss to the outside and up the sideline, picking up another 31-yard chunk.
Ingram cracked the 5,000-yard mark for his career in the win; he and Deuce McAllister are the only two Saints backs to hit that milestone. He also moved past Ricky Williams for third in New Orleans franchise history in 100-yard games (13) and pushed into the second spot in rushing touchdowns (40). Through 11 weeks, Ingram now ranks fourth in the league in rushing yards (806), is tied for first in rushing touchdowns (8), and is fourth in yards per attempt (5.2). He’s first in Football Outsiders DYAR (total value), first in DVOA (value per play), and third in success rate (successful running plays divided by total running plays). He’s third in yards after contact per rush (3.2) per Pro Football Focus, and tied for second in the NFL in 15-plus yard runs (11) with a breakaway percentage of 36.6, fourth best in the NFL. And he’s done all that while sharing time with Kamara and (briefly) Peterson. By pretty much any metric, Ingram’s put himself among the elite this year.
Ingram is a complete player, effective in the passing game (he’s caught 159 passes for 1,082 yards out of the backfield over the past four years) and explosive on the ground. The first thing that stands out about Ingram as a runner is the decisiveness with which he gets downhill. He’s a north-south back—he ranks third in NFL Next Gen Stats’ Efficiency Rate metric (3.33 yards), a stat that reflects the total distance a running back travels per rushing yard gained—and frequently carries the ball up the gut for the Saints, following a lead blocker or a pulling guard to pick up tough yards in the middle of the field. But he can bounce it outside with lethal speed, too, and against the Packers, he took this handoff 12 yards into the end zone, taking one step before planting his foot and accelerating to the pylon. You can see how he annihilates Green Bay safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix’s pursuit angle as soon as Clinton-Dix takes a few steps forward to stop what he believes will be a run to the middle.
While he’s predominantly a one-cut-and-go type of runner, he’s also remarkably patient behind the line. No one’s going to confuse him with Le’Veon Bell, but he frequently presses up to the line before making a cut, forcing defenders to step up and commit to a gap before making his move off that defensive player. Packers linebacker Blake Martinez fell victim to that in Week 7, allowing Ingram to cut back to his right and pick up big yards.
Ingram’s got a great lateral jump cut, too. We saw that against the Bucs, when he exploded back against the grain before getting downhill, then again against the Bills, when he juked to his right to avoid an unblocked defensive tackle.
One of Ingram’s most important traits is balance, and that showed up against the Lions when he took a run off the left end, stumbled, then got his feet back under him before administering an effective stiff arm to linebacker Tahir Whitehead to get free down the sideline.
Ingram’s even got a little bit of a signature move: I don’t know what you’d call this, but on more than a few runs, he plants one leg, bends at the waist to absorb contact, then spins off the tackle attempt—it’s so awkward it almost looks like a weird Madden glitch, but he does it with surprising grace.
He does all this at a fraction of the salary of some of the league’s other premier backs. Ingram re-signed with the Saints in March 2015 for a four-year deal worth $16 million, a contract that, at its current value, makes him one of the biggest bargains in the NFL: His $4 million salary in 2017 ties for 18th among all running backs, his $6.1 million guaranteed money at signing is 16th highest, and his $1.525 million average guaranteed money per year ranks 25th.
Ingram is one of the best backs in the league, and he’s been shockingly productive considering he shares the limelight with another runner. Together, behind one of the league’s best offensive lines, Ingram and Kamara (who has 459 yards, four touchdowns, and 49 catches for 447 yards and three scores) have partnered to usher in the Saints’ ground-and-pound revolution. New Orleans’s backfield tandem is on pace for a combined 3,080 yards from scrimmage—at this rate, they’d finish second all time for a running back duo, behind the 1978 Bears’ Walter Payton and Roland Harper. But while Kamara’s acted as an injection of adrenaline to the Saints ground game, Ingram’s been the steady beating heart of it for a long time—and this is his best year yet.