The Saints' rushing attack is arguably the team's deepest area, although their WR corps may disagree. Once a fantasy darling, still a role model, veteran RB Pierre Thomas has shown us what hard work can accomplish as the team re-signed him to a four-year, $12 million contract. Many are happy for him; he did have an up-and-down offseason as injury concerns and the possibility of a trade have dogged him.
Thomas' 2010 season was a bust, as he played in only six games, rushing for 269 yards and only two touchdowns. However, he's an all-purpose back who added 29 receptions for 201 yards. Always a plus in point-per-reception (PPR) leagues.
After arthroscopic surgery on his left ankle, the team knew it would linger into the summer, excluding him from offseason activities. However, the lockout reduced his time missed.
The team also understands his value as Reggie Bush (now a Dolphin) and Chris Ivory could not pick up the load when Thomas went down. As a result, it signed him to a four-year deal that averages $2.8 million per year. Although it's a well-deserved contract, there was still speculation the team would trade him. The Saints claim they weren't shopping him, and that talk has died down. Thomas is now back, healthy, playing and ready to contribute despite this year's fantasy darling, Mark Ingram, having already been anointed featured-back status by many fantasy owners.
So where does Thomas fit, or what is his role? The team moved up to grab Ingram in the first round, and that alone says much about its expectations, leading many fantasy owners to believe he will be a featured back. You don't draft a running back in the first round to sit him and let him learn. The team also has Ivory, although he has his own slate of injuries — first, Lisfranc surgery and now a sports hernia that will take about three weeks to heal. We're nearing the end of the three-week rehab period, so keep an eye on how he performs. When the team signed Darren Sproles, it was understood he would fill the role Reggie Bush once had as a change-of-pace back.
Ingram has the talent and skills to become the primary back, but does that mean there's no room for Thomas? No! The team loves him, he is proven — their leading rusher in 2008 and 2009 — and they gave him a fair contract that was not backloaded and has incentives. More importantly, the Saints understand they need to have quality depth because although they are a pass-first team, they need a running back who can control the clock. Ingram and Thomas can do that. Ivory has the size, but you should view him more as a goal-line back.
Obviously, Ingram's the present and future, but he's a rookie who has to adapt to the NFL, a bigger and faster version of college. Specifically, he has to learn to pick up the blitz and show solid pass-blocking skills. According to a report, teammates say he's handling that, but let's not count on what teammates say. Colts RB Donald Brown's strength coming into the league was his pass-blocking ability, but the reality of the NFL had Brown struggling with that task. I'm not ready to say he's a solid pass blocker yet. I don't think the team will, either, at least not right away. This is a pass-first team, and head coach Sean Payton will not risk the engine that drives this team, QB Drew Brees, to unnecessary injury.
Both players have alternated their reps with the first team. Expect Payton to use a committee approach — to an extent — to keep both players healthy. Look for Thomas to be in pass-protection formations, which means he could vulture some of Darren Sproles' check-down passes. As an FYI, Sproles is a solid enough pass blocker, as I watched him extensively out here in San Diego, so I expect a few deception plays inside the 10 that utilizes Brees' arm to vulture a few touchdowns this year. Why? To the chagrin of LaDainian Tomlinson owners, the Chargers did that more than once with Sproles and QB Philip Rivers.
Per reports, Ingram outperformed Thomas in the first preseason game, but with 10 total rushing attempts between the two, right now it's much ado about nothing. As time goes on, many expect Ingram's talent to make him the featured back. I agree with that assessment, but don't look for that in 2011. I say this because of the rookie wall. The rookie wall is no joke and legit. Once Week 10 comes around, you begin to see rookies slowing down because they're just not used to a long season.
Ingram, per Pro Football Weekly's 2011 Draft Preview, is a solid back but is not a game-changing playmaker, nor does he show some of the skills of elite backs. Can this change? Sure, Emmitt Smith is a great example of exceeding expectations, but for this season, look for Ingram and Thomas to share the carries.
The Alabama Crimson Tide did not utilize Ingram much in the passing game. He has questionable hands and does not run sharp routes. Look for Sproles and, at times, Thomas in the backfield when it's a clear passing down. However, Ingram, who is short, compact and can move a pile, will make a great goal-line back. In 2009, the year he won the Heisman Trophy, 1,075 of his 1,992 yards came after contact. That ability creates a clear separation in value between the two. Sure, Thomas and Ivory will vulture some touchdowns, but I can't see the team not utilizing Ingram inside the five.
Look for a split of 60-40 in favor of Ingram, with Ivory and Sproles stealing a few attempts and receptions per game. View Ingram as a solid No. 2 fantasy back, with Thomas being the handcuff with No. 3 fantasy upside but more of an injury or bye-week fill-in. Sproles and Ivory are not worth roster spots outside the deepest leagues. They'll have their moments, but not that frequently.
Don't forget to check out Pro Football Weekly's Pat Fitzmaurice and where he ranks all the Saints running backs in his latest preseason draft board.