Even with Chris Ivory traded away, I view the running back position as one of the most stable positions on the entire roster. In fact, that's exactly why Ivory was traded, an overload of talent at the position. There's a lot of variety at that position with a 1st round draft pick, a couple undrafted players that make an impact, and a free agent that demanded a medium priced investment. All of them serve slightly different roles, but as always you can expect the Saints to give all of these guys a chance and use them in different ways while playing to their strengths. This offense is very much a back by committee system, which for the most part is the way of the league these days. The top four backs seem pretty stable both with this staff's history of finding terrific running talent in unlikely places it's become almost reliastic to expect the unexpected. Here are the players:
Pierre Thomas: While he typically only sees somewhere between 5 and 15 touches a game, I view him as possible the most indispensable of the group because he's the only one that really does everything well. His game has almost no weakness, except perhaps top end speed. Formerly undrafted, Thomas can come in and fulfill his role regardless of the play call. He has fantastic hands, he runs very hard inside, he is dangerous at the second level due to his strength, he sets up blockers on screen passes better than anyone in the NFL, he finishes runs well, is extremely hard to tackle and he's a terrific pass protector. The only reason in my eyes he's not the full time back and starter is durability. Remaining healthy has been a challenge for him at times, and last year completely convinced me that I'd rather him healthy an entire season seeing 5-15 touches a game, than run into the ground and possibly injured after 6 games. He's a huge part of the offense and team, without question, and his roster spot is a lock.
Mark Ingram: The shipping out of Chris Ivory was a huge vote of confidence for Ingram, who is the team's primary inside runner. Still, at some point he needs to start returning the investment on that 1st round draft choice. Ingram's first two seasons have been very up and down, in part due to knee issues which have slowed his progress. Many people are suggesting this is a make it or break it year for the former Heisman trophy winner. I'm not sure I agree with that, the Saints are committed to Ingram even if he has a marginal season. But I am starting to wonder if this guy has superstar capability. All that said, his roster spot is a given and he'll get every opportunity to showcase his stuff again this season. He's apparently 100% healthy for the first time this offseason, so maybe that is a good sign of things to come.
Darren Sproles: He's the primary receiving back and third down option for the team, and he continues to do a better job of fulfilling Reggie Bush's vacated role than #25 ever did. Despite his lack of size he's been incredibly durable and capable of running inside. His ability to break a tackle is virtually non existent but he makes up for that with explosive speed, cutting on a dime, and making people miss at will in open space. He brings the catching ability of a receiver and he does a good job of using blocker to shield himself from being seen by defenders. His roster spot is also a lock.
Travaris Cadet: The Saints usually keep four backs so Cadet, who was an impressive undrafted rookie last year, stands on firm ground to be that guy. Like Sproles he's a scat back with nice speed, some special teams ability and good receiving skills. I kind of view him as a Sproles light type player. The big question, and Sean Payton echoed as much, is whether he can run the football. Because the Saints already have Sproles and he's such an important part to the team, it's nice to have a guy that can duplicate what he does even if it's not as well. But an exact replica with less skill is probably not something they desperately need and sounds like a luxury that possibly can't afford. If Cadet can also run the football and shows an ability to do some other things to help the team, it will make him even more indispensable. He is not a roster lock, but the odds on favorite to land the #4 role on this team.
Khiry Robinson: The undrafted rookie from West Texas A&M is the big enigma of this group. But, remember the Saints under Sean Payton have a long history with offensive players coming from no name schools, particularly if they were undrafted. Cadet was from Appalachian State, Chris Ivory came from Tifton College, and Pierre Thomas was undrafted. So if the Saints liked this guy enough to have him around, that's a promising sign regardless of where he came from or how he was acquired. Per his bio on the Saints' website: "he led the Buffaloes and Lone Star Conference with a school-record 1,621 yards on the ground with 15 touchdowns while also adding 38 receptions for 430 yards and four touchdowns". The dude definitely tore it up last season despite going up against weak competition. Talked up by scouts was Robinson's versatility, which includes good pass blocking ability. It sounds like he lacks top end speed, but I very much look forward to seeing him in preseason.
Prediction: The Saints keep four backs this time, with Ingram, Thomas, Sproles and Cadet. Robinson ends up on the practice squad. It's hard for me to predict Robinson beating out Cadet for a spot when I've never seen him play and when Cadet has so much special teams ability. I don't see the Saints carrying five backs again this year.