The New Orleans Saints have locked up the most important member of their free-agent class.
The team agreed to terms with Mark Ingram on a four-year, $16 million deal Saturday night that will keep the running back under contract through 2018.
“Very excited to stay a saint!!” Ingram tweeted. “God has blessed me beyond belief!! I don’t deserve his grace!! Thank you!!”
The deal was first reported by ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
In what was the best season of his career, Ingram, 25, rushed for 964 yards on 226 carries and nine touchdowns in 13 games last season. Despite suffering a broken hand early in the year, Ingram made his first Pro Bowl.
The Saints maintained throughout the offseason that retaining Ingram was one of their priorities and maintained they were confident a deal could get done.
“Obviously he’s someone that we want to keep,” Saints coach Sean Payton told Fox Sports’ Jennifer Hale during a Pelicans broadcast. “Hopefully we can do that.”
New Orleans declined to pick up Ingram’s fifth-year option before the 2014 season, likely in part to his career getting off to a slow start. Before last season, he never ran for more than 602 yards in a season or scored more than five touchdowns.
Thanks in part to injuries and New Orleans’ second season operating out of a zone-blocking scheme, he broke out last season and proved that he could operate as the lead back as opposed to being part of a committee.
The best stretch of his season came between Weeks 8-13 when he ripped off four 100-yard games, including a 172-yard performance against the Green Bay Packers in a 44-23 win. Previously, Ingram had only one 100-yard performance in his first three seasons.
Ingram’s re-signing comes days after the team released veteran running back Pierre Thomas, which saved the team $1.735 million against the cap.
If Ingram had not been retained, running back would have been one of the team’s primary needs entering the free-agency period, which opens March 10. Now the team can look for cheaper depth on the open market or in the draft.
But by bringing Ingram back, it creates additional salary against the cap and the Saints were more than $15 million over before restructuring the deals of wide receiver Marques Colston and defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley.
It’s not known where the team now stands since Coslton and Bunkley’s deals have not yet been filed with the NFLPA. The structure of Ingram’s deal also is not known, though it is likely back-loaded to alleviate the burden in the first season.
The deal is likely in line with what the market would have bared for Ingram. The Cowboys reportedly offered DeMarco Murray four years and $16 million at some point during the season. Murray turned the offer down and likely will garner more on the open market.
The average annual value comes in at $4 million per season, which is less than the $5.2 million Ingram would have earned next season had New Orleans picked up his fifth-year option.
The Saints’ remaining unrestricted free agents are cornerback Patrick Robinson, center Jonathan Goodwin, linebackers Ramon Humber and Moise Fokou, defensive end Cheta Ozougwu defensive tackle Brandon Deaderick and wide receiver Robert Meachem.
It’s not clear what direction the Saints are heading with many of those players, though a source indicated Saturday that Robinson likely would test the market unless something with his situation changes over the coming days.
The Saints now can shift their focus to those other deals after locking up the most important member of the class.