SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - Mark Ingram gets another chance to wear a New Orleans Saints helmet on Sunday when he plays in his first Pro Bowl.
What happens next is uncertain, even though the running back insists the Saints want him to return following his breakout 2014 season.
“They said that they want me back for sure,” Ingram said this week. “They love me. I was their draft pick, so they said they definitely want me back.”
But will the Saints be willing to commit a large chunk of their dwindling salary-cap space on their 2011 first-round pick in a deal that would satisfy Ingram? It would be a change from a traditionally pass-first team that has used a running back by committee approach.
“I’m not sure,” Ingram said. “I haven’t really talked to them since we left the (end of season) exit meetings.”
Ingram’s four-year, $7.4 million rookie deal expired at the end of the season after the Saints declined the fifth-year, $5 million option.
But now Ingram is entering unrestricted free agency coming off an eye-opening season. His nine rushing touchdowns were tied for third in the NFL. His 964 yards on the ground ranked 14th. Ingram’s carries (226) and total yards from scrimmage (1,109) were career bests.
“He had an incredible year, especially for us," Saints tight end Jimmy Graham said. “We’re a team that traditionally has thrown the ball a lot of times at a high percentage. So for what he did this season, not many running backs have ever done for the New Orleans Saints. I’m very proud of him. He’s a close friend of mine and it’s been amazing sharing this entire week with him.”
Graham will be Ingram’s teammate — possibly for the final time — on Team Irvin when they face Drew Brees and Team Carter in Sunday night’s Pro Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium.
But Graham is hoping Ingram sticks around to continue a newfound running philosophy that stems from New Orleans rolling up 185 yards rushing in a playoff victory at Philadelphia a year ago.
“We learned you have to run the ball to be able to win on the road,” Graham said. “So we really looked to establish that during the season.”
Ingram proceeded to rise above the mediocre, injury-filled start to his pro career following his decorated college stint at Alabama that included winning the 2009 Heisman Trophy.
After averaging a career-low 35.1 yards rushing per game with one touchdown in 2013, Ingram was seventh-best in the league with 74.2 yards rushing per game. He scored almost as many touchdowns as he had in his first three seasons (11). He also caught 29 passes for 145 yards despite missing three games with a broken bone in his right hand.
“I was able to stay healthy for the most part,” said Ingram, who turned 25 last month. “I think I got more opportunities this year than I had in the past and I was able to take advantage of that.”
It paid off Monday when Ingram was selected to replace Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch in the NFL’s All-Star game. He’s the first Pro Bowl running back for the Saints since Deuce McAllister following the 2003 season.
Now the Saints must decide if they can afford to keep Ingram or try to go with a cheaper alternative that could include an increased role for Khiry Robinson.
A smiling Ingram insisted he’s not worried about it, focusing this week on what he called a “dream come true” and a “great honor” in making the Pro Bowl. He then plans to return to Boca Raton, Fla., to train.
“We’ll see what happens,” Ingram said. “It’s a long process. Free agents can’t do anything until March.”