Well, was he worth it?
That’s the question of the day after the New Orleans Saints agreed to terms with running back Mark Ingram for $16 million over four years just before Tuesday’s official start of free agency.
And it was the question of the day four years ago, when the Saints traded their second-round pick in the 2011 draft, plus their No. 1 in 2012, to New England for the Patriots’ No. 1 pick to take Ingram four spots after they selected Cam Jordan with their own first-round pick.
Back then, getting a Heisman Trophy-winning running back for the third time in a little more than a decade seemed like a coup, even if the price in draft picks seemed high. (Never think you’re going to best New England in a deal.)
But like Ricky Williams and Reggie Bush before him, Ingram hasn’t lived up to those lofty expectations. At least not until last season, when the Saints saw enough from him to make keeping him their priority in free agency, even if it did mean parting ways with Pierre Thomas to free up some cap room.
At approximately $4 million per year (the actual salary-cap numbers haven’t been determined yet), Ingram isn’t exactly breaking the bank, although with another $15 million to shed to get under the cap by Tuesday, some major blood-letting could occur in the next 24 hours.
It does likely mean that the team won’t be making any other major free-agent acquisitions, as they did last year with safety Jairus Byrd.
Letting Ingram walk in favor of a less-expensive alternative such as Justin Forsett, Shane Vereen (the player the Patriots took with the Saints’ second-round pick in 2011) or, God forbid, Ray Rice might have been the way to go.
Hoping Khiry Robinson is ready to step up, or reverting to the old policy of finding someone in the lower rounds of the draft or as an undrafted free agent (Ingram was the only back on last year’s roster who was drafted) might have worked, too. But that decision has been made, and the Saints have to live with it.
That’s because, by investing in Ingram, the team apparently has committed to balancing their pass-heavy offense behind a workhorse back. That was the case over a four-game span last season when Ingram averaged 25.1 carries instead of the 9.6 per game of his first three seasons.
But they’re looking to improve the running game despite a pending makeover in the interior offensive line and the fact that, until proven otherwise, Drew Brees remains among the NFL’s elite quarterbacks.
His troublesome crunch-time tendencies of last year aside, Brees was third in the league in passing yardage. And with the boost from Ingram’s improved numbers that helped produce a 21.5 yards-per-game increase in the rushing totals, the Saints were No. 1 in the league in total offense, even though their 7-9 record certainly didn’t reflect it.
The Saints ran the ball 38.1 percent of the time last season. The last time they were over 40 percent was 2009, when they won the Super Bowl.
Getting that percentage back over 40 would cut down on Brees’ pressing too much in tight situations, keep the defense off the field longer and probably produce some other unexpected benefits.
That is, if Ingram is up to it.
At 25, he doesn’t have excessive tread of his tires, and Ingram has said he wants the increased workload because it better helps him learn his blockers’ habits. Plus, Ingram has never been known as a malcontent and has not committed any off-the-field indiscretions.
Surely the Saints’ decision to decline his fifth-year option last summer while picking up Jordan’s — which cost Ingram $1 million over what he’s getting for 2015 — couldn’t have gone down well. But Ingram kept his tongue in public and, since the season ended, Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton have let it be known how much they wanted him back.
Doubtless Ingram tested the waters before Saturday. But he probably found that four years for $16 million was his market value, so he decided to stay with his team. That’s a positive sign that Ingram felt wanted.
So, was he worth it?
Well, consider what Loomis said about Ingram after the move to draft him in 2011: “Obviously with Drew we have a window of opportunity and want to do everything we can to take advantage of this window.”
Obviously, it hasn’t worked out the way the Saints hoped. And they still have too many other questions to call retaining Mark Ingram a game-changer.