Joel Thomas knows this team has an opportunity.
The Saints running backs coach sees the names on the depth chart — Adrian Peterson, Mark Ingram, Alvin Kamara — and the possibilities start to swirl. This group could be special. This group could be one — like in 2009 and 2011, when New Orleans averaged more than 130 rushing yards per game — that complements the passing game and takes pressure off the defense.
“It’s an opportunity to do something here that hasn’t been done before,” Thomas said. “We have very talented running backs in our room right now. You can put us up there with these other groups, whether it’s Atlanta’s duo or Dallas’ duo. I think we've got one of the better groups in the NFL.
“We've just got to produce. That’s the bottom line. It’s all talk right now until we get to Sundays in September.”
There's a school of thought that New Orleans will never run enough to have a potent rushing attack. It’s a pass-first group. Always has been. Always will be, they say.
There’s probably a morsel of truth in that logic, even if it goes too far. The offense should still run through Drew Brees as long as he’s a top-10 quarterback. It would be foolish to move things too far away from him.
But the run-pass disparity isn’t as pronounced as some people think. New Orleans' 404 rushing attempts ranked 19th last season. The Saints could move into the top 10 without anyone even noticing a change in style of play. All it would have taken last year is about two more rushing attempts per game.
Think running as often as Atlanta is out of reach? The Falcons averaged just 1.06 more rushing attempts per game.
The Saint don't need to make a massive philosophical shift for a more potent rushing attack to emerge. The difference, at least in terms of usage, is a couple more plays per game. That goal becomes much more achievable if Saints can defend more leads. And if that happens, the rushing game will become another layer of protection for the defense. It will allow the Saints to bleed the clock.
The question isn’t really if the Saints can become a top-10 rushing team, though that is a major factor in becoming as potent as teams like Atlanta and Dallas. The real question is how will the rushing attack come together.
If Peterson is even a reasonable facsimile of the player who led the NFL in rushing in 2015 following a knee injury that limited him to three games last season, he should be a solid option on first and second downs, along with Ingram. Peterson's running style makes him a natural fit.
But the Saints shouldn't ask Peterson to carry a heavy burden in pass protection or catch many balls out of the backfield. Those weren’t his strengths in Minnesota, and that shouldn’t change here. Ingram does well in those areas. The two backs will likely share responsibilities on early downs, and of the two, Ingram should see the field more often on third downs.
Kamara’s fit is a little more interesting. He should do plenty in the passing game, but he’s also a capable runner. That stands out on his college tape. He can go between the tackles, has good balance and was often difficult to bring down. It might not be fair to pigeonhole him as a pass-catching back, which is the role Travaris Cadet has filled.
“He’s built differently than Reggie (Bush) and (Darren) Sproles,” coach Sean Payton Payton said of Kamara. “We think he’s got versatility as a runner as well as a receiver. We try to do the things that these guys do best, and I think his skill set is that of a running back, but it is also someone that can catch it well. I see him having versatility, and that’s one of the things that attracted us to drafting him.”
Kamara's role will be determined by how much information he can handle. He’ll be asked to know the running game backward and forward, and he'll have to know the passing offense since because he will split out and run receiver routes. That’s a lot to digest as a rookie, and Kamara will need to show he can handle it.
If he can, the sky will be the limit for him.
“I think he’s like a Swiss Army knife. You can do a lot of things with him,” Thomas said. “We’re just scratching the surface (at rookie minicamp). The key for us is to find out where’s that potential level with the information and the speed of our game.”
The summer is for optimism. Before camp unfolds and the mysteries unravel, potential is limitless. A lot depends on the health of the group and how quickly Kamara comes along. If those things break the Saints' way, maybe this group could end up being something special.
The opportunity is there.