In a recent news conference, New Orleans Saints general manager Mickey Loomis singled Mark Ingram out as one of the bright spots in an otherwise lost season.
But that vote of confidence has not yet led to the Saints making an effort to retain the free-agent running back, according to a league source, who indicates the team has not had any conversations with Ingram about a potential return.
The lack of contact could mean several things. It could indicate the team has no interest in bringing Ingram back, after declining to exercise his fifth-year option last year. Or it could simply mean the team has not yet reached Ingram’s name on its to-do list and intends to reach out to him at a later date.
While running backs have been devalued around the league in recent years, it would make sense if New Orleans has some level of interest in retaining Ingram. The running back was one of the Saints’ most consistent players last season and finished the year with 964 yards and nine touchdowns on 226 carries over 13 games.
It was Ingram’s most productive season in New Orleans after rushing for 602 yards in 2012. But, during the three games Ingram was out with a hand injury, backup running back Khiry Robinson excelled, rushing 47 times for 245 yards.
If Ingram is not brought back, Robinson’s production could give New Orleans confidence in his ability to carry the load next season if negotiations with Ingram do not go well.
It was, however, telling that when Ingram came back, coach Sean Payton, to some degree, ditched his running back by committee approach and turned primarily to Ingram after Robinson returned from a thumb injury that kept him sidelined for six weeks.
Over the final four weeks of the season, Ingram received 54 carries to Robinson’s 12. Asked about the change in approach several times down the stretch, Payton repeatedly said the disparity in carries was due to New Orleans struggling to establish a ground during the final month of the season.
It’s difficult to know what it would take to retain Ingram given the evolving nature of the running-back market. If the Saints had picked up Ingram’s fifth-year option last season, it would have paid him $5.2 million in 2015. After the decision was made, Ingram told reporters he understood why it was made but would be motivated by it.
A more apt comparison for a possible Ingram deal could be the two-year, $6.2 million deal Ben Tate received from the Cleveland Browns last offseason.
That deal ultimately did not work out for the Browns, as they waived Tate in November, but the running back posted somewhat similar numbers (771 yards over 14 games, 4.3 yards per carry) to Ingram in his final season with the Houston Texans.
This was a breakout season of sorts for Ingram. A first-round pick in 2011, the former Alabama star only exceeded 500 rushing yards once before the 2014 season.
But Ingram excelled this season running behind New Orleans’ zone-blocking scheme, which was introduced in 2013. His success led to Loomis giving him a vote of confidence when pointing out the bright spots from a 7-9 season.
“We beat three division winners in Pittsburgh, Green Bay and Carolina,” Loomis said. “So there are some good things. We had some individual performances. Mark Ingram comes to mind immediately.”
While Loomis’ vote of confidence hasn’t led to an immediate phone call, that could still change in the future.