The only thing that stands between Mark Ingram and the Pro Bowl might be his health.
Ingram is no longer the young first-round pick who struggled to make the transition from Heisman Trophy to the pros; he spent 12 weeks among the NFL’s leaders in yards from scrimmage last fall. By almost any measure, he’d pushed his way onto the list of the league’s most productive backs.
Then his old adversary reared his ugly head again. With four games left in the season, Ingram tore the rotator cuff in his shoulder, underwent surgery and landed on injured reserve.
“I was very disappointed,” Ingram said. “We weren’t having a great year as a team, but I think I was having my best year as a professional. It makes me want to get back out there and pick up where I left off.”
Ingram has often drawn criticism from Saints fans and national observers alike.
Drafted at the end of the first round, Ingram has never rushed for 1,000 yards in five seasons with the Saints, but he’s turned a corner the past three seasons. Ingram has averaged 4.5 yards per carry over the past three seasons, establishing himself as an ideal zone runner with his balance and quickness through the hole.
The injuries have kept him from putting up thte kind of numbers people can’t argue.
“I think a lot of people still remember my first few years where I wasn’t really as productive as I have been the past few years, and that’s for a number of reasons,” Ingram said. “I think staying healthy is one of them. Being an NFL running back, being any NFL player, in general, you could ask any one of them, and staying healthy is a challenge.”
Ingram battled turf toe in 2011 and 2013, broke his hand in 2014 and suffered the torn rotator cuff last season. In five seasons in the NFL, Ingram has only been able to play the full 16 games once.
Over the years, he’s learned that there’s only so much he can control what happens to his body.
“Through the grace of God you go through an entire NFL season healthy,” Ingram said. “You do everything in your power: You train hard, you do all your lifts to prevent injury, deep tissue massage, cold tub, dry needling, fast work, muscle activation techniques, chiropractor, stretching, yoga, pilates, you just do a wide variety of things to make your body flexible and durable so you can make it through a season like that, but a lot of things still have to go your way.”
Part of the problem is the nature of the spot Ingram plays. No skill position takes as much punishment as running back, a role that requires a player like Ingram not only to carry the ball between the tackles, but also to absorb the impact of blitzing linebackers as a pass protector and the vicious hits safeties and linebackers deliver in the short passing game after the catch.
“The running back position takes a beating in this league,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “That’s why every team typically has a stable of backs that you mix and match. Mark has been really, really good. We know that his position takes a beating, so for him the ability to stay healthy is key. But his productivity when he’s out there and the influence that he has for us when he’s out there are pretty strong.”
New Orleans has stockpiled the backfield behind Ingram with veterans Tim Hightower and C.J. Spiller, along with a young group that includes Travaris Cadet, second-year man Marcus Murphy and rookie Daniel Lasco.
Figuring out how many of those backs should make the roster and how to get them all touches is up to the coaching staff.
“We will try to identify what we want to do with the backs, with the rotation and also play types,” Saints head coach Sean Payton said. “Obviously, it’s a long season. It’s a tough position to play and stay healthy at.”
But when Ingram is healthy, he’s clearly the feature back in this offense, particularly after he established himself as a pass-catching threat last season. When Ingram was available in the first three-quarters of the season last fall, he took 62.6 percent of the snaps.
None of the Saints’ other backs came close to that kind of playing time.
“The last couple of years, I’ve had a lot more opportunities to show my abilities all-around,” Ingram said.
Ingram’s evolution as a pass-catcher made him a vital part of the Saints’ offense last season. A sure-handed player capable of beating linebackers and safeties one-on-one even if he’s split wide, Ingram’s versatility was rumored -- mostly by Ingram himself -- and finally proven last year.
Now, he has a new goal.
“That i can keep doing it,” Ingram said. “I had 50 catches last year, so I just want to be a guy who people look at me and say, ‘he’s one of the top backs in the league hands-down. Somebody that you have to respect and know where he’s at on every snap.”
Opposing teams already know the damage Ingram can do.
What matters is how many snaps his body allows him to take.