One of the signings I keep thinking about that I think is flying way under the radar in terms of the impact it could make on the team that made it is Darren Sproles to the New Orleans Saints. Sproles may not have been the sexiest guy in a free agent pool full of bigger names like Nnamdi Asomugha and Johnathan Joseph, but if you take a look at the skill set he brings to team and how Sean Payton will be able to use him; it starts to look like a great signing.
Many experts around the NFL talked about the Saints needing to bring Reggie Bush back at a reduced salary and frankly, for what they were looking for Sproles can probably give them more bang for their buck.
When New Orleans won the Super Bowl in 2009, they had a three-headed monster in the running game with Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell and Reggie Bush. Nobody was “the guy”, but everyone played their role. Thomas and Bell gave them a great pop up the middle and kept each other fresh. Both Thomas and Bush were good out of the backfield catching passes, but Bush was obviously who they envisioned the playmaker to be on the outside and in the passing game. Unfortunately for the Saints he never worked out and was in fact, a bust for them throughout his career, however they did win a Super Bowl that year.
Fast forward to the 2011 season and they have the looks of what could be a very similar backfield makeup. Pierre Thomas is still around, but is coming off of an injury plagued season. Rookie Chris Ivory stepped up in a big way last season and was the team’s leading rusher with 716 yards. No other running back they used amassed over 269 yards besides Ivory last season though; and that was what Thomas did in six total games (three starts) around injuries.
This year the Saints also took advantage of the draft and were able to catch a sliding Mark Ingram who has a north-south running style and some shiftiness that I feel will make him an immediate success in the NFL. The beautiful thing about Ingram’s position is, he doesn’t need to be a workhorse either. Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram are set to go for Week 1, as is Sproles. Chris Ivory could be off of the PUP list by that time as well, but there is no sense in rushing him back with a deep backfield. Let’s talk about Sproles versus Bush.
Bush has averaged 7.3 yards per catch during his NFL career. Most will look at that number and be impressed. Darren Sproles has averaged 9.6 for his and has caught 104 passes for 1,017 yards and six touchdowns over the past two seasons … all while starting only five games.
Simply put, he’s been much more of a playmaker with the ball in his hands after the catch than Bush has.
Sean Payton loves his toys. He loves to create mismatches with his offense and has been wildly effective during his tenure in New Orleans because of his ability to do just that. Darren Sproles is a mismatch. The one big issue that Tommy has brought up to me on this is defensive coordinators really did game plan against Bush in the passing game. Cornerbacks lined up over him. We’ll see how that plays out this year.
Last year the Saints lacked a rushing game and had to get pass-happy at times which hurt them. It showed in the box score and in the final results. This year, Payton can run a much more balanced attack and go back to his ultra-sneaky ways.
Not to beat a dead horse, but Mark Ingram is a player that I absolutely loved in college and think the Saints stole in the draft. Running backs have become less and less valuable these days, however this is a kid that won the Heisman as a sophomore and that I believe could have been an immediate starter for a team. In this offense he’ll be allowed to get enough carries to wear down a defense and be effective, but also stay fresh. That’s huge.
Ingram and Sproles may be the shots in the arm that New Orleans need on the offensive side of the ball to get back to the Super Bowl this season. They are always stacked at the receiver position and are now very talented and deep at running back again, just like they were in 2009.