Saints' Mark Ingram has earned feature-back role

In a lost season, one positive thing became very apparent for the New Orleans Saints last year.

They found out they had a feature running back in Mark Ingram. After three years of playing in a rotation, Ingram finally got the chance to show he can handle a heavy load.

The Saints rewarded him for that Saturday night with an agreement on a four-year contract. That comes just days after the Saints released veteran Pierre Thomas. The release of Thomas signals a heavier load for Ingram.

But he showed last season he can handle that. With other injuries in the backfield, Ingram had four 100-yard games in the span of six weeks. That might have changed the attitude of coach Sean Payton, who always had used a backfield by committee.

Ingram rushed for a career-best 964 yards and nine touchdowns last season.

"No. 1, he had a fantastic season. He's a player that we look at and have a value for. He's our draft pick, you know," Payton said. "He stayed healthy this year. And I couldn't be more excited to see him have the success because you see the work behind the scenes. You see the preparation by him, you see the professionalism by him. And he's a football guy; he was at Alabama, he was in high school. And so it's good to see him have that type of success, especially a guy you brought into the program.’’

Ingram came to New Orleans with high hopes in 2011. A Heisman Trophy winner, the Saints traded up to draft him. But Ingram’s first three seasons with the Saints were marked by inconsistency, injuries and a crowded backfield.

But that all changed last season as Ingram got a career-high 226 carries. Now, it looks like it’s Ingram’s turn to be the feature back.