What are we to make of the New Orleans Saints' backfield?
Change is the name of the game in New Orleans this season.
No, that's not in reference to offensive player personnel. The Saints return the majority of their 2011 starting lineup intact.
That's a reference to the vastly different coaching staff -- at least for this season -- as a result of the Bountygate scandal that cost coach Sean Payton a year's suspension and his assistant head coach, Joe Vitt, a six-game suspension.
One of the reasons fantasy owners had found such a sense of comfort in owning members of the Saints offense during the past decade was the statistical stability exhibited during Payton's regime. In Payton's six seasons at the helm, the Saints never finished worse than sixth in total yards or 12th in points scored.
Now the Saints will make do, at least for the 2012 season, with offensive line coach Aaron Kromer leading the way for the first six weeks and Vitt taking over as interim head coach thereafter.
As any fantasy owner might know, change in the coaching ranks can mean a change in team performance.
It's for that reason that prospective fantasy owners of any of the Saints running back candidates might approach the bunch with enthusiasm or trepidation. This group placed only one back in the top 25 at the position in fantasy scoring in 2011: Darren Sproles (eighth). Some might fear that with change might come regression for, or a shifting of focus away from, the team's most productive running back. Others might hope it means new, larger opportunities for players such as Pierre Thomas (27th) or Mark Ingram (43rd).
Despite the change at head coach, the coaching personnel remain largely "Payton's people." There's no reason to expect radical shifts in philosophy.
Besides, the Saints' running back usage patterns from a year ago show that there's little to fear. With help from Hank Gargiulo of ESPN Stats & Information, let's examine the patterns of each of the four primary contenders for carries.
Sproles is the one safe selection of the Saints' running backs, though not in the sense that he is a mortal lock to repeat his 176-point fantasy season of 2011. Sproles' fantasy point-per-touch ratio of 0.98 was a rarity in the history books -- the eighth-highest ratio since the NFL went to the 16-game schedule, harking back to the pre-merger days of Lenny Moore.
No, "safe" refers to a level of consistent reliability for which Sproles was known last season, having been one of eight running backs to manage 10 games with a double-digit fantasy score. In my 2011 Consistency Ratings, Sproles' 75 percent score placed him fourth overall at the position. That means that three out of every four times fantasy owners started him last season, he offered them a point total judged well worthy of starter's status (eight-plus points).
Thanks to the way the Saints utilize Sproles, using him in a multitude of formations including rolling him out wide, the prospect of a consistent volume of touches on a week-to-week basis minimizes any statistical downside. In 2011, on 170 of his 502 snaps he was lined up as a receiver -- 117 times he was in the slot, the other 53 times split wide.
Darren Sproles' 2011 Usage
Consider that the Saints lost one of their more proven receivers, Robert Meachem, to free agency during the offseason. Those are 63 targets that the Saints must fill, and while rookie Nick Toon, offseason acquisition Greg Camarillo and coming-off-injury Joseph Morgan might factor into the mix, not one should be placed on equal footing, skills-wise, with Meachem. Sproles' importance to the receiving game has not diminished at all since January.
Accounting for receiving and rushing, Sproles was critical on third downs, playing 73 percent of the team's total snaps. He finished seventh in receptions (25), second in yards after the catch (262, which led all running backs) and had the seventh-most overall touches (38). He played a whopping 78 percent of the team's snaps on third-and-long and is a brilliant player in those spots.
In fact, there's only one significant obstacle standing in Sproles' path of another outstanding season: a knee injury he suffered during the Aug. 9 preseason game, one likely to sideline him until the regular-season opener.
Speaking of injury questions, Ingram has his share. He is coming off two surgeries -- a Jan. 6 operation on the big toe of his left foot (turf toe) and a May 3 knee scope, the second of his career on his left knee -- giving him three surgeries in the past 24 months. This preseason, he has been on an every-other-day practice pattern, participating fully one day, a limited participant the next.
An equally valid question with Ingram is one of usage: Why don't the Saints seem to know how to properly use his skills?
Most scouting reports on Ingram at the time he was selected 28th overall in the 2011 NFL draft painted the picture of a tough runner with good balance, capable of racking up yards after contact. He was the kind of player who, despite lacking breakaway speed, had a skill set suitable to be an all-around back but who might have been well served with a solid change-of-pace as his caddie.
Instead, the Saints seemed to regard him only as a bruising, short-yardage back during his rookie season, effectively treating him as a role player. The chart illustrates Ingram's usage patterns, revealing a disturbing reliance by the Saints upon him primarily to pick up one- or two-yard gains.
Mark Ingram's 2011 Usage
That's not to say that Ingram, all of 5-foot-9 and 215 pounds, shouldn't at times be asked to pick up those yards. The point is that the Saints are capping the upside, both real and fantasy, of what was supposed to be their franchise back. They need to use him more in space, and they're not doing so. As a result, he managed an underwhelming 2.9 yards per carry during the 2011 preseason, 3.9 during his rookie season of 2011 and 3.0 this preseason.
Here's the other problem: Ingram was no more effective in those short-yardage situations than his competition at running back. He managed only one touchdown on his four carries within an opponent's 5-yard line, and his 24.6 percent rate of picking up first downs trailed Sproles (31 percent), Chris Ivory (26.6 percent) and Thomas (25.5 percent). If the Saints tire of Ingram's ineffectiveness in those situations, he might find his role capped at nothing more than a change-of-pace back.
Ingram's supporters will point to reports that the Saints want to get Ingram at least 200 touches in 2012, suggesting his role should expand. But do the math. Ingram played 10 games last season and accumulated 133 touches. Project that to a healthy 16-game season and that's 213. Such chatter might not pertain to any type of role expansion; it might just be the Saints' hopes that he'll stay healthy.
Thomas is perhaps the most talented pure runner of the three, and the Saints seemed most comfortable falling back upon him in any situation. Check the usage chart; Thomas' numbers are remarkably balanced.
Still, there's that key phrase: "Falling back upon." To that end, Thomas tallied only 160 touches in 16 games, his 10 touch-per-game average trailing Ingram (13.3) and Sproles (10.8). When Thomas was tallying his team-leading seven carries-plus-targets within an opponent's 5-yard line last season, most of those opportunities came in games in which Ingram was absent.
Pierre Thomas' 2011 Usage
One might think that a player with a 5.1 yards-per-carry average last season, and 4.8 for his career, might warrant a larger slice of the rushing pie. But through five season of his NFL career, Thomas has never managed a season with a touches-per-game average greater than 18.7 (2010, when he played only six games). His career average in the category is a mere 10.9.
Here's the other problem: Thomas' workload was in no way tied to Ingram's health last season. In the six games Ingram missed, Thomas totaled 64 touches -- 10.7 per game, almost identical to his full-season average of 10. When Ingram went down, the Saints actually granted Chris Ivory a larger volume (13.2).
Speaking of Ivory, he is the kind of bruiser whom, based on sheer makeup, the Saints could consider in those short-yardage chances should Ingram badly falter or get hurt. He got the call to play all six games that Ingram sat in 2011, though Ivory didn't make a single other appearance the entire season, mostly because he had been recovering from foot surgery and a sports hernia.
Ivory comes with more questions than the lot, though. For one, he is simply not as good a player as any of the other three, lacking vision and poor with ball control. The Saints also didn't give him a single look at the goal line in 2011, meaning that despite his powerful, move-the-pile profile, the team doesn't view him as much of a threat to Ingram's job security.
Accounting for the Saints' 2011 usage patterns, their individual running backs' skill sets and the hazy injury scenarios for two of the candidates, a repeat of last season's mix-and-match backfield appears a virtual certainty.
Sproles might the one fantasy gem of the lot, particularly in PPR leagues, where his value gets a substantial boost due to the likelihood that he will finish the season ranked among the top 25 players -- not running backs, players -- in receptions. Perhaps he lacks the upside to warrant a selection any sooner than the fifth round, which is where the fantasy group ranked him and where he has been going on average in live drafts, but Sproles' downside probably isn't much less than that of a sixth-round pick, being that his role in this pass-friendly offense makes him a consistent candidate to score 10-12 fantasy points per week. If at all possible, pick him in the fifth, no sooner, no later.
Beyond that, however, fantasy owners who tab Ingram or Thomas in the late rounds are taking a chance that these new faces mean new opportunities for one specific player in New Orleans. That's something that, with all the evidence to the contrary, is an out-and-out guess. Guess candidates aren't especially smart selections until you have more than finished filling out your starting lineup -- reserve material usually picked up beyond the 10th round.
Sound familiar? It's all the makings of a carbon copy, statistically speaking, of 2011. But that makes sense, as the Saints stay the course until Payton's return.
As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.