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Ranking Saints needs: No. 9 running back

A position-by-position look at where the New Orleans Saints stand heading into the 2015 offseason, ranked from 1-12 in order of the team’s need for upgrades or replacements.

Current depth chart:

Mark Ingram. Age 25, unrestricted free agent.

Pierre Thomas. Age 30, signed through 2016. 2015 salary and bonuses: $2.15 million. 2015 salary-cap number: $2.565 million.

Khiry Robinson. Age 25, scheduled to become restricted free agent in 2016. 2015 salary and bonuses: $585,000. 2015 salary-cap number: $585,334.

Travaris Cadet. Age 25, restricted free agent.

Tim Hightower. Age 28, signed through 2015. 2015 salary $745,000 (bonuses and cap figure unknown).

Edwin Baker. Age 23, scheduled to become exclusive rights free agent in 2016. 2015 salary: $585,000. 2015 salary-cap number: unverified, but likely $585,000.

FB Erik Lorig. Age 28, signed through 2017. 2015 salary and bonuses: $800,000. 2015 salary-cap number: $1.05 million.

FB Austin Johnson. Age 25, scheduled to become exclusive rights free agent in 2016. 2015 salary and bonuses: $510,000. 2015 salary-cap number: $510,000.

FB Toben Opurum. Age 24, scheduled to become exclusive rights free agent in 2016. 2015 salary: $435,000. 2014 salary-cap number: unverified, but likely $435,000.

Analysis:

This position, which has been so overcrowded for so many years, could suddenly look very thin if the Saints lose Ingram in free agency. And there’s a very strong chance of that happening, either because another team outbids New Orleans or because Ingram himself will want a shot at more of a featured role elsewhere.

That would be a shame since Ingram finally delivered on his potential in 2014 when he had the opportunity to be used in that type of featured role with the Saints due to injuries to other players. Ingram probably opened the Saints’ eyes a bit to the idea of using him that way instead of going with a running back by committee -- but that might be a moot point if Ingram also opened up the eyes of other potential suitors with deeper pockets.

I still ranked this among the Saints’ lower offseason priorities, though, because I’d be shocked to see them use a first-round draft pick or spend heavily in free agency on any newcomers -- and I can’t say that about any other positions higher on this list.

If the Saints lose Ingram, both Thomas and Robinson have shown the ability to step up into bigger roles when needed. The Saints were primed to increase Robinson’s workload this past year before his season got derailed by a fractured arm. They also took a flier on Hightower, who hasn't played since 2011 because of injuries. New Orleans would likely consider drafting someone in the middle or late rounds to develop behind those two, though.

ESPN scouting insider Matt Williamson’s take:

“I’ve always been an Ingram fan. I thought he entered the league injured. He’s never been healthy before, what, midway through last year? You know, he’s not Adrian Peterson, but he runs hard and he’s low and he’s physical. He can really do damage, considering the passing game is strong. And I think [coach Sean] Payton deep down wants to be a power running team, so you need a big back. I think they would love to get Ingram back, but I don’t know if I’d want to be back if I were him.

“I think Thomas had a really good year, as usual. You’d love to have him on your football team. He does everything. He isn’t the No. 1, but he’s versatile and he can help you in a lot of ways. We didn’t see a ton of Robinson, but I’ve been impressed when I do see him. I wouldn’t say he’s a franchise back or a foundation back, but if you gave him 100 more carries, I bet he’d be OK. I also kind of like Cadet. I think Cadet has a role, too. He’s not Sproles, but he’s in that role.”

Previous rankings:

No. 12: Specialists

No. 11: Quarterback

No. 10: Tight end