Ingram's role evolving with first TD catch

METAIRIE, La. -- Yes, Mark Ingram can catch the ball. And yes, the New Orleans Saints tailback can make guys miss when he gets into the open field.

These aren't exactly revelations to Alabama Crimson Tide fans. Don't forget, it was a 69-yard screen pass against the Florida Gators in the 2009 SEC title game that helped secure the Heisman Trophy for Ingram that year.

But it's not a quality that Ingram was able to show off much during his first three seasons with the Saints, because he was mostly pigeonholed into a short-yardage/base-package role with better pass-catchers Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas also on the roster.

That has started to change now that Sproles has been traded to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Sure enough, for the first time in his NFL career, Ingram caught a touchdown pass in Friday's preseason game against the Tennessee Titans. It was a 23-yard, blitz-busting dump-off pass, and Ingram flashed some nifty moves while making a couple of guys miss on his way to the end zone.

Ingram also stayed on the field with the nickel offense throughout a two-minute drill simulation in Monday's practice, catching two balls from Drew Brees on the drive.

"I haven't caught a lot of passes in the NFL, but in high school I played receiver. If you look at my recruiting thing, it says 'athlete,'" Ingram said proudly. "And in college, I caught a lot of passes. I haven't done it a lot here, but I've always been confident in my ability to contribute out of the backfield running routes, line up out wide running routes. I'm comfortable doing all of that."

Ingram proudly confirmed that he has some of those receiver traits in his genes, since his father Mark was a standout wide receiver for the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins.

"Of course. My dad played receiver. So that was one of the first things; running routes and catching footballs was one of the first things I did when I was young," Ingram said.

I still think Thomas will be the Saints' primary third-down back this season. Thomas is their best pass-catcher (a career-high 77 receptions last year). Just as important, Thomas is the Saints' best pass-protector. He was on the field for most of the third downs with the first-string offense during Friday's game against the Titans, catching three passes for 27 yards.

But Ingram's recent performances have been further signs that he will finally be able to play a more versatile role in the Saints' offense this season.

We saw glimpses of that during the 2013 playoffs, when Thomas was out with an injury. Ingram got to play in more three-receiver and one-back sets, and he took full advantage in a playoff win over the Eagles, with 18 carries for 97 yards and a touchdown plus a career-high three catches for 17 yards.

Ingram has made no secret about how much he is looking forward to the opportunity to keep expanding his role.

"I hope so. I want to do everything. I want to be involved in the pass game, run game, picking up pass pro. I want to be the most versatile player I can be," he said. "The majority of the time, if you just watch the film, most of the teams think when I'm in the game it's either gonna be a run or play-action or something like that. But ... we had Sproles, Pierre, a lot of receiving targets. I'm just trying to welcome that role and prove that I can do it.

"I know I'm an all-purpose back, a complete back. I can do everything."

Ingram didn't say that last part with any kind of off-putting arrogance.

In fact, I've always been impressed by how much of a team player Ingram has been in New Orleans, never publicly complaining while playing a bit part in a time-share at running back, even when he struggled at times in that short-yardage role.

At the same time, Ingram's confidence has never wavered. As he said recently, it's still his goal to be the "best back to ever play the freakin' game of football."