Saints' Thomas not being phased out

METAIRIE, La. – Pierre Thomas’ role with the New Orleans Saints is changing a bit this year. But don’t be fooled into thinking that the eighth-year running back is getting phased out of the offense.

Among other reasons, Thomas insisted he won’t let that happen.

“These guys, they’re my friends and my teammates, but they’re gonna have to out-work me,” Thomas said of fellow running backs Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson. “They’re gonna have to put me on the bench, and that’s gonna be hard to do.”

Thomas, 29, might well wind up going from first in rushing attempts and yards last year to third in those particular categories in 2014.

But the versatile veteran appears primed to take over the nickelback role that was previously inhabited by Darren Sproles – which makes sense because Thomas is New Orleans’ best pass-catcher and best pass-protector. He caught a career-high 77 passes last season and could approach similar numbers again.

Although the Saints are featuring Ingram and Robinson in more versatile roles this summer, Thomas was still on the field for most of the Saints’ third-down plays during the Aug. 15 preseason victory over the Tennessee Titans. Thomas finished with three catches for 27 yards (plus a fourth reception that was nullified by a penalty).

The Saints have never specified what any of the roles for their running backs will be. In fact, it’s a general goal for the offense to be more unpredictable this year.

In years past, with such a crowded backfield, the Saints often would tip their hands depending on who was on the field (Sproles = pass play; Ingram, Robinson or Chris Ivory = run play).

“I know my role is gonna change a whole lot this year,” Thomas said. “I’m gonna do a lot more pass protection and do a little more route-running. But I’m still gonna be running the ball; they told me that, too. So I’ve got a few changes here and there that I’m going to adapt to, and I just know all of us can do the same thing. The coaches see that, too, so they’re getting everybody in the mixture.

“You see Mark out there spread out wide, same thing with Khiry. So it’s a nice rotation. We want to make sure we’re unpredictable. No matter who goes in, if Mark goes in, they don’t know what it’s going to be.”

It’s been a little unusual to see Thomas listed as the No. 3 running back on New Orleans' unofficial depth chart and to see him working with the backups during training-camp practice installations. He also agreed to take a slight pay cut this offseason as part of a more cap-friendly three-year contract extension.

But Thomas said he’s not worried – or complaining – about any of those things.

“Whenever my name is called, I’m gonna go out there and do my job. I don’t complain about my reps, I don’t complain about anything. I know I’m gonna get the ball,” Thomas said. “I know I’m gonna go out there and put myself out there on the field and help my team out. I know my name will be called, because that’s my whole attitude. I know that these coaches are not just going to put me down and sit me down on the side.”

Coach Sean Payton echoed that sentiment, pointing out that he’s always leaned on Thomas when needed in the past. In fact, Payton arguably relied on Thomas as much as ever last year, when he finished with 549 rushing yards, 513 receiving yards and five total touchdowns.

“Listen, every year we describe his role, and at some point in the season it shifts,” Payton said. “Each year there has been a game or two where all of a sudden he’s doing more than just [the nickel downs and pass protections], and I don’t feel like this season will be an exception.”

Earlier this offseason, Saints quarterback Drew Brees called Thomas, “the best all-purpose back in the league.” And when asked about his comfort level with Thomas on Thursday, Brees quickly responded, “Well, we’ve been together for eight years, so yeah, there’s a huge comfort level with him. He’s so dependable, so tough, so smart. And obviously we’ve been through a lot together.”

My fantasy advice has been consistent throughout this offseason: I expect all three of the Saints’ backs to wind up providing similar value in a fairly balanced time-share. The good news is that there are real signs of an improved run game overall, and the unpredictability should benefit all three of them.

None of them will emerge as a true “No. 1 back,” though. So the best value pick would be whichever one falls furthest in your fantasy draft.