21 April 2011

The Case for Mark Ingram

With the 2011 draft less than a week away, I am going to examine the Saints' rushing attack during the Sean Payton era and make the case for the Saints drafting Mark Ingram with their first round draft pick, assuming Ingram is available for selection. 

To this point, the Sean Payton era in New Orleans spans 86 games (regular + post-season) over the course of 5 seasons (2006-2010). The Saints are 53-33 under Payton. In the 53 wins, the Saints have averaged 29.8 rush attempts/game and 124 yards/game. In the 33 losses, the Saints have averaged 20.5 attempts/game and 75.8 yards/game. 

The Saints rushing attack has been, at best, mediocre under Payton and that is attributable to several factors, most notably Payton's pass-centric offensive design. Specifically, the Saints' league rank in rushing under Payton is as follows:

  • 2006: 19th
  • 2007: 28th
  • 2008: 28th
  • 2009: 6th
  • 2010: 28th

In the two seasons that the Saints ranked the highest in rushing ('06, '09), they made the NFC championship game and won the Super Bowl, respectively. In the three seasons they finished 28th ('07, '08, '10), the Saints won no playoff games. 

And though this single statistic isn't the lone benchmark of the Saints' overall performance under Payton, it is a worthy indicator of final results. While Saints' fans who have watched the team during the Payton era may understand this correlation intuitively--namely, the correlation between an effective running game and a Super Bowl-caliber team--examining the numbers empirically drives home the point and underscores the need for a viable rushing attack if the Saints intend on winning another Super Bowl in the coming years. 

Be patient. I'll get to Mark Ingram in a bit. First, let's look at some more stats to emphasize the thesis.  In games under Payton where the Saints ...

... log 20 rushing attempts or fewer, the team is 1-17
... log 21-26 rushing attempts, the team is 18-14
... log 27 rushing attempts or more, the team is 34-4

It's plainly obvious to see, assuming that you believe the sample size of five seasons is worthy, that the more the Saints attempt to run, the more they in fact win. What's more glaring is the correlation between rushing efficacy and winning, not just attempts and winning. Simply put, when the Saints under Payton ...

... rush for 125 yards or more, they are a staggering 23-0
... rush for fewer than 100 yards, they are an underwhelming 17-24

Continuing the trend is the fact that in the games where the Saints score 30+ points, they average 29.3 attempts for 118.9 yards/game. And in games where they score 40+ points, they average 31.3 attempts for 140.4 yards/game. Conversely, in the Saints' 29 lowest-scoring games under Payton, they average 22.8 attempts for a paltry 83.2 yards per game. The Saints' record under Payton when they score 30+ points? 35-4. 

Finally, during the Saints' 13-game winning streak in their 2009 Super Bowl-winning campaign, they averaged 30.7 attempts for 138.9 yards/game. Enough? 

Which finally brings us to Mark Ingram. Why, when the Saints have glaring pass-rushing needs, should they potentially spend a valuable first round pick on Mark Ingram? The answers are: (1) importance of the rushing attack to the Saints' overall success; (2) immediacy of impact; (3) need for depth. 

We've examined (1) exhaustively above. As for (2), Ingram stands to make an immediate impact on the Saints offense due to several factors. (a), He is an elite talent with NFL bloodlines (his father played in the NFL) who will fill a specific niche within the Saints system; he won't be forced to carry the load, nor will he be put into situations that don't fit his skill set. His role as a between-the-tackles, goal-line, downhill, clock-killing back fits perhaps the Saints biggest area of need, and Ingram is the optimal fit for this role. His top-level abilities potentially transform the Saints offense from up-tempo and high-scoring to fearsomely diverse and downright, historically unstoppable. The historic potential here is too great to pass up. (b), He has played in a pro system under Nick Saban in college against elite SEC talent; the overall skill level and professional requirements in the NFL won't overwhelm him in the short term. (c), He is relatively "fresh" as he shared the workload for two seasons with Trent Richardson at the University of Alabama; his overall RB mileage has not been over-extended at the NCAA level which should extend his NFL career by a year or two. The final, short point to make about "impact" is that Ingram stands to make an immediate, noticeable impact on the Saints overall efficiency and results, while a "best available" pass-rusher might or might not deliver an impact, either immediately or in the long-term. 

Finally, the need for depth (3) is less directly important in relation to Ingram (many players can fill the 'depth' need), but it is important nonetheless. In the Saints' 2010 playoff game vs Seattle, the Saints were literally playing their 8th string RB for the season, a fact that doomed their chances in the postseason. At that point, the Saints were without Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory, Reggie Bush, Lynell Hamilton, Ladell Betts, Julius Jones, and Deshawn Wynn. If this fact doesn't underscore the vital need for depth at the RB position, then I don't know what does. 

In summary, it's important to note that the Saints will remain a pass-first team, as they should.  It's also important to note that the Saints pass-rush requires an infusion of talent. But what overall immediate impact will be made with the "best" non-elite pass rusher available at the bottom of the first round? Will it significantly contribute to another Super Bowl run? In my opinion, the answer is a resounding "no" unless the Saints can somehow draft Von Miller. 

With that said, if the Saints want another Super Bowl victory, it's imperative that they possess an effective rushing attack. Drafting Mark Ingram with their first pick not only contributes mightily to the improvement of the rushing attack, but it also fortifies the RB position long-term and it adds an elite player to the league's best offense that already boasts several elite talents. If it's Super Bowl victories that matter, if the time to win is now--and it most certainly is--then drafting Mark Ingram is the smart move. Let's just hope the Saints have the opportunity to do so.