STAY OR GO? In the End, Loyalty Should Keep Mark Ingram in a Saints Uniform

Photo by Wyatt Vaughn, JRNOLA

Throughout the 52-and-a-half year history of the New Orleans Saints franchise, there have only been a small handful of players at the team’s running back position that could be considered legendary or iconic.

There was late 1970’s duo Chuck Muncie and Tony Galbreath, known collectively as “Thunder and Lightning.” There was George Rogers, Rueben Mayes, and Dalton Hilliard who led the way during the 1980s. Craig “Ironhead” Heyward came along at the start of the 1990s, and Ricky Williams arrived at the tail end of that decade.

And then, of course, who can forget the Black and Gold’s all-time greatest RB that came along in the early 2000s: former Ole Miss All-American RB and living Saints legend Dulymus “Deuce” McAllister.

In recent years, names such as Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas, and Alvin Kamara have all been an integral part of the team’s offensive attack under current head coach Sean Payton. But perhaps no one player at the position has generated more feedback from long-time fans of the team than former Heisman Trophy winner and University of Alabama All-American RB Mark Ingram.

Ingram’s contributions to the team in recent seasons extends far beyond his stats, numbers, and on-the-field contributions; as he has emerged as one of the team’s more emotionally passionate and vocal leaders representing them off of the football field as well.

Photo by Wyatt Vaughn, JRNOLA

However, the soon-to-be 9th year NFL veteran is now about to become an unrestricted free agent. For a Saints team that should have been in the Super Bowl last season, and will have their sights set on making one more serious run at a Pro Football world championship later this year, re-signing the 29-year old Ingram to a new contract is one of the team’s top off-season priorities.

The biggest question at the moment is determining Ingram’s current market value; as well as whether or not he wants an opportunity to seek opportunities with another potential bidder for his services, or remain in the role that he has firmly established within the team’s offensive scheme under Payton.

Near the end of last season and again several days ago, both Ingram and Saints team brass have intimated their mutual desire to stay together next season and at least a couple of seasons heading into the future. However, an anonymous source recently told New Orleans FOX Channel 8 sports anchor Sean Fazende that Ingram will seek to test his value on the current Free Agent market if the Black and Gold doesn’t extend him a reasonable contract offer.

So just how much money is considered “reasonable” for an RB of Ingram’s caliber as well as his current age?

And more importantly: is it worth keeping him, and how much money would actually be too much?

Whether or not Ingram ultimately stays or goes will come down to what amount he personally believes is a fair offer. However, remaining with the team that he has played for throughout the length of his professional career, especially when he is a mere 90 yards away (6.007) from breaking McAllister’s franchise record (6,096) for rushing yards, is something that will weigh into his final decision.

While you drink from your cup of coffee this morning, Ingram’s market value has been calculated at $4.4 million per year according to the good folks over at Spotrac (the NFL contract and salary-cap experts), a number that would actually rank him within the Top 10 players at his position in 2019, as the 6th highest paid RB in the entire NFL. Such a payout would place Ingram just slightly behind Los Angeles Rams All-Pro RB Todd Gurley, who ranks 5th overall at $5 million per season.

Now, granted, if that doesn’t sound like a whole lot of money when you have NFL quarterbacks that are earning jaw-dropping contracts that are close to exceeding $25-to-$30 million annually, it’s because it actually isn’t.

While it’s true that $4-to-$6-million per year annually appears to be the current going rate for an NFL RB, the reason that RB salaries are far less than their teammates is because the RB position โ€” unlike any other position in the NFL โ€” is the most physically demanding and punishing position to play in the entire League. It has been for the past several decades.

It’s the main reason why there’s been a long-held belief that the average median age for an NFL RB’s entire playing career to end is at age 30, which in some instances is anywhere from 5 up to 7 years (and in some cases even longer) of the retirement age for players at other positions.

Ingram, who will turn 30 on December 21st of this year, is nearing that retirement age; this happens to be just one of the reasons that have prompted some of his critics, as well as a few well-known NFL analysts, to suggest that perhaps New Orleans would be better off to move on from him and seek a replacement.

Just last week, ESPN National NFL writer/analyst Bill Barnwell made the observation that New Orleans might not be able to afford to keep Ingram around. The distinct possibility exists that team brass could decide that they just won’t have enough salary-cap space to ink him to any potential new deal; should he receive an offer to be a #1 starting RB for another NFL team.

Tammy Anthony Baker, Wikimedia Commons

Ingram held that #1 RB role in previous seasons with the Saints; but has been in what essentially is a “time-share” arrangement at the position since the team drafted RB Alvin Kamara in the 3rd Round of the 2017 NFL Draft.

Kamara, of course, went on to become 2017 NFL Rookie of the Year, and last season in 2018 served as the primary RB for most of the season, particularly while Ingram served a 4-game suspension last September for violating the League’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs (known as PED’s).

Additionally, Barnwell noted that Ingram still has a significant role within the Saints offense, but that the team could decide to let him walk since he believes New Orleans will be “pinching pennies to fill out the bottom 20 percent of their roster.โ€

His solution? Barnwell says that if Ingram asks for $4 million or less, it will justify the Black and Gold keeping Ingram around for a few more seasons. But he cautions that if Ingram is looking to “break the bank” so to speak, then Saints team brass would be much better off in the long run to add a brand new RB in April’s upcoming 2019 NFL Draft.

While Barnwell’s observation is indeed a valid one, there shouldn’t be any disputing that Ingram technically isn’t your typical soon-to-be 30-year-old NFL RB. Ingram has been extraordinarily fortunate and has managed to nearly avoid any type of significant, career-threatening injury in his first 8 NFL seasons.

So basically, the typical “wear and tear” that we see happen with a vast majority of players at that particular position, hasn’t really happened with Ingram โ€” who it goes without saying has enjoyed relatively good health throughout the length of his entire playing career at the high school level, college, and now the pro ranks.

He and Kamara (known collectively as “Zoom and Boom”) have combined their respective talents to provide the Saints offense with an absolute abundance of production at the RB position throughout the past two seasons.

Kamara has served as a dual threat both running the ball between the tackles while also catching passes out of the backfield in the designated “scat back” role; while Ingram has served in a more traditional role commonly referred to as a “power RB”, especially on short yardage carries or plays at or near the goal line.

In 2017, the two combined to become the highest scoring backfield in the entire NFL with 23 combined rushing touchdowns. While that number was down last year (20), they still have combined for 43 rushing TD’s in the two years that they’ve played together; and if you add receiving TD’s to that number, the duo has already scored a grand total of 54 TDs.

Is that a compelling enough reason for the Saints to aggressively seek to re-sign Ingram before any other team can try to persuade him to leave and take his talents elsewhere?

That probably depends on your point of view, and especially if you’re a Saints fan.

Ingram has definitely had a “love-hate” relationship at times with a portion of Saints fans that view the 2-time Pro Bowl selection as being what they consider overrated, or that his contributions have come up well short of the expectations usually associated with an NFL #1 RB role.

There are some that even feel that his past history with injuries (specifically when he missed time at the end of the 2015 season that saw him miss a handful of games) was a sign that he lacked toughness and is an injury-prone player.

However, it should also be noted that any “hate” for Ingram generally is associated with a portion of Who Dats who are from the state of Louisiana, and therefore likely are passionately-devoted LSU football fans. They aren’t particularly fond of Ingram because he played for (and won back-to-back National Championships) for their hated arch-rivals in the SEC, under Nick Saban at Alabama.

Nevertheless, most Saints fans as well as Ingram and the Saints organization itself, all very much would like to see them extend their partnership between each other for at least the next couple of seasons.

Last week during a radio appearance on “The Rich Eisen Show,” Ingram told the famed radio host and NFL Network analyst that he still has plenty of personal goals that he’d like to achieve before his career ends, and if possible, he’d prefer to do so while still remaining in NOLA.

โ€œIโ€™m going into my ninth year, (and) I feel like Iโ€™m better than ever. I feel like my careerโ€™s still going up. I want to rush for 10,000 yards. Clearly, I want to win the Super Bowl. I just want to keep pressing forward, keep doing the best I can do and just control what I can control.โ€

โ€œIโ€™ve been talking to the Saints,โ€ Ingram said to Eisen. “Itโ€™s kind of like a thing where they say they want me back, I say, โ€˜I want to be back,โ€™ itโ€™s just can we compromise on the value? Like I said, Iโ€™ve been there my entire career. Itโ€™s very rare that someone gets to spend their career in one place, and that would be something that would be significant. But at the same time, Iโ€™m not afraid to bet on myself. I believe in my opportunity.”

“Of course, I’d love to be in New Orleans for my career, my teammates, my family. I met my wife, my children there. Like I said, I love the organization, and I hope it all gets worked out. But at the same time, I have all confidence in my abilities and all confidence in what I can do given the opportunity to be a feature guy. So I’m not scared to bet on myself. At the same time, I’d love to be in New Orleans.”

Some detractors will argue that Ingram’s stats last season (645 yards rushing and 6 total TD’s) shouldn’t warrant retaining his services, but given the situation with regard to his suspension at first, and then the way that last season eventually unfolded, it would seem rather foolish to make an assumption that he was in a state of decline.

Ingram broke McAllister’s franchise record for career rushing touchdowns near the end of the season last year, and now only stands less than a 100 rushing yards away from becoming the team’s all-time rushing yards leader.

This is also the very same player who rushed for over 1,000 yards the two seasons before last season (1,043 yards in 2016 and then 1,124 yards in 2017) and arguably has actually gotten better with each passing year.

Ingram’s body has taken considerably less abuse and punishment due to his limited use as the Saintsโ€™ designated #1 RB earlier in his career (when the Saints utilized the services of former undrafted RB’s Chris Ivory and Khiry Robinson). As a result, he is actually in great physical shape for an NFL RB of his caliber at this point in his professional career.

The bottom line, quite simply, is that Ingram has expressed an overwhelming desire to remain with the team, and they want him back in the fold so long as it’s feasible financially.

In the end, I believe it’s loyalty โ€” something that is very rare nowadays in the relationship between the National Football League and the majority of its 1,696 players โ€” that ultimately will keep Ingram in a Saints uniform in 2019 and a few seasons beyond.

Gone are the days where legendary RB’s such as Jim Brown (Cleveland Browns), Walter Payton (Chicago Bears), Barry Sanders (Detroit Lions) or even like Deuce McAllister did with the Saints, end up playing for only one NFL team throughout the length of their entire professional careers.

Team brass could have very easily parted ways with Ingram previously in the past, and they actually re-signed him just a few days before he became a Free Agent back during the 2015 Off-Season.

Since that time, however, team management has undoubtedly seen him constantly display the natural and God-given talent that has allowed him to achieve a remarkable degree of success, for the better part of the past decade and a half.

Photo by Keith Allison

No, he definitely hasn’t been the greatest RB in the history of the NFL by any stretch, but his contributions on the field as well as his vocal and passionate team leadership off of the field, has been immeasurable and invaluable to the franchise; and it would be worth every single penny that they’d pay him.

Yes, the New Orleans Saints need to re-sign Mark Ingram โ€” and then try to win the Super Bowl together not only next season but for as long as he remains in NOLA.

Barry Hirstius is a semi-retired journalist, who has worked as a sports editor and columnist. Barry is a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the Saints while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium. He is the proud Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.


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