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Offseason Position Battle: Running Backs

Everyone knows Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. But what will the lineup look like behind them?

The running back position once again became a focal point of the Saints offense last year, with Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara each accumulating over 1,500 yards from scrimmage. They’re expected to continue in such a role next year, and the biggest questions regard which running backs will back them up and fill in. Trey Edmunds’ nine carries last year are the most returning to the roster. I don’t need to tell you too much about those guys, I’m sure, but let’s look at how the other offseason additions might fit into the roster…

Currently on roster: Mark Ingram, Alvin Kamara, Boston Scott, Trey Edmunds, Jonathan Williams, Shane Vereen, Terrance West

The most interesting wrinkle here is that Mark Ingram will be suspended for the first four games this season. That creates a scenario where Alvin Kamara will move into the primary role in the backfield. Still, it’s unlikely the Saints will want to overload Kamara early in the year, and instead will use one of the other backs to complement him.

Scott is the most likely candidate for that job, as the Saints spent a sixth-round pick on him in this year’s draft; the others were brought in through free agency on minimal investments.

The diminutive Scott, generously listed at 5’7″, will likely remind Saints fans of Darren Sproles at first glance, though he’s built a bit sturdier than that. Scott shows some excellent body control and ability to maintain balance and movement through contact, a key skill that’s difficult to measure traditionally but can prove a valuable part of a running back’s success. (Kareem Hunt’s breakout from a third-round rookie draft pick into the league’s leading rusher last year is in part explained by his ability to maintain his balance and keep moving forward after taking a hit.) Scott also has the burst to hit holes quickly and the top-end speed to break a play wide open once he gets to the second and third level. He also seems to have the necessary traits to be a receiving back out of the backfield, though he wasn’t used that way very often in college. (Of course, for him to truly be a Sproles clone, he’ll have to be an excellent receiver.) That versatility is key to the Saints’ running back attack: Though Ingram is primarily the back between the tackles and Kamara primarily the receiving back, either one can serve in either function, keeping defenses guessing. Scott seems like a player who may possess both of those capabilities as well.

With Ingram hitting unrestricted free agency getting up there in age (he’ll be 29 by the end of this year), it’s likely the Saints selected Scott with the idea of pairing him with Kamara as the lead back. All that seems to indicate that these first four games will be an audition for Scott in that role.

Trey Edmunds’ nine carries are the most any tailback behind Ingram or Kamara had for the Saints last year (save the handful Adrian Peterson accrued before he was traded), and he has value on special teams. Terrance West is a former third-round draft pick who has played on three teams in four years previously and is mostly notable for losing his playing time to undrafted or street free agents (first Isaiah Crowell in Cleveland, then Alex Collins in Baltimore). Shane Vereen is a veteran best known for his pass-catching abilities; he was signed after the Saints released Daniel Lasco with an injured designation, indicating he is not healthy from last year’s neck injury. Jonathan Williams is a back with some talent who fell out of favor in Buffalo after only one year, eventually landing on the Saints’ roster in 2017 but never playing a game.

Roster Prediction: Mark Ingram*, Alvin Kamara, Boston Scott, Trey Edmunds, Jonathan Williams / Shane Vereen**

The prediction is a little unusual here, so I’ll explain.

Were the situation normal, I’d guess that Ingram, Kamara, Scott, and Edmunds would be the backs. Edmunds showed valuable special-teams skill last year in addition to his performance as a late-game fill-in. The team barely used a third tailback last year; I don’t think they need too many carries out of the position, but Scott is better than Edmunds in that regard and can also contribute on special teams, having returned kicks in college.

However, Ingram’s suspension muddies the waters a little, in part because of contract rules in the NFL. By NFL rules, a “vested veteran”– one with four years of accrued service– has their entire contract guaranteed if they are on the 53-man roster for a week 1 game. This means that someone like Vereen is difficult to keep on roster week 1. While his abilities as a receiving back would be useful in case Scott wasn’t ready or the team didn’t want to overload Kamara, it’s very unlikely the Saints want to guarantee a full season’s salary to a 29-year-old part-time fill-in.

For that reason, my projection is that Williams will make the roster as the fourth tailback week 1; he’ll be replaced by Vereen weeks 2-4; then Vereen will be cut when Ingram returns.

It’s a few wrinkles to a position that was pretty straightforward once they worked out the kinks last year; in the end, though, the biggest news here is the addition of Scott. I’d still expect Ingram and Kamara to get the lion’s share of work, barring injuries or unless Scott turns out to be significantly better than expected.

Next time: Training camp has started, so we may shift focus to some reports from there. If not, we’ll take a look at another position.

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