This is the 5th in a series of round-by-round “Best Buys.” Each one will profile a player that is going in a different round of drafts this summer that I think could provide excellent value at their current ADP, according to Fantasy Football Calculator. Today’s profile is from the 5th round, and I’ll be spotlighting RB Mark Ingram from the New Orleans Saints.
Mark Ingram, RB, New Orleans Saints (Current ADP: 5.10 Standard, 6.01 PPR)
What if I told you that you could get Devonta Freeman in the late 5th round of your fantasy draft? Wouldn’t you want to know more? Wouldn’t that just be a coup on draft day? Admit it, you’d be whistling all the way to the car. Well, unless you play in a 2 team league, it’s not likely to happen; but the essence of such a thing may indeed be more possible than you think.
In the current NFL, where scat backs rule the back halves of PPR fantasy drafts, we find ourselves as fantasy players contented by the fixed floors of players like Theo Riddick, Giovani Bernard, or Duke Johnson, while being simultaneously nonplussed by their limited upside. If only these guys could score touchdowns, we whisper under our breaths. Then we would really have something. But they don’t. Not usually anyway.
But then there’s that whole other beast – the 3-down back. And among them, whether you know it or not, has been Mark Ingram – the 7th year RB and former Heisman Trophy winner from Alabama. He’s not a workhorse. He’s not a featured back. But he is a 3-down back; and what I mean by that is, he could be on the field and contribute at any time and in any way. There is an important distinction there to remember; and Freeman, despite being fantasy’s best RB in 2015 and cracking the Top 10 again in 2016, is much the same way.
After much speculation that the Falcons would let him walk after 2017, Devonta Freeman received a 5-year $41.25 million extension with $22 million guaranteed earlier this August.
Ingram is a lighter, smallish back – not quite as small as Freeman, but not much larger either. He has a shiftiness to him that many backs do not – something that is immediately evident on tape. There may be a number of tricky little scooters that can cut and burst like Ingram, but they won’t finish runs like he will. Even all-down, all-the-time, all-world featured back LeSean McCoy, who comps to Ingram size-wise and is actually even quicker, does not smash into defenders the way Ingram does. It’s as if Ingram is trapped in a little body, but there is a roaring monster within; and he ends his gains almost with the violence and determination of an Ahmad Bradshaw or a Marion Barber. He is deceptively strong, and he can even push a pile a little if he must. And his motor will seemingly never, ever stop. Bottom line: Ingram is a straight up pit-bull on the football field – a twitchy, cunning, and tough runner – a bit of a matchup nightmare, really, which is a lot of what we’re looking for in fantasy football.
As a receiver, Ingram doesn’t get enough credit. His quickness helps him zip past linebackers, and he has a knack for finding little pockets of space where he can easily corral the ball. Once he has it in hand, he can let his momentum carry him to a relay-race take-off, or he can craftily plant a foot in the dirt and cut inside of a pursuing defender, almost defying physics in the process.
Make no mistake, Ingram has a 3-down-per-series skill set. What he may lack is a 60-play-per game body. When he entered the league as a 1st-round choice, it seemed HC Sean Peyton may have suspected as much. Ingram wasn’t trusted with more than 156 carries in his first three seasons, and he barely factored at all as a receiver (as Darren Sproles was then his backfield mate in New Orleans). When Sproles left for Philly in 2014, Ingram did receive a larger workload, helping him to fantasy’s 15th -best ranking. In 2015, he was injured much of the season; then, in 2016, he finally finished in fantasy’s Top 10.
Did I mention that was while he was still sharing the backfield?
2014 was the closest thing Ingram had to a full workload for a whole season. Yielding 121 carries to the combination of Khiry Robinson and Pierre Thomas, Ingram cranked out 226 of his own in only 13 games. After battling injuries earlier in the season that year, Ingram blasted off in week 7, averaging 21.5 touches a game down the homestretch. In 2015, he entered the year with less true competition for touches, but his aggressive style eventually cost him the end of the season. He sat, and Tim Hightower, who was brought in out of a 3-year retirement, finished the season strong. So last year, Ingram worked once again in a split backfield with Hightower stealing away 133 carries and 26 receptions and finishing 32nd overall in RB scoring in fantasy. Meanwhile, it was still Ingram’s best fantasy season ever.
We seem more than willing to overlook the fact that Freeman splits his load with Tevin Coleman, who had 158 touches (1 less than Hightower) and finished as fantasy’s 18th best RB. Is Ingram’s situation so different?
Had the Saints not scooped up free agent RB Adrian Peterson this spring, it seems likely that Ingram would be going off boards in the 2nd round. But rostering one of the most dominant RBs in the history of the NFL is enough to scare a few suitors off; and really, who could blame anyone for that? But Ingram has never had the backfield to himself. Not ever.
I know that he has never split carries with someone with Peterson’s name and pedigree; but Peterson is 32 years old. His 2,418 rushing attempts rank 26th all-time; and he has the 2nd-most carries of any active player, behind only Frank Gore. The last time we saw him, he was averaging under 2.0 YPC, and PFF was slapping a 39.2 grade on him in 2016 – one of the worst grades anyone earned in any position a year ago, albeit in limited work. It’s possible that when we finally lay eyes on a 2017 version of Peterson, it won’t be the same guy we are picturing in our heads.
But do we know for certain if Peterson is done? Not a chance. 2011 was shortened due to an ACL tear, from which Peterson famously recovered in time to play every game and win the rushing title in 2012. It was still an ACL tear, so we may be worried about the lasting ramifications, but it is, at this point, difficult to conclude that this injury has had the type of long-term effect one would expect based on its short-term impertinence on the future Hall of Famer’s performance. In 2014, Peterson missed almost the entire season, but it was not injury related; instead, he was suspended while the NFL investigated a child abuse case against him. If one is trying to presuppose the remainder of Peterson’s future at his advanced age, one could almost put this incident in his “pro” column, because he got a year of rest in the prime of his life. A year ago, Peterson came out of the gate slow, struggling behind Minnesota’s spongy o-line; but he had a meniscus tear in the 3rd game of the year, and it cost him almost the whole season. Whatever stat line was recorded – 72 total rushing yards and 0 TDs – is practically negligible, because the sample size was so small, and the offense was scrambling to assemble on the fly after trading for Bradford well into the off-season to replace an injured Teddy Bridgewater. And Peterson is older now – well beyond the prime of an RB; but he also seems a bit like a different species – like maybe the rules that apply to the physical limitations of man don’t apply to Adrian Freakin’ Peterson.
Without a doubt, it is hard to predict what is left of today’s Peterson; and it is hard to know how New Orleans plans to use him. It could very well be that Peterson is the primary back in New Orleans this season; and based on where the two players are going in drafts according to Fantasy Football Calculator (Peterson is going at 4.10, almost a full round ahead of Ingram), people seem to expect that he will be.
If that happens – and it definitely could – Ingram’s fantasy value capsizing is not out of the question. If he becomes Hightower while Peterson becomes Ingram – and that’s not off the table – Ingram’s workload falls to a theoretical 150-170 touch range. In 2012, Ingram had 166 touches as a sophomore in the NFL. With just 631 combined yards and 5 total TDs that season, he was not a fantasy asset at all. Could that be where this is headed again? Sure! How could anyone look you in the eyes, knowing what we know now, and tell you that it is not even possible? But is that the most likely outcome? I personally have a hard time believing that it is.
For starters, Ingram was not used as a receiver in 2012. With just 10 targets that season, Ingram only had 6 grabs. Today, it is hard to even comprehend a time when Ingram wasn’t viewed as an aerial weapon. Ingram has averaged 48 catches per season in the last two seasons. With 724 yards and 4 TDs during that same span, receiving has become an integral part of his game; and it is especially difficult to visualize the Saints voluntarily setting such a weapon down and holding their hands in the air. Peterson has never been half the receiver that Ingram has been, and it is unlikely he will add that arrow to his quiver so late into his orbit. The likely scenario is that, regardless of any other usage, Ingram’s 3rd-down workload is safe. In a PPR format, that means Ingram is probably a pretty high-floor option with a 50-catch (100 fantasy points), 400 receiving yard (40 fantasy points) baseline. In other words, the absolute worst case scenario is that Ingram eventuates as one of those scatty little PPR backs with the high floors that we draft a few rounds later anyway; but unlike Riddick, Bernard, and Johnson, Ingram would retain an ostensibly higher TD upside. Add in at least a little ground work and a few ground scores, and what is the real risk, based on where Ingram is being drafted? Are Ameer Abdullah, Paul Perkins, or Bilal Powell – all of whom are within Ingram’s ADP gravity – better options, really? Are we hoping for a higher floor from any of these players?
Ingram's father, Mark Ingram, Sr. (not pictured), was a WR in the NFL from 1987-1996, including time as a contributing member of the 1991 Super Bowl Champion New York Giants, and Ingram credits his father for his good hands out of the backfield.
And what about the upside? While it’s certainly possible that Ingram is Peterson’s sidekick, it is just as likely that Peterson is Ingram’s. If Ingram maintains his usual 250 touch workload, he’s easily within RB1 range, as he has been in each of his 2 most recent full seasons. And even if Peterson begins the season as the RB1 in New Orleans, he’s older and coming off of an injury. Peterson is likely a more plausible candidate for injury than most RBs in the league. If that happens, Ingram has the majority of the backfield all to himself (with Alvin Kamara likely stepping up at that point for a little slice of the pie). If Ingram has that, he’s a certain every week fantasy starter.
Ingram plays in the same division as Freeman. They are similar in stature, similar is skill-set; and they had almost identical combine numbers. They have a similar frenetic and headstrong running styles. They play in similar offenses that both scratch out more offensive snaps per game than almost any other NFL team. When they have had similar workloads, they’ve had similar results. Each are in split backfields, as they were a year ago. Last year, Freeman finished 6th in fantasy, and Ingram finished 10th. I would agree that Freeman is better – don’t misinterpret me – but 4 rounds better? Even with Peterson injected into the situation, it seems like an overreaction. And if Ingram doesn’t meet that expectation, it will only cost you a 5th Round pick; and even then, he’s probably not cuttable and also occasionally usable. That much floor and that much ceiling are all you could ask for with a 5th round bet.