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Mark Ingram enters contract year at heart of Saints' growing ground game

Photo: Chris Tilley/AP

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Don’t let the posh surroundings of the 156-year-old Greenbrier resort the New Orleans Saints are staying in for the first three weeks of training camp fool you. The Saints may have comfort at their fingertips this summer, but it’s not a case of them being comfortable. Instead there’s an undercurrent of urgency and a sense of mission that pervades here. The Saints and their stacked roster believe their time is now, and it’s hard to find anyone who personifies that mantra more than fourth-year running back Mark Ingram as the former Heisman winner prepares for what is clearly the pivotal season of his NFL career.

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Ingram must make up for lost time to offset what hasn’t yet fallen into place in his first three seasons in New Orleans. He’s not interested in wasting much energy on the lofty expectations that have gone unmet since he left the University of Alabama, but he seems convinced the best is just ahead.

He and many of his teammates seem in a hurry to get their 2014 story started, convinced that big things await.

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"I think everything’s about timing, and I feel like it’s just time for me to be able to show what I can do and take advantage of my opportunity," Ingram said, minutes after a recent Saints morning practice in their scenic first-year training camp site in the Appalachian Mountains. "I want to go out there and just produce for this team. I’ve never been down on myself. I’ve always been confident, because I know I can do special things when I’m given the opportunity."

Ingram has been consistently working with the first-team offense in camp so far and seems likely to open the season as the Saints' No. 1 running back. With versatile veteran Darren Sproles traded to Philadelphia in the spring and Pierre Thomas likely to handle the third-down back assignments, Ingram has the inside track on his most expansive role yet in Sean Payton’s high-octane offense.

The Saints' running game finished on an upswing last year, and as the new season dawns, there’s a feeling that for once the ground game won’t be an afterthought in New Orleans’ pass-happy approach. Ingram’s confidence was buoyed by his strong showing in the Saints’ first-round playoff win at Philadelphia, when he replaced the injured Thomas and rolled to 97 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries, adding 17 more yards on three receptions. Though he has produced just 1,462 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns in his first three regular seasons, battling injuries and ineffectiveness at times, Ingram is predicting a new standard of production for a backfield that includes himself, Thomas, second-year man Khiry Robinson and third-year veteran Travaris Cadet.

"Top to bottom I put our running back corps up with anybody in the league," Ingram said. "We can stack up with whoever you think is the best. Everybody in our room could be a starter elsewhere in the league in the right situation. But we’re here, and we’re all focused on one common goal, and that’s being champions and making each other better."

Ingram certainly doesn’t lack for motivation to reach new heights this season. When the Saints this offseason unsurprisingly declined to pick up his fifth-year option, which would have meant a $5.2 million salary in 2015 -- bigger money than most teams are willing to spend on the de-emphasized running back position these days -- Ingram became eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season. It’s now a contract year for the 2011 first-round pick, and that means it’s time to cash in if he can.

"I’m definitely an every-down back and I intend to show that," Ingram said. "I can pick up blitzes in pass protection. I can catch the ball. I can run inside, I can run outside. I can do whatever you need me to do. I can line up outside if you need me to. I’ve always been confident that I was an every-down back, and I’ve always worked to perfect my craft and never fall into the stereotype of a power back or a short-yardage back. I try to be versatile and expand my repertoire the best I can. My key is to not be a running back, it’s to be a great football player."

So great, in fact, that moments after Ingram outlined his goals for his career path, he told ESPN and a couple other media outlets that he wants "to be the best back to ever play the freakin’ game of football."

Brash words from a rusher who gained just 386 yards during the 2013 regular season, but there are those in the Saints' locker room who feel Ingram’s maturing game has turned a corner, and the key to a breakthrough year in 2014 will be his ability to produce even if he doesn’t get a consistent, lead-back workload. In the four games Ingram did receive at least 10 carries, including playoffs, he ran for 374 yards and two touchdowns on just 55 carries (6.8-yard average).

"I think Mark, and you really saw as the year went on, did a better and better job, and part of that is being comfortable not receiving 15-20 carries per game," said Saints right tackle Zach Strief. "It can be tough to get six carries and [hear people] say, 'Oh, it wasn’t good.' But sometimes the seventh one might break for 40 [yards], and then we go, 'Well that was a good game. Seven for 50 yards, he did good.' So I think he got more confidence as the season went on. And we have a ton of confidence in all those guys; we really do."

The Saints had enough confidence in their backfield to ship the proven and productive Sproles to the Eagles in exchange for a fifth-round pick, a move that sent away one of New Orleans’ most versatile playmakers. New Orleans promptly traded up for the 20th pick in the first round to draft Oregon State receiver Brandin Cooks, who has sparkled early in camp and is running many of the same pass plays Sproles handled out of the backfield. 

"There’s only one Sproles, that’s for sure, but Cooks definitely has come in and he’s made plays since Day One," Ingram said. "We put him in the backfield, motion him out, and do some of the same things with him that we used to do with Sproles. He can pretty much do everything. I’ve seen him catch a deep ball. I’ve seen him run the tunnel screen. I’ve seen him take reverses. About the only thing I haven’t seen him do yet is a take a hand-off from a running back position. But he’s going to be a great player for us."

But in dealing Sproles, the Saints also underlined their belief in Ingram’s development and potential as a reliable weapon out of the backfield.

"Nobody liked losing Sproles; Sproles is a special player," Ingram said. "But just to know they have that confidence in our stable of running backs, with me, Pierre, Khiry and Cadet, that was big.

"I feel I’m confident and I’m focused and I know what I have to do to be successful. When I hear the play called and when I break the huddle, I know how to execute my assignments and do what I need to do. I’ve matured a lot as a person and a player, and I’m really looking forward to this year."

Ingram has shown flashes of being a dominant back in the NFL, never more so than in Week 10 of last year, when he recorded his first 100-yard game with a stellar 145-yard, one-touchdown night in the Saints’ 49-17 destruction of visiting Dallas. It was the second-best rushing performance by a New Orleans running back since 2003, and Ingram managed all that damage on just 14 carries.

"I feel like with the opportunities I’ve had, I tried to make the best of them," Ingram said. "I’ve never doubted myself or my career at all. People outside never really know what’s going on. They just hear this or that, they hear interviews, they hear what they hear from analysts and they believe it’s true.

"They don’t know your role in a game plan or what’s asked of you to help the team win that game. They just look at the stat line at the end of the day and not necessarily what you did to contribute to winning. So I never really paid attention to outside noise or outside critics, because what matters is the coaching staff and my teammates in this building knowing that I bust my butt every day in practice and every time I step on the field, doing whatever I can do to help us win."

More than ever before, Ingram’s opportunities will come in 2014. And what he does with them will likely determine the arc of his career’s future. His time to finally lead the Saints backfield is now, and in New Orleans, this season can’t start soon enough.

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