The New Orleans Saints had the NFL's sixth ranked running game in 2020, averaging over 141 yards per game on the ground and leading the league with 30 rushing touchdowns. Part of the reason for that success was an offensive line that dominated opponents up front, but the Saints also had a versatile corps of running backs.
Four-year All-Pro Alvin Kamara led the New Orleans ground assault with a career-high 932 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns, adding a team-high 83 receptions for 756 yards and five scores. Latavius Murray was a lethal complement to Kamara, rushing for 656 yards and 4 touchdowns. Veteran Ty Montgomery had a 100-Yd outing in relief of Kamara and Murray during the regular season finale and fullback Michael Burton was an outstanding lead blocker for his backs all year.
Montgomery, Burton, and reserve back Dwayne Washington are all unrestricted free agents. Murray is signed through the next two seasons, but has been mentioned as a potential release because of a $4.2 million dollar cap hit in 2021. Kamara is the team’s top back, and one of the NFL's most dynamic offensive weapons, but head coach Sean Payton has always relied on multiple backs in his offense.
The league's free agent signing period will begin March 17. With Kamara already on board and the team's salary cap issues, New Orleans will not be in the market for any of the top priced running backs who will be available. That rules out Green Bay's Aaron Jones, Seattle's Chris Carson, Arizona's Kenyan Drake, Seattle's Chris Carson, Pittsburgh's James Conner, Tampa Bay's Leonard Fournette, and Marlon Mack of the Colts.
Here are some of the most intriguing running backs currently scheduled to hit the free agent market.
- Mark Ingram (31 - Ravens)
- Brian Hill (25 - Falcons)
- T.J. Yeldon (27 - Bills)
- Mike Davis (27 - Panthers)
- Jamaal Williams (25 - Packers)
- Chris Thompson (30 - Jaguars)
- Malcolm Brown (27 - Rams)
- Matt Breida (25 - Dolphins)
- Wayne Gallman (26 - Giants)
- Jordan Howard (26 - Eagles)
- Tevin Coleman (27 - 49ers)
- Jerick McKinnon (28 - 49ers)
(Age and previous term in parentheses)
Ingram is undoubtedly the name that jumps off the page for most Saints fans. The second leading rusher in New Orleans franchise history is just one year removed from a 1,000-Yd outing with Baltimore, knows the system well, and has a close relationship with Kamara.
McKinnon, Howard, Breida, Yeldon, and Hill are most effective between the tackles and could fill a similar role to what Latavius Murray or Ingram did as a complement to Kamara. Davis and Gallman were injury replacements for star backs Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley for their respective teams last season and put up decent numbers.
Brown and Williams have shown outstanding versatility, a quality valued in the New Orleans offense, while Thompson has been a terrific receiver throughout his career. Only Howard and Breida have been featured backs at any point in their careers, but all these players have shown that they can be productive.
Unless the Saints move on from Murray and Ingram would agree to return to New Orleans on a team-friendly deal, a reunion seems far-fetched. The most likely scenario would be to restructure Murray's contract and to re-sign Ty Montgomery. Tony Jones Jr., an undrafted rookie a year ago, also showed some promise and could be in the mix for a greater role.
With the team’s salary cap issues and talented running backs that will be available on the second and third days of the draft, I don't expect the Saints to prioritize this position in free agency.
However, if New Orleans loses Murray, Montgomery, and Washington then there are some talented veterans who could be brought in at a reasonable cost.