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The Big Easy: Figuring out the Saints Backfield

Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

This week we are going to take a look at the fantasy outlook for the Saints backfield. Can Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram both be fantasy relevant running backs again? Are they worth a pick at their current ADP (Kamara RB5, Ingram RB23)? We will find out soon but before we dive in…

Let’s Talk About Numbers.

When I think about having to work with numbers, I get knots in my stomach. Math is scary. I was really good at school – I can read and write all day, I love history and social studies – but I would do anything to avoid a math class. I took a few math classes as possible all throughout junior high, high school and college.

This is my 5th season playing fantasy football. If I had known just how important math would be… I would have paid more attention in class! Playing fantasy is definitely making me better at math, but I could stand to learn a lot more.

One reason I picked writing for FFStatistics over other websites is that FFStatistics helps me use numbers to make informed decisions. I love being able to look at a player from multiple angles and make a decision based on numbers. Numbers help me better understand what players have done, and help me to predict what they might do in the future. Instead of being afraid of numbers and running away, I want to use them to my advantage. If the numbers don’t lie, then I should make them my friend, instead of shying away.

And this week my question is focused on the Saints backfield. Can Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram both repeat their 2017 performances in 2018? Can two top-10 (or even top 20) running backs be supported in New Orleans once again? Let’s use numbers to look at both of these running backs, and their situation, to find out if they can both be successful this season.

Alvin Kamara burst on the scene last year for the Saints last year, finishing as the RB3 in PPR leagues. I got lucky and snagged him off waivers in a league after losing my #1 overall pick David Johnson, and Kamara carried me to the championship game (which I lost… and I’m not at all bitter about that…). Mark Ingram had the best year of his career last year, finishing as RB6. Kamara and Ingram both had over 1,500 yards and were both selected to the Pro Bowl. Did you know that 2017 was the first year in NFL history that two running backs from the same team each had over 1,500 yards AND were selected to the Pro Bowl? Two firsts in one year!

The first thing I wanted to check out in FFStatistics’ Data Tools was coaching history. Does Saints coach Sean Payton do a good job of supporting two top running backs? Let’s take a look at his coaching history graph:

RB1 is in red; RB2 is in blue. Look at Kamara and Ingram in 2017 – they finished close together (RB3 and RB6 if you remember from earlier). Moving backward, we see that Payton has only had 2 running backs finish that close to each other near the top ten only one other time – in 2006, also with the New Orleans Saints. That year Reggie Bush, in his rookie year, finished as RB9. Deuce McAllister finished as RB16. Outside of 2006 and 2017, Sean Payton’s teams have not supported two top 20 running backs. This, combined with the firsts Kamara and Ingram set last year, make me think the likelihood of the Saints having two top running backs again is pretty slim. But let’s continue to look at the numbers.

A note – when I say “top running backs” I realize it may not be likely for them to both finish in the top 20 because of Mark Ingram’s 4 game suspension. Let’s assume when we say “top” about Ingram, we really mean “top from week 5 on.”

Alvin Kamara

Ok, moving on. Let’s talk about Kamara. (Something interesting I learned about him – he had the highest Wonderlic score of all the running backs in his draft class!) Last year he had 1,554 all-purpose yards and 13 touchdowns. He had 81 catches and 120 rushing attempts. Below is a graph of his weekly points. Look at all those high finishes! He had a few down weeks, including one where he left the game with a concussion.

The next thing I want to show you is a heat map. Heatmaps are cool because they are color-coded so you quickly get an idea of what you’re looking at. Red = bad, green = good. The bottom row shows the number of rush attempts. The top row shows average yards-per-carry. On this heatmap we see that Kamara has crazy high yards-per-carry in three zones (9.29 behind the right tackle! *insert eye-popping emoji*). He probably won’t sustain that, but his averages are still decent in the other zones. He is a talented running back and will perform as such for the Saints.

One last thing I want to show you is an average yards-per-rush chart. The red line is Kamara; the blue line is the league average. The higher the red line, the greater the percent of his rushes gained that many yards. What interested me about this graph, that really stood out over Ingram, is around 10 yards, and between 15-20 yards gained. Notice how Kamara’s spikes. This means he has a higher percentage of runs for 10+ yards. Kamara’s chart is on top, with Ingram’s below so you can compare them (in Kamara’s chart on top, his line is red; in Ingram’s chart on the bottom, his line is blue). Ingram had a higher percentage of runs between 0-5 yards, but Kamara has a higher percentage of runs above 10 yards. These charts tell me that Kamara is the more explosive runner.

Mark Ingram

We already looked at Ingram’s average yards-per-rush chart above, so let’s talk about him some more. Mark Ingram had the best year of his career last year. He has actually been improving every year for his last 4 seasons with the Saints.

2014 – RB14

2015 – RB12

2016 – RB8

2017 – RB6

Not only has he been finishing higher, his Points Per Opportunity (PPO) has been rising too. Ingram is the blue line below (and Kamara is the little red dot). Ingram’s PPO last season was 0.92 – the highest of his career. Kamara’s was 1.42 which is really high (for perspective, Todd Gurley’s was 1.05 last year). Maybe we shouldn’t expect 1.42 PPO from Kamara again, but there’s no reason not to expect around 1.25, and around 0.90 from Ingram.

And here is Ingram’s heat map, just to compare with Kamara’s we looked at earlier.

This research made me realize – Mark Ingram is really good. His heat map shows more green areas than Kamara – meaning he is more above average in more rushing lanes. Kamara was just so amazing and surprising last year that he overshadowed Ingram’s career year.

Based on what I’ve learned in my research, maybe the Saints could support two top running backs again. The question is, will they. What would have to happen in weeks 1-4 to keep Ingram limited after his return? Kamara would have to be so dominant that they wouldn’t want to use Ingram that much. Or, would they want to use Ingram more to preserve Kamara? When I was thinking about this I thought – what happened in 2007? After Bush and McAllister finished 9th and 16th? Unfortunately, McAllister tore his ACL that year, so we can’t look at that example to predict this year. Dang it!

The bottom line is – Kamara is really good. Ingram is really good too. The Saints should use both running backs to their full potential, and if they won’t, they could get a good trade for Ingram, keeping him fantasy relevant. I am comfortable drafting both of these running backs this year because they are both talented athletes who will be reliable. Full disclosure – during the research of this article I took Kamara 5th overall in one of my leagues. I like Ingram as an RB2 to stash for a few weeks with the potential of being in the top 20 after his return in week 5.

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