The Saints running backs are currently being drafted as follows: Pierre Thomas (5th round), Khiry Robinson (9th round), and Mark Ingram (13th round). That draft order seems to imply that there’s some level of confidence that Pierre Thomas is the back to own, while Khiry Robinson has unrealized upside, and Mark Ingram is an also-ran.
But I really think valuing the Saints RBs is more difficult than it might seem. Let’s start by looking at last year’s usage.
Pierre Thomas had the most touches and is also the most logical beneficiary of Darren Sproles’ departure.
But this is not the first time that Thomas has seemed like the Saints RB to own. In fact, he kind of held that title for a few years before Sproles’ arrival in NO. He’s never even had 150 carries in a season.
But here’s a graph that shows Pierre Thomas’ touches by year:
Last year Thomas had a career year in receptions, which is really great in PPR leagues but he did that by having a career year in catch rate. Here’s a heat map which shows Thomas’ career catch rate compared to Darren Sproles.
*reTRGMS is the percent of team targets the player accounted for, but adjusted for players that only played in partial seasons.
I think a more reasonable expectation for Thomas is that his catch rate drops back down into the 85% range. That’s better than Sproles’ career average, but not the 92% that Thomas had last year.
However, if Thomas were to combine 75 catches (assuming a drop in efficiency and some uptick in usage to account for Sproles’ absence) then it’s not difficult to see him finishing the year as a top 15 back in PPR leagues. He wouldn’t need to add very many carries, perhaps around 150-160, to finish that high. So at RB27, maybe Thomas is a screaming bargain.
But then what are we to make of the Khiry Robinson/Mark Ingram mess behind Thomas? While it may be the case that Robinson came on late in the year, Ingram actually still had more carries on the season, had a higher YPC, and also out-touched Robinson in the playoffs 31-22. Lest you think that Robinson is the young player with upside, he’s about the same age as Ingram. Of the two backs Ingram probably has more potential as a pass-catcher, although he’s probably never going to be a 40 reception player.
So why is Robinson going four rounds ahead of Ingram? It doesn’t make any sense to me. To be clear, I don’t know that either guy will be valuable in fantasy because it could just be a total mess in the NO backfield this year. I think it’s even possible to envision a scenario where all three RBs split carries, Thomas gets 40 receptions or so, and then Brandin Cooks takes over a good amount of the Darren Sproles production.
One of the overlooked things about the Saints usage of Sproles is that they did like to get him out in routes well beyond the line of scrimmage. That’s a role that Cooks would be best suited for and the RBs on the team seem ill-suited for.
In fact if you used Percy Harvin’s early career as a guide, it could be possible to envision Cooks consuming rushing attempts as well.
As a rookie and sophomore receiver Harvin averaged about 4% of team rushes and about 21% of team targets. If you just wanted to look at Harvin’s rookie year it would be 3% and 18% respectively.
It might seem like lazy narrative to just say that Cooks will be the beneficiary, but their RBs really are not up to the task of catching the passes that will be missing. Pierre Thomas is the only viable pass catcher.
The Saints are well known for distributing their usage in a way that makes it difficult to get value out of their backfield, at least when contrasted with how often they score. But I do think I have three takeaways from looking at the situation.
- If he’s still going in the 5th round and is healthy to start the season, Pierre Thomas is a solid value. Maybe he drops off from last year but you have a healthy margin of safety even if that happens.
- Of the Ingram/Robinson duo, I think Robinson’s ADP is not really justified by last year’s results. I don’t know that either will see enough usage to be a regular start although I think Ingram’s 13th round ADP is the more attractive of the two.
- Even though Brandin Cooks isn’t an RB, his usage might be the most affected by the Saints backfield. He’s currently going as WR40 or so and depending on how many rushing attempts he gets, I think it’s possible he could push his way into the top 24. But that’s a post for another day.