Mark Ingram Was Really Good Again in 2016

It was difficult to predict playing time in the New Orleans Saints' backfield in 2016, but Ingram ended up having another very productive season.

Figuring out the New Orleans Saints backfield during the 2016 season was quite a chore.

There were ups and downs -- thankfully, not due to injury, but due to large swings in playing time throughout the year. The Saints got a ton of production from the position, but the way they divvied up touches gave fantasy owners headaches.

Despite two other players eating into his workload, Mark Ingram used some superb per-play efficiency to turn in another quality season from both a real-life and fantasy perspective.

Let's check out the numbers.

Playing Time Is a Valuable Commodity

The hardest part about figuring out the Saints' backfield out was the constant movement in snap rates from the three running backs -- Ingram, Tim Hightower, and Travaris Cadet. Below shows just how much workloads changed during the course of the year, using four different weeks as an example.

Week 1 Week 8 Week 13 Week 16
M. Ingram 42% 8% 39% 68%
T. Hightower 14% 62% 33% 7%
T. Cadet 38% 11% 21% 21%

Starting the season, Ingram opened as the starter, but Cadet assumed pass-catching duties early on and significantly ate into Ingram's playing time.

Then, for Ingram owners, disaster occurred. Against the Chiefs in Week 7, Ingram fumbled late as Ron Parker punched the ball out in a 27-21 loss. And while that hurt, his early Week 8 fumble made matters even worse. His fumble led to a scoop and score by Earl Thomas, and Ingram didn't see the field for another snap.

After big fumbles in back-to-back weeks, it took nearly the rest of the season for Ingram to return to a role as the clear-cut top back.

Analytics Star

Despite all the moving parts, in terms of purely rushing the football, Ingram was by far and away the Saints' best runner. Using our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, we can see just how good Ingram was in 2016. According to Rushing NEP per play, Ingram was among the league's elite, averaging 0.06 Rushing NEP per play, which ranked seventh among the 33 runners with at least 125 carries.

Hightower was no slouch, either. He ran the ball 133 times on his way to 0.03 Rushing NEP per play, ranking 11th in the league among backs with at least 125 attempts. Cadet, meanwhile, only carried the ball four times this season, specializing as a pass-game option.

As pass catchers as part of one of the most prolific passing offenses of all time, both Ingram and Cadet did work as receivers. Among the 32 running backs with at least 40 targets in 2016, Ingram ranked seventh, racking up 46 receptions on 58 targets with 0.48 Reception NEP per target.

Again, though, a second fiddle was pretty strong and ate into Ingram's playing time. Cadet drew nearly as many targets (54), catching 40 balls on his way to a robust 0.40 Reception NEP per target, good for 13th in said subset.

While it was not nearly as large of a sample, Hightower's 22 receptions on 26 targets was actually the most efficient clip of the group at 0.50 Reception NEP per target

Fantasy Stud

Ingram had two other backs stealing touches, and he had to endure an early Week 8 benching. He couldn't have still ranked among the league's fantasy elite -- right?

Games Standard (Rank) Standard PPG PPR (Rank) PPR PPG
David Johnson 16 327.8 (1st) 20.5 407.8 (1st) 25.5
Ezekiel Elliott 16 293.4 (2nd) 19.6 325.4 (2nd) 21.7
LeSean McCoy 15 248.3 (3rd) 16.6 299.3 (4th) 19.9
Le'Veon Bell 12 242.4 (4th) 20.2 317.4 (3rd) 26.4
DeMarco Murray 16 240.8 (5th) 15 293.8 (5th) 18.4
LeGarrette Blount 16 230.1 (6th) 14.4 232.9 (9th) 14.6
Devonta Freeman 16 225.9 (7th) 14.1 284.1 (6th) 17.8
Melvin Gordon 13 209.6 (8th) 16.1 250.6 (7th) 19.3
Jordan Howard 16 201.1 (9th) 13.1 230.1 (10th) 14.4
Mark Ingram 16 196.2 (10th) 12.3 242.2 (8th) 15.1

Not so fast, my friends.

Ingram was an RB1 (top-12 back) in both standard and points-per-reception (PPR) formats. He ranked 10th in total points and 14th in points per game in standard leagues. In PPR, Ingram was even better, checking in eighth overall.

It's important to note that this isn't a one-year blip -- Ingram was the PPR RB12 in 2015 and the RB15 in 2014. For three straight years, Ingram has been a top-15 back despite splitting touches among two other talented players, seeing an average of 199 carries per season in that span.

2017 Outlook

When looking at our metrics, it's easy to understand why the Saints utilize a three-headed monster out of the backfield. In fact, you could make the argument that the reason Ingram is so effective is that the play of the other backs helps keep him fresh and ready to perform.

It's clear that Ingram is an extremely efficient runner and pass catcher, and he has been for most of his career. Fantasy-wise, despite getting less touches than many of the other top running backs, Ingram has still been able to produce big-time fantasy numbers.

This gives him another safe floor in 2017 as things stand now, and he's always going to have monster upside in the event that an injury to one of his backfield mates forces him into more touches. Outside of the inherent injury risk which comes with playing running back in the NFL, Ingram is shaping up as a safe pick again in 2017.