Ingram

The Case Against Mark Ingram

Ingram

If the Mark Ingram hype train was being driven only by the ESPNs and Peter Kings of the world, it would be easy to ignore.  Since the gratuitous praise emanates from a wide variety of football sites, I feel it’s worth addressing.

Footballguys does a great job of catering to the masses while maintaining its status as a serious football site. It’s most compelling writer, Matt Waldman, also runs the Rookie Scouting Portfolio, an excellent scouting-oriented site that oozes legitimate football information.

I get a kick out of reading scouting reports for the same reason it can be mildly interesting to scroll through movie reviews.  No matter how objective you attempt to be, you have no way to filter your biases – a gut feeling develops first and then the mind sets out to make a detailed list of supposedly objective observations that buttress what your instinct tells you.

Waldman adores Ingram.

Obviously many other people love Ingram as well. He’s often compared to Emmitt Smith, the NFL’s all-time leading rusher. Despite such heavyweight references, I still think Ingram’s value is inflated for a wide variety of reasons.

1. Ingram has a lot of competition.

Pierre Thomas made little impact in 2010 due to his high ankle sprain, but during the 2008 and 2009 seasons he was among the most efficient backs in football.  Because he was undrafted and plays in a high powered offense, Thomas is mostly viewed as the product of the Saints’ system.  However, if you look at the effectiveness of other backs in the system, the idea holds no water.  Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush were both ineffective out of the backfield in Payton’s offense.  Chris Ivory is the only one of the seemingly endless fill-ins who had any success.  Thomas has great vision and impressive burst to the hole.  He’s tremendous in space and a good finisher around the goal line.  He will never escape the mediocre talent label, but that doesn’t make it any less untrue.

Darren Sproles is probably the best 3rd down back in the game.

2. Ingram won’t catch many passes.

Ingram’s college results suggest he could easily play on third downs and be effective out of the backfield.  In a different situation he probably would.  This is one of several reasons his fit with the Saints (for fantasy purposes) is overhyped.  Thomas and Sproles are probably two of the best pass-catching backs in the game.  Though used for different types of play calls, Thomas was far more efficient in the passing game than Reggie Bush.  Sproles acumen as a receiver is unquestioned.  It simply doesn’t make much sense to use Ingram very heavily in the passing game.  Without a decent number of receptions, Ingram has a low ceiling.

3. Rookie backs are not a good value related to their ADP.

Ingram’s footballguys write-up suggests plenty of rookie runners have been fantasy stars.  That is true.  On the other hand, Ultimate Fantasy Football Strategy has very convincing numbers to show that rookie runners return less value relative to their ADP than veteran backs selected in the same area of drafts.

4. Ingram is unlikely to earn enough touches to justify ADP.

This may be the most debatable point, but I’d argue that Ingram’s number of touches might actually end up being inversely correlated to his rookie year proficiency.  NFL teams are overwhelming transitioning to a committee approach in order to protect their stars.  The Chiefs elevated this to an art form by actually giving Thomas Jones more carries last year than Jamaal Charles.

If Mark Ingram turns out to be a star, you can pretty much guarantee he won’t see a lot of touches a) in blowout wins, b) in blowout losses, c) on third downs.  The Saints will also monitor his touches throughout close games so that he rarely exceeds 20 (studies show that 25+ touch games place a RB at a very high risk for injury).  Many argue that the Saints haven’t used a workhorse back because all their runners keep getting injured, but they’d love to use one guy as a stud if the situation presented itself.  That’s possible.  (Trying to mind read an NFL coach is a losing proposition.)  Conversely, after seeing Bush’s career wrecked by injuries and the 2010 season torpedoed by one injury after another, the odds that they risk Ingram’s health with heavy use seem virtually nil.

There’s also this disconcerting formula for Ingram fans.  If the 2011 season breaks positively for the Saints, they’ll be way ahead for most of the second half of games.  In such a scenario, I believe they’ll rest Ingram and save him for close contests.  If the 2011 season goes the way of 2007, 2008, and 2010 the Saints will be one of the most pass-heavy teams in the NFL (historically 65-35).  In that scenario, there won’t be enough attempts to go around.

5. There’s a very real chance that Ingram is a mediocre talent.

Josh McDaniels and the vast majority of talent evaluators were very high on Knowshon Moreno coming out of college.  Moreno’s measurables were awful for someone taken that high in the draft, but he was supposed to have elite vision.  Scouts projected him as a very versatile runner with the ability to run inside at the NFL level.  It turns out that Moreno may well have great vision, but he lacks the explosiveness to get to the hole before it closes.  Many backs still break out after two disappointing seasons, but Moreno’s lack of elite athleticism renders it unlikely in his case.

Ingram is unanimously considered to be a superior prospect to Moreno, but the description of their positive attributes is strikingly similar.  Ingram is slow, but he has great vision, presses the hole well, delivers a blow to defenders, and can be used effectively in the passing game.  All of which would be awesome if NFL holes didn’t close instantly and defensive lines weren’t manned by hulking behemoths.  The idea that the SEC simulates NFL play because of the glut of elite NFL prospects is laughable.

This is where I’m a scouting skeptic.  Ingram might be the next Emmitt Smith, but that’s a little like saying Christian Ponder might be the next Joe Montana.  Players who lack star athleticism simply cannot be projected to the NFL based on their collegiate ‘skills’.  For every Tom Brady there are hundreds of guys with mediocre arm strength that wash out.  The reason so many of the weak-armed stars come out of nowhere (Kurt Warner) is because their success is fundamentally unpredictable.

The same is true at running back.  For every Emmitt Smith there are hundreds of Knowshon Morenos.

6. Ingram lacks star athleticism

Maybe Ingram was far less than full strength at the combine.  If that’s the case, I apologize.  Otherwise, his numbers paint a bleak picture.  Ingram ran a 4.61 in the 40.  It doesn’t matter how much you hate the 40 yard dash as a predictor of NFL success, that’s a huge red flag.  That’s slower than Toby Gerhart (who, if we’re relying on collegiate production as a barometer, was right with Ingram in the 2009 Heisman race).

The obvious answer is this: There’s a lot more to being an athlete than running fast in a straight line.

100% true.  Although it’s not completely intuitive, short area explosiveness (ability to accelerate and deliver a blow at the line) can probably be measured more accurately by jumping metrics.  At the Combine, Ingram finished 27th among participating runners in the vertical leap (31.5).  He finished 13th in the Broad (118”).  Both Mikel Leshoure and Ryan Williams – the two runners some scouts felt might be in the same general ballpark as Ingram – put up disappointing 40s, but they were far, far more explosive than Ingram in the jumping metrics.

Of course, the most important attribute for an NFL running back is the ability to cut without losing speed.  Most studies show very little correlation between Combine quickness drills and NFL success, but it’s still worth wondering if Ingram shows spectacularly in these lateral movement exercises.  (Tim Tebow wasn’t overly impressive in the 40, but his short shuttle time was otherworldly.)

Unfortunately, Ingram was even slower when asked to cut than he was in a straight line.  Quite a number of the more athletic RBs chose not to do the 3 Cone Drill (Taiwan Jones, Bilal Powell, Daniel Thomas), but Mark Ingram finished 24th out of those who participated.  Virtually every college scout loathes Roy Helu, so it must be mildly disconcerting to them that it took him almost half a second less to do this drill.  Do you want to know how much half a second is in this type of drill?  Put it this way: in order to find the offensive lineman who finished a half second slower than Ingram, you have to go down to the 16th ranked OL.  (Indy’s first round pick, Anthony Castonzo, was only a tenth slower than Ingram.)

But again, those drills tend to show little predictiveness to NFL success.  You can easily slip or run slower out of a lack of familiarity.  Perhaps Ingram was faster in the 20 Yard Shuttle.

You probably can sense the direction this is going.  Ingram wasn’t faster.  In fact, he was the slowest RB at the Combine in the Short Shuttle and it wasn’t particularly close.  He finished .61 seconds slower than Roy Helu.  That’s in a drill that takes 4 seconds.

To add context, 8 OL and 33 DL ran faster.  Really, the only possible explanation is that Ingram fell down (and I mean that in all seriousness; players do fall in this drill).

There’s very little reason to believe bench press has anything to do with being a good NFL runner, but Ingram didn’t distinguish himself in that area either (although he didn’t embarrass himself like the aforementioned Helu).

Ingram simply isn’t anywhere close to being the type of athlete as most of the fantasy stars.  Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson, Jamaal Charles, Darren McFadden, DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Maurice Jones-Drew, and Rashard Mendenhall are all far superior athletes.  Arian Foster, Ray Rice, and LeSean McCoy are probably moderately more athletic.  (Steven Jackson and Frank Gore were superior at one point, but the cumulative effect of injuries makes it hard to determine now.)  Even a few players who haven’t established themselves at the NFL level – Ryan Mathews, Jahvid Best, C.J. Spiller – sport athletic profiles with significantly greater upside.

In a best case scenario, Ingram fits in athletically around guys like Michael Turner, Ryan Grant, Marshawn Lynch, Matt Forte, and Shonn Greene.  The problem with that, of course, is that most of those guys are already being drafted in the same range and don’t have to deal with the learning curve of being a rookie.

7. Ingram struggled as a senior.

There’s one obvious counterargument to Contention 6.  Who cares how athletic Ingram is if he dominates on the field?  Scouts are unanimous: he does.

Some advanced numbers beg to differ.  Bill Connelly’s article for Football Outsiders sees Ingram’s 2010 season in a very unfavorable light.  When correcting for opponent, Ingram didn’t impress.  His yardage gained over what would be expected when controlling for context was mediocre.   Though old school football fans don’t particularly like it, explosive runs at the college level tend to correlate well with NFL success.  Ingram lacked those runs.  Connelly’s formula for projecting NFL success incorporates those two aspects along with FO’s well publicized Speed Score.  His conclusion doesn’t bode well for Ingram.

8.  Ingram is an injury risk.

By now this just feels like piling on, but it’s an important note since much of the above can be wiped away simply by pointing to Ingram’s 2010 knee injury.  If he wasn’t 100% during the season or at the Combine, then his results in those environments aren’t very meaningful.

The injury cuts both ways.  Running backs have the shortest shelf lives of NFL players because injuries affect them more than other positions.  Every injury to a RB tends to lower his ceiling and shorten his career.  Ingram may not be more of an injury risk than other runners as a rookie, but he might be.  It’s definitely a grave concern in projecting the athletic ceiling of a back who just isn’t that athletic to start with.

Conclusion:

I’m not saying Ingram is guaranteed to be a bust.  Though it happens far less frequently than scouts would like to admit, sometimes the stats and the stopwatches are wrong.  Sometimes the gut reaction of the fan in us is right.  Sometimes the intricacies that only show up when a play is watched for the 17th time by a trained scout really do matter.

The beauty of fantasy football is that crazy things happen and players defy sound logic all the time.  The worst player in your league can luck into a great draft in any given year.  Which is good.  It keeps everybody involved in one of the world’s best guilty pleasures.

I am saying Ingram’s profile features too many red flags to ignore.  If even half of my concerns are valid, he possesses almost no upside and a ton of downside at his current ADP.  You can’t consistently win your league by drafting players with that type of profile.

7 thoughts on “The Case Against Mark Ingram”

  1. Great comparison with Moreno. People are still waiting for him to break out. It’s not going to happen.

    I think another good comparison for Ingram might be Mike Tolbert. Not that they are strikingly similar players, but that Ingram this year is in a situation similar to Tolbert’s last year. Pass-first offense, Sproles making catches out of the backfield, an injury-prone but dynamic backfield-mate…in this situation, Tolbert had about 1000 total yards and 11 touchdowns. I think projecting this for Ingram is about right. As for the future…I guess we’ll see.

    1. I think Ingram might be more similar to BenJarvus Green-Ellis. He’s the kind of player who explodes for 3 touchdowns the week you finally bench him for non-production. They both started off poorly in Week 1 and were probably over-drafted.

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