Rabalais: Important season lies ahead for Ingram

Welcome to the story of Mark Ingram and the Very Big Year.

Sure, 2009 was a big one for the Saints running back. He wasn’t with New Orleans then, but he spearheaded a backfield that included current Indianapolis Colts running back Trent Richardson as he went on to become Alabama’s first-ever Heisman Trophy winner and lead the Crimson Tide to a national championship.

But in Ingram’s life as professional, there hasn’t been a year bigger than this one.

Ingram is beginning his fourth season with the Saints, making this his contract year. The team could have exercised a fifth-year option on him for 2015, but that would have cost the Saints $5.2 million.

That was never going to happen. Only the top five NFL running backs are making $5 million or more in base salary this season: Adrian Peterson, LeSean McCoy, Matt Forte, Arian Foster and Marshawn Lynch. Based on those financials, it’s not really a knock on Ingram that the Saints didn’t sign that check. Ingram ranks 24th in base salary at $1.386 million this season, a respectable figure but hardly elite.

“I like Mark,” Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis said before this year’s draft. “I talked to Mark before we made that decision. I told him it wasn’t reflective on what we thought about him. It was just a business decision, a financial decision. We have high expectations for him, and I hope he has a great year.”

There’s no reason to doubt Loomis’ feelings about Ingram as a person and as a player. But sentiment aside, it appears push will come to shove for the running back after this season. And either way, it looks like he will get shoved out of the Saints roster and be playing somewhere else in 2015.

If Ingram plays well, he’ll likely price himself out of the range of what the Saints can afford to pay him as an unrestricted free agent. The team has and will continue to bump its collective helmet against the glass ceiling of the NFL’s salary cap. The cap comes in at $133 million this year and is projected to go to $140 million to $145 million the next. Contractual obligations to players like Drew Brees and Jairus Byrd will make that cap a tighter squeeze on the franchise.

If Ingram doesn’t play well, the Saints could still easily replace him with a cheaper option. There is a clearance sale mentality regarding running backs in the NFL these days, and the Saints aren’t alone in seeking value at that position.

So Ingram will play this year with the specter of an unknown future dangling over him. Asked if he feels pressure, he offers a pragmatic response.

“I wouldn’t say it’s pressure,” he said after the team’s Saturday morning practice. “I’m just going to go out there and do what I do: play football and be the best person I can be. Everything else can handle itself.”

Ingram’s value hasn’t ranked high among Saints fans most of his career. A lightning rod figure, Ingram’s reputation was hampered by the fact he played for Alabama (though that never seemed to hurt Roman Harper) and was dragged down further by the anchor of his Heisman trophy. He rushed for a modest 474 yards in 2011 and 602 yards in 2012.

Last season, Ingram rushed for only 386 yards on 78 carries, yet it may have been his best season. Make that half season. Haunted by an early toe injury, Ingram wasn’t able to turn it on until the second half of the campaign, marked by a 14-carry, 145-yard explosion against Dallas in Week 10.

Ingram rushed for all but 31 of his 386 yards in the second half of 2013. In the playoffs, he continued to impress, rushing for 97 yards in the win at Philadelphia and 49 yards in the loss at Seattle.

“I started touching the ball some more,” Ingram said of his late surge. “If I have a chance to run the ball, to touch it, I can be effective.”

Getting enough touches to make himself invaluable to the Saints or more valuable to another team will be problematic. Pierre Thomas still looks like the starter, and it was hard not to be impressed with returners Khiry Robinson and Travaris Cadet.

But Ingram is hoping momentum off last season can propel him forward this year. He knows he needs a big bounce in his favor.

“It’s coming into a contract year,” Ingram said. “Every year’s a big year, but there a special emphasis on this year. It’s important to come out and have a great camp and get off to a fast start. You want to come out here every day, stay healthy and have a great year.”

Whether even a great year will make Ingram a Saint next year remains the very big question.

Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.