2022 Saints Backfield Breakdown: Abram’s Promised Land

by Noah Hills · Best Ball Plays & Strategy

The 2022 Saints Backfield Breakdown is part of an offseason series in which I take a deep dive into one NFL team’s backfield and examine the respective rushing performances of the players in it. In doing so, I hope to gain insights into key players from a talent evaluation standpoint, and using that evaluation as a baseline, from a dynasty valuation standpoint. The first installments in the series can be found here.

I’ll start by taking a quick overview of each team’s raw rushing volume and propensity to run the ball. Then, I’ll dive into the player evaluation portion. Before we start, let’s define the metrics I’ll use as part of those evaluations:

Key Metrics

Yards per Carry+ (or YPC+)

The degree to which a player’s raw yard per carry average exceeds or falls short of the collective yard per carry average of all other running backs on his team. Meant to be an overview of a player’s team-relative efficiency.

Box Count+

The degree to which the average amount of defenders in the box that a player faces on his runs exceeds or falls short of the collective average faced by the other running backs on his team. Considering that the outcome of any given rushing attempt is largely dependent on the number of defenders in the box pre-snap, Box Count+ describes the relative degree of difficulty of a running back’s carries.

Breakaway Conversion Rate (BCR)

Quantifies performance in the open field by measuring how often a player turns his chunk runs of at least 10 yards into breakaway gains of at least 20 yards.

Box-Adjusted Efficiency Rating (BAE Rating)

Improves upon YPC+ by accounting for the box counts that a player carried the ball against. Looks at team-relative yards per carry against each individual box count, then uses a weighted average (based on total carries against each box count) to generate an overall score. A score of 100-percent indicates that a player is producing exactly the per carry output of his teammates, a score above 100-percent indicates that he is outdoing their per carry output to whatever degree, and vice versa for a score below 100-percent.

Relative Success Rate (RSR)

Measures player consistency using Success Rate, but relative to his teammates and adjusted for the box counts that he faced in the same way that BAE Rating is. “Success” on a given carry is defined by gaining 40-percent of yards needed on first down, 70-percent of yards needed on second down, and 100-percent of yards needed on third or fourth down. A score of 0.0-percent indicates that a player is succeeding on exactly the same percentage of his carries as are the other backs on his team, a positive score indicates that he is succeeding more often than his teammates are, and vice versa for a negative score.

Volatility Rating

Measures the disparity between a running back’s percentile ranks in BAE Rating and RSR in order to indicate how volatile a player’s per-carry performance is. High overall efficiency paired with a low rate of success indicates boom/bust output, while low overall efficiency paired with a high rate of success indicates steady, low-ceiling output. Measures the degree of volatility, not the quality of performance.

Composite Efficiency Score (CES)

Presents a single-metric overview of the quality of team-relative performance a player produced on his carries in a single season. Calculated using the average of a player’s percentile ranks in Box-Adjusted Efficiency Rating and Relative Success Rate represents player performance on a 0-100 scale.

Team Rushing Volume

In the first season of the post-Drew Brees era in New Orleans last year, the Saints finished No. 4 in the NFL in rushing attempts with a total of 510. 2021 was actually the fourth time in the last five years that the Saints were in the top half of the league in carries (and they were still 17th in 2019). It was the third season in that same timeframe they finished in the top five.

According to rbsdm.com, New Orleans finished just above-average in early down run rate in neutral game script situations (when win probability for either team did not exceed 80-percent) last season. They ranked No. 14 in that metric by calling runs and passes in those circumstances at a perfect 50-50 split. With Brees at quarterback during the previous four years, the Saints leaned a bit more toward the pass-heavy side of things. The Saints ranked No. 24 in the league in early down run rate from 2017 to 2020.

Post Brees/Payton Era

Longtime head coach Sean Payton has now been replaced by Dennis Allen. Allen previously served as the Saints defensive coordinator. The offensive philosophy in New Orleans is unlikely to change much, however, as Pete Carmichael remains the team’s offensive coordinator. Carmichael has served in that role since 2009.

In the first season without Brees, New Orleans opted to run the ball more often than expected (given league-wide play-by-play data) in nearly every down-and-distance situation they found themselves in. The Saints ran the ball six-percent more often than expected overall. A shift toward pass-heaviness in play calling tendencies would likely be born from greater faith in the team’s receivers. The Saints signed Jarvis Landry in free agency, and they drafted Chris Olave¬†with the 11th pick in the NFL Draft to bolster a group that saw Marquez Callaway lead the team in targets a year ago. Additionally, while presumed 2022 starter Jameis Winston only played seven games last season, the Saints’ pass/run ratio was nearly identical with him in and out of the lineup. It seems reasonable to expect a somewhat similar gameplan going forward.

Efficiency Numbers

Alvin Kamara was the lead ballcarrier for the Saints for the fourth year in a row last season. Despite missing four games, Kamara had over 200 carries for the first time in his career. Mark Ingram returned to serve as Kamara’s sidekick at midseason. Tony Jones handled most of the work behind those two atop the depth chart. Dwayne Washington and Devine Ozigbo combined for a handful of carries. Here are the full rushing efficiency profiles for each of those five players:

Kamara proved historically efficient as a rookie in 2017. He posted Box-Adjusted Efficiency Rating and Relative Success Rate marks in the 98th and 97th-percentiles, respectively. He’s been good every year since then. While his raw yards per carry dropped below the 4.00 threshold for the first time in 2021, I’d argue his performance as a pure runner from a year ago trails only his rookie campaign as the second-best of his career. He, Najee Harris, and Jonathan Taylor were the only runners in the NFL who posted BAE Rating and RSR marks each above the 70th-percentile while carrying the ball more than 200 times.

Ingram and the Others

Ingram experienced a bit of a resurgence in 2021 after running abysmally in Baltimore in 2020. He had a 69th-percentile BAE Rating on a terrible Texans offense through the first few weeks of last season before rejoining the Saints and performing at essentially the same per-carry level as Kamara did. Based solely on his time with the Saints, Ingram was the No. 6-best number-two runner in the NFL last year. Ingram posted a higher Composite Efficiency Score than guys like Khalil Herbert, Tony Pollard, and Rhamondre Stevenson.

On the other hand, Jones was absolutely terrible. Jones contributed more than 25-percent less on a per-carry basis than the collective other backs on the team. As a result, Jones averaged just 2.63 raw yards per carry. In the last six years, only Eddie Lacy in 2017 and James Starks in 2016 were less efficient among backs with at least 50 rushing attempts.

Neither Washington nor Ozigbo were anything to write home about.

So Now What?

This backfield looks nearly identical now as it did at the end of last season. UDFA rookie Abram Smith is the sole newcomer. Smith played linebacker through much of his career at Baylor before rushing for over 1600 yards a year ago. While the average box count Smith saw was 0.42 defenders heavier than what other Baylor backs ran into (a mark in the 95th percentile), he managed a 0.44 YPC+ mark that comes in at the 67th-percentile. Smith has ability as a pure runner. He also has potential to add value on special teams. The Saints also put down a relatively large investment represented by the guaranteed money in his contract (he received the third-most of any UDFA running back in the last decade). This could combine to see Smith make a legitimate contribution on this offense in 2022.

The other big news in this backfield is the up-in-the-air status of a potential Kamara suspension after he was arrested for allegedly beating a man up in February. Recent reports suggest that he could be unavailable for the first six weeks of the season. This offense has historically used a two-pronged approach at running back. In my estimation, Ingram and Smith are the best candidates for work in that scenario.

Final Word

A potential suspension screws things up for projections and valuations of Kamara in redraft leagues. However, he’s currently being drafted in the middle of the third round as the RB13. It’s a big “if,” but if you’re in the playoff hunt with Kamara as your RB2 come week 10 or 11, you’re not going to care that he wasn’t in your lineup through Week 6.

For dynasty purposes, Kamara is palatably priced as the RB12. He’s the last of the productive 26- and 27-year-old backs that come off the board before the more speculative Cam Akers and Kenneth Walker types start going in the mid-third. Kamara produced as a dual-threat weapon satelliting around Brees for most of his career. He produced as a high-volume runner in a more traditional role last season. Age and suspension aside, he’s as sure a thing as there is in fantasy.

Outside of Kamara, the only guy I’m really interested in at cost from this backfield is Smith.