Commentary

RBBC in the Big Easy

Updated: July 29, 2011, 1:18 PM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

For about 24 hours, we thought we knew what was what in the Big Easy. But then Sean Payton had to go on being Sean Payton, and now everything is a mess again.

When Reggie Bush was traded to the Dolphins, it seemed pretty clear in New Orleans: Pierre Thomas and rookie Mark Ingram would split lead-back duties, and Chris Ivory would get his injured foot well and possibly contribute as the season progressed. But then, late Thursday night, the Saints signed Chargers castoff Darren Sproles to fill the role Bush left behind. Great. We're right back where we started.

As I mentioned when discussing the Bush deal, the Saints haven't given any running back more than 230 total touches from scrimmage in any of the past four seasons, and only one guy -- Bush in '07 -- has gotten more than 186. That's just Payton's M.O. Expecting anything different here in '11 is almost certainly folly. Sure, we all like Ingram's potential: He's not a huge guy and he's not blazingly fast, but he's got great in-the-box quickness, vision and instincts, and, in a different situation, would be a true breakout candidate. Although the skills of Thomas and Sproles overlap some (both are good pass-catchers and are dangerous in space), Ingram is more of a potential bruiser, and as such is probably the team's best bet for short TDs. But face it: Payton never shied away from using Bush and/or Thomas in short-yardage situations. He loves funky, counterintuitive matchups. He loves to go around the edge when you expect him to go up the middle. He loves to run when you expect him to pass.

Darren Sproles
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesDarren Sproles had 146 receptions and 249 carries in five seasons with the Chargers.

Nor do I buy it when people say Sproles is mostly a direct shot across Thomas' bow. Sure, there's lots of competition to be on the field on third downs now, as there was when Bush toiled in the Big Easy. But Thomas does a reasonable impression of a first- and second-down back at times, too. He's a really good all-around running back who simply doesn't have the durability to make it through a season as a No. 1. If his past is any indication, he's perfectly capable of converting, say, 170 touches into 1,000 total yards and 10 TDs. No, I don't think his TD total this year will be quite that high because Ingram will score some. But the notion that Payton won't play to Thomas' strengths seems ill-founded. If Sproles is Bush, there's no reason Thomas can't have the same kind of per-play impact he was having when Bush himself was actually around.

If this move speaks to one thing most conclusively, it's that Ivory's foot simply might not be close to ready for prime time. As you'll recall, he hurt a hamstring late last year, then tore up his foot by season's end and needed Lisfranc surgery. Early word out of Saints camp is that Ivory won't be ready for action for at least a couple of weeks, and that might simply be polite talk for, "This guy is injury-prone, and we're flat-out not counting on him." At this point, Ivory doesn't look draftable, but the other three Saints guys do. I expect Ingram and Thomas to have pretty similar value on a week-to-week basis, with Sproles chipping in occasionally and providing a bit more value in PPR leagues. But Sean Payton being Sean Payton, this isn't going to be the fantasy gold mine it has the potential to be.

Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy and follow him on Twitter at @writerboyESPN.

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