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John DeShazier: Mark Ingram ready to take another step forward

Ingram wants to become one of the best backs in the NFL

The doubters persist, and it's not just a conjured resistance manufactured for motivational purposes.

No, there remains a faction that Mark Ingram's play perhaps never will sate, and at times the howls may seem deafening.

But there's indisputable evidence that the New Orleans Saints running back has improved with age and, based on all that has been seen throughout OTAs and minicamp, appears ready to take another positive step.

Two years ago, Ingram submitted a Pro Bowl season – 964 rushing yards and nine touchdowns on 226 carries, and 145 receiving yards on 29 catches, in 13 games. He followed that career-best total yards season with a better one in 2015 – 769 rushing yards and six touchdowns on 166 carries, and 405 receiving yards on a career-high 50 catches, in 12 games.

Each season was interrupted by injury – three missed games in '14 due to a broken hand, and the final four last year with a shoulder injury. But each provided proof that the six-year veteran, the second of New Orleans' two first-round picks in 2011, continues to progress in targeted areas (last year, the goal was to show his effectiveness as a receiver).

And the abbreviation of the year only makes Ingram want to get back into the regular season as soon as possible.

"It makes me real hungry," he said. "I was very disappointed last year when I couldn't finish the year. We weren't having a great year as a team but individually, I was having my best year as a professional so it makes me want to get back out there and just pick up where I left off.

"I just want to continue to improve, continue to get better. The last couple of years I've had a lot more opportunities to be able to showcase my abilities all around. I just want to keep enhancing that, keep getting better and keep earning the trust of my teammates and my coaches so they can know I can go out there and do anything asked of me."

The fact is, they already know that and totally are comfortable with Ingram in any role.

"I think he's a guy that, as the years have gone on, he's gotten better and better with experience," offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael said. "He's a guy that really, you feel comfortable having in the game first down, second down, third down. He's a three-down back and whether you're handing him the ball or throwing a route to him, you feel good.

"Since he's been here we've known that he's a complete player. We've just had some other guys that have done some roles, (but) he's a guy that can do all those roles. He continues to get better."

The quest to get more production from Ingram has a simple remedy, and aligns with his continued improvement: Namely, the former Heisman Trophy winner from Alabama has to stay healthy.

Easier said than done, that is, because Ingram plays one of the most physically challenging positions in the league – if he's not being hit as a runner, receiver or decoy, he's delivering a hit as a blocker.

"The running back position takes a beating in this league, and that's why every team typically has a stable of backs that you're mixing and matching," quarterback Drew Brees said. "Mark has been really, really good.

"We know that that position takes a beating so for him the ability to stay healthy is pretty key. But his productivity when he's out there, and the influence that he has for us when he's out there, is pretty strong."

Said Ingram: "Through the grace of God, you go through an entire NFL season healthy. You just do everything you can in your power. You train hard, you do all your lifts to prevent injuries, any deep tissue massage, cold tub, dry needling, muscle activation techniques, chiropractor, stretching, Pilates, yoga – you just do a wide variety of things to prepare your body to be flexible and durable so you can make it through a season.

"A lot of things have to go your way so you can make it through a season all the way. It's something I want to be able to do."

If that goal is attained, another might not be far behind.

"I just want to be a guy where people look at me and they're like, 'He's one of the best backs in the league, he's one of the top backs in the league, hands down,' " he said. " 'Somebody that you have to respect, know where he's at, someone we have to gameplan for.'

"I just want to continue to get better, continue to improve and continue to earn the respect of my peers."

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