Photos of Mark Ingram from the 2014 regular season. Photos by Michael C. Hebert. (New Orleans Saints photos)
Mark Ingram didn't much care what the grass looked like on the other side. The fourth-year running back decided, instead, that it was green enough right where he was, in New Orleans.
So after posting the best year of his professional career, Ingram, the Saints' first-round draft pick in 2011 (No. 28 overall), entered and exited free agency the same way – as a Saint. Sunday, the team announced it had agreed to terms with Ingram on a four-year contract.
"My first thing was to see if me and the Saints could get something done, and I was going to go from there," Ingram said Tuesday. "Fortunately, we were able to agree and come up with a deal. I was just looking forward to seeing what we could do first, and I was going to go from there. But I never had to get to that point.
"It's good to know that I didn't have to hit the open market and wait to see where I was going to be, or not knowing where I was going to be. Just to be able to stay home – the team that drafted me, the team I am familiar with, the team that is familiar with me – it's nothing but positives. I feel we can keep building and eventually have a championship team, so that's my focus and I'm glad that I'm still here."
But while Ingram will remain a Saint, the franchise parted ways with longtime standout running back Pierre Thomas.
Thomas, who went from undrafted to indispensable and all points in between, tweeted a farewell to Saints fans last Friday. In eight seasons he became one of the most productive, respected and beloved players in franchise history while beating odds, stiff-arming competition, befuddling opponents and inspiring teammates.
The Screen King – arguably, no running back ever executed a screen pass better than Thomas has in his career, displaying an uncanny sense of patience and ability to slip tackles en route to key gain after key gain – was released by the Saints last Friday, likely ending his NFL career in New Orleans.
"Pierre is a great player, and he's a great person," Ingram said. "He's been good to me in my four years with the Saints, I'm sure there's going to be teams all over him trying to pick him up. He's a good player and a great person to have in the locker room. I wish him the best of luck.
"He's been so good to me and I learned a lot from him. I know he's still got plenty more years left in him, I'm sure he'll go somewhere else and be great.
"This part of the year is bad when you see your teammates get cut or released, or get traded, or whatever the situation may be. You never want to see guys that you're close to – guys that you worked so hard with on the field and developed camaraderie with off the field – leave the team. It's a difficult time but it's the nature of our business."
Thomas was so under-the-radar out of college that he wasn't invited to the NFL Combine in 2007 after his senior season at Illinois, where he ran for 2,455 yards (5.6 yards per carry) and 20 touchdowns, while catching 57 passes for 411 yards and three scores. He also totaled 1,495 kickoff return yards, a school record.
Despite the snub Thomas won a spot on the Saints' roster months later by beating out running back Antonio Pittman, a fourth-round draft pick, among others, and parlayed his special teams daring into a spot in the running back rotation that he never surrendered, regardless of the competition.
Only two players in franchise history have 3,500 rushing yards and 2,000 receiving yards – Thomas and Dalton Hilliard (4,164 and 2,233, respectively).
Thomas ranks fourth on the franchise's all-time list for rushing yards (3,745), tied for third in rushing touchdowns (28) and fifth in rushing attempts (818). He also was one of the franchise's most prolific receivers, finishing 6th all-time in receptions (327) for 2,608 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Now, Ingram will be counted on to subsidize much of the production Thomas supplied. And after showing his full abilities last season, he rose on the Saints' offseason priority list.
The franchise made Ingram its first marquee signing this offseason, as it did with free agent cornerback Keenan Lewis in 2013 and free agent safety Jairus Byrd last year. And in doing so, the Saints delivered on their statement that not only did they want to retain Ingram, but that they would offer more than lip service as proof of Ingram's value to New Orleans.
The 2009 Heisman Trophy winner from Alabama appeared in 13 games in 2014 and carried 226 times for 964 yards (a 4.3-yard average), with nine touchdowns. He also added 29 receptions for 145 yards and set career highs in rushing yardage, yards from scrimmage (1,109) and rushing touchdowns.
Ingram's 74.2 rushing yards per game ranked seventh in the league and he was 14th in rushing yards. He tied for third in the league in rushing touchdowns, and he compiled a three-game stretch – 81 carries for 392 yards and three touchdowns against Green Bay, Carolina and San Francisco – that was the best stretch of his career.
After never having carried more than 17 times in a game, he topped that mark five times and likely would've topped 1,000 rushing yards if not for a hand injury that kept him out of three games and limited him in a fourth.
Ingram helped the Saints' running game improve from 25th in 2013 to 13th last year, when New Orleans finished with the top-ranked offense in the NFL. And he became the first Saint running back selected to the Pro Bowl since Deuce McAllister in 2003.
In his career Ingram has appeared in 50 games, with 21 starts, and has carried 582 times for 2,426 yards (4.2-yard average), with 20 touchdowns, and has led the Saints in rushing in two of his four seasons. He also has 53 receptions for 288 yards.
"I was just so excited that we were able to get a deal done," he said. "I've been there for four years, they drafted me and I love the city, love my teammates, love the coaching staff and I feel like we can build something special so I'm very excited to be back.
"I had an opportunity to get some more touches and show what I could do. A couple of injuries happened and I was able to be out there for a number of games and just getting touches and being the only guy out there, I was able to take advantage of my opportunity."