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Mark Ingram eager to contribute to New Orleans Saints

'I'm hungry and I'm ready to play ball and help our team'

Perhaps more than anything, the isolation gnawed at Mark Ingram.

He's gregarious. Comedic. Emotional. Magnetic.

So being away from his New Orleans Saints teammates – being away from the locker room and camaraderie – for a month during his NFL-mandated suspension, was even harder than missing time with an injury.

With an injury, at least players still can be around the team, still are allowed to travel depending on the severity of the injury.

A suspension carries with it a barring from the facility, the absence of face-to-face contact, the inability to contribute to the Saints' 3-1 start as they enter a "Monday Night Football" matchup against Washington (2-1) in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

"That's difficult, not seeing your boys, not seeing the homies," Ingram said Thursday. "That makes it difficult. You hear a lot of guys speak on what they miss most about when they finish playing, is the locker room and the guys.

"I can kind of attest to that, just being away for four weeks, not being with the guys, not just talking mess, going to (running backs) dinner, all that good stuff. All the joking around, all the kidding we do. But most, the seriousness of preparing for a game. Definitely miss that."

He doesn't have to miss it any more.

Ingram officially returned at 12:01 a.m. Monday morning, following the Saints' 33-18 victory over the Giants at MetLife Stadium. And the team can use a hand from the two-time Pro Bowler.

There's no expectation or need for Ingram to save the day. New Orleans has won three straight and sits atop the NFC South Division. But his running mate, second-year back Alvin Kamara, has carried a heavy load in his absence.

Last year, Kamara averaged 12.6 touches per game. In the first four games of 2017, he averaged just nine touches and bumped up to 13.8 per game during the final 12. His single-game high was 19 touches.

This year, Kamara already has 91 touches (22.8 per game) and has had games of 19, 31 and 24 touches on offense. He's tied for the league lead with six touchdowns and has totaled 611 yards, but it's no secret that New Orleans wants to lessen his load.

"(Ingram's return) is significant in a number of ways," Coach Sean Payton said. "In pass pro(tection), in the balance that we have, the things it allows us to do with Alvin as a receiver at times.

"And also, there's a wear and tear on one player. We talked all offseason about how this first month was going to be without Mark. The idea was for us to kind of keep those touches (for Kamara) in a similar area and the playing time in a similar area. And, of course, we weren't able to do that.

"And yet, there's a wear and tear that takes place with that. So when you're looking at a 16-week season, we look at it as having two outstanding running backs. And I think they complement and fit each other extremely well."

The two were complementary enough to each earn Pro Bowl berths last season. Kamara, the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, also was named All-Pro at the "flex" position.

"He's such a productive player," quarterback Drew Brees said. "He's a guy who's so versatile. He's all-purpose – obviously, I feel like Alvin is, too. The complement of the two of them, I think you saw what we were able to do with those guys at the end of last year.

"Hopefully, we'll pick up right where we left off. I have a ton of trust and confidence in him. The gameplan always gears itself in a lot of different ways where guys are going to get opportunities and then we'll see what we're getting in the game. But obviously, he'll be a part of that."

That's what Ingram missed most – being a part of it all.

"(Sundays away from the team) sucked," Ingram said. "They weren't cool. But we were winning games, it made it better. I was excited to see us winning and playing well. Just being able to get back with these guys and be with the team was something I was looking forward to every day.

"I'm going to be excited, for sure. I've had a lot of stuff pent up and built up and I'm ready to go. I'm hungry and I'm ready to play ball and help our team. We've been playing well so I'm just trying to make us stronger, to make us more explosive. That's what I'm trying to do."

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