With the New Orleans Saints reporting to training camp on July 24th, there are quite a few intriguing players and positional battles to watch. Rookies like Brandin Cooks and Stanley Jean-Baptiste have the fans excited to see what they can do. My player to watch for 2014 training camp is Khiry Robinson.
Robinson was virtually unknown this time last year as an undrafted free agent out of West Texas A&M. Robinson went into training camp and repeatedly impressed the coaching staff to earn a spot on the roster. After receiving a heavy load of carries in the preseason and proving his worth, Robinson made his way on to the depth chart and received a nice number of carries in his rookie season.
If Bill Parcells comparing you to a Hall of Fame running back isn’t high expectations, I don’t know what is. Parcells let his old protégé know about this comparison before the playoffs last season. According to FOX NFL analyst John Lynch, “Parcells called this week and said, ‘Sean what are you doing? You’ve got Curtis Martin right in front of your eyes, and you’re not doing anything with him. Give him the ball.’”
This is a lofty comparison for someone who only ran the ball 75 times last season, but the similarities are there. Both runners are considered a one-cut back who patiently finds their hole and then decisively runs strongly through it. His nice combination of quickness and power makes him very hard to stop for short gains.
The Saints running attack struggled at time last year, especially on 3rd and short runs. New Philadelphia Eagle, Darren Sproles was practically a non-factor all season in the running game and Pierre Thomas had one of his more ineffective seasons running the ball, even though he did have a good year of receiving. Mark Ingram seemed to break out at times, but has never been able to stay healthy and produce a full season of consistency. Robinson didn’t have overwhelming numbers but when he was given the chance, he provided very consistent runs and the ability to fight for extra yardage.
Robinson’s average of 4.1 yards per carry isn’t unbelievable, but it was a solid average for a rookie season. Not to mention, his carries were very sporadic and he never quite settled in. Robinson had three of the Saints’ 7 carries for 20 or more yards last season. He had an impressive 2.6 yards per carry after contact and was arguably the Saints best runner in the postseason.
Khiry provides a versatile option for the Saints because he can run the ball effectively and catch out of the backfield as well. When Ingram is in the game, opposing defenses know the play will most likely be a run. With Sproles last year, the play was likely to be a pass if he was in the backfield. A multi-dimensional back like Robinson can really help the Saints produce a balanced offensive attack like they had in their Super Bowl season.
The numbers from last season show that the Saints were unable to run the ball effectively most of the year. They were in the bottom half of the league in every single major running stat category. They were 21st or worse in total yards running, yards per carry, touchdowns, rushing 1st downs, runs of 20 or more yards, and rushing attempts.
Many people say this is deliberate and the Saints focus is to beat teams with their aerial attack. This simply is not true. Sean Payton has made it clear plenty of times that he prefers a balanced attack and loves to run the ball to open up more passing lanes for Drew Brees. When the Saints are effectively running the ball, Payton will run the ball much more and provide that balanced attack.
The best example of this is 2009 when the Saints won the Super Bowl. They were 4th in passing yards in the NFL which is expected. The surprising stat was they were 6th in rushing yards and 5th in yards per attempt. This kind of balanced attack won the Saints 13 regular season games and 3 more in the postseason on their way to a Super Bowl Victory. This kind of success on the ground hasn’t been found since.
Training camp will be vital for Robinson to show that he has worked hard in the offseason to grow his game and prove he is capable of being a primary back for this offense. I believe that he is the Saints best option as the starting running back going into next season because of his versatility for the offense. Darren Sproles has left town and opened up plenty of snaps at the running back position. Pierre Thomas has let it be known he is fine with being a feature back and helping the young talent on the team grow into the best player possible. He will still receive a lot of 3rd down carries and be prominent in the passing game. If Khiry Robinson can have a good training camp and produce in the preseason, I believe that he will beat out Mark Ingram on the depth chart and receive a major amount of carries for the New Orleans Saints this season.