Sleeper Alert: Saints RB Pierre Thomas

By John Paulsen (Senior Editor) on Jun 11, 2013

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John was named the Most Accurate Fantasy Football Expert by FantasyPros for the 2010 season, finished as runner-up in 2011 and 4th in 2012 for an unprecedented three straight top 5 finishes. Cumulatively, John was the most accurate expert from 2010-13 while also winning the 2011 Fantasy Sports Trade Association award for the most accurate preseason rankings.  Follow John on Twitter: @4for4_John.

In a recent article from the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Saints beat writer Larry Holder discussed the current state of the team's running game:

Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles have been receiving the vast majority of the snaps with the first-team offense during these last three weeks of workouts and practices. Thomas, predictably, tallied most of the carries when comparing Sproles' workload as a traditional running back with Sproles wearing different hats depending on the play called.

Mark Ingram is lining up with the second unit. It's a different direction from the way Saints Coach Sean Payton used Ingram in the past. Ingram received the most carries of any running back during his rookie season with Payton on the sideline, and the trend continued last season with Payton sitting in exile.

This may just be a hiccup in the Saints' pecking order, but for the last two years the team has stubbornly stuck with Ingram and his 3.87 YPC even though Thomas (4.81 YPC) and Sproles (6.27 YPC) have been more productive running the ball.

When I sent these stats for Ingram and Thomas out on Twitter I was told that it wasn't an apples-to-apples comparison because the two backs are used in different ways. For a fairer comparison, I should be looking at splits by down and distance.

Ask and ye shall receive…

 

Thomas vs. Ingram - Down & Distance

  Pierre Thomas Mark Ingram
By Down & Distance Att Yds YPC TD Att Yds YPC TD
DOWN = 1 TO GO 8-10 133 706 5.31 2 161 701 4.35 5
DOWN = 2 TO GO 8-10 23 170 7.39 0 20 75 3.75 0
DOWN = 2 TO GO 3-7 27 75 2.78 0 35 115 3.29 0
DOWN = 2 TO GO 1-2 12 15 1.25 1 16 40 2.50 2
Total 195 966 4.95 3 232 931 4.01 7

 

The table above shows the four down-and-distance situations in which both players have at least 10 carries over the last two seasons combined. Thomas is considerably better (5.61 YPC to Ingram's 4.29 YPC) in 1st-and-long and 2nd-and-long situations, while Ingram is better (3.04 YPC vs. 2.31 YPC) on 2nd downs with less than seven yards to go. In total, Thomas is nearly a full yard better (4.95 YPC vs. 4.01 YPC) in an apples-to-apples comparison.

 

Why have the Saints continued to give Ingram the lion's share of the carries?

This is speculation, but it's likely due to the fact that he was a first round pick, and giving the RB1 job to the undrafted Thomas -- whether or not he's more productive -- would be admitting that it was a mistake to draft Ingram back in 2011.

Ingram is bigger and and one could argue that he should get most of the short yardage touches. Here's a look at how each player has fared in the red zone and in short yardage in the last two seasons.

 

Thomas vs. Ingram - Field Position/Short Yardage

  Pierre Thomas Mark Ingram
Field Position/Down & Distance Att Yds YPC TD Att Yds YPC TD
OPP 19-GOAL 34 146 4.29 6 42 135 3.21 8
OPP 10-GOAL 14 39 2.79 5 19 26 1.37 4
DOWN = 3 TO GO 1-2 5 20 4.00 1 24 85 3.54 0
DOWN = 4 TO GO 1-2 0 0 0.00 0 3 0 0.00 0
Short Yardage Total 5 20 4.00 1 27 85 3.15 0

 

Thomas's superiority carries over to the red zone as well. His short yardage sample size is too small to make any judgments, but he looks to be capable in that area too.

In terms of fantasy points per touch, Thomas ranked 5th among the top 50 RBs in 2011 and 25th in 2012. Ingram ranked 35th and 40th, respectively. Thomas is certainly helped in this measure by his ability to catch the ball, but that only underlines his excellent versatility.

In standard formats, Thomas has finished 27th and 33nd (in 2011 and 2012) in total fantasy points even after taking a backseat to Ingram in the running game. Unsurprisingly, he's even better (21st and 32nd, respectively) in PPR formats.

 

Bottom Line

In the Saints' base offense, Thomas has been the more productive back. His ability in the passing game (89 catches over the last two seasons) proves that he's more versatile than Ingram as well. The Saints should using a tandem of Thomas and Sproles with Ingram sprinkled in on short yardage and as a fresh set of legs in clock-killing situations, but recent history has shown a stubbornness to feed him the ball despite the productivity gap. It's still early in the offseason, but perhaps the fact that Ingram is running with the 2nd team in minicamp is an indication that Thomas will see the lion's share of the carries in 2013. If so, he'll be a tremendous value at his ADP, which has been lingering in the 13th or 14th round. Even if he resumes his role from the last two seasons, he's still a great value at that point in the draft. This is especially true given the departure of Chris Ivory, who was always a looming threat to Thomas's touches.

As our 33rd-ranked RB in standard 12-team leagues, we believe Thomas holds 8th round value, but he should be available much later. He could serve as a low-end RB3 or a high-end RB4 with considerable upside. He gets a boost in PPR formats due to his role in the Saints passing game.

 

Filed Under: Preseason, 2013