Future of New Orleans Saints' backfield up in the air

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2013 was an interesting season in the New Orleans Saints’ backfield. Each back had multiple games that saw them post big numbers—further teasing fantasy football owners. It was as if Sean Payton took a page out of Mike Shanahan’s playbook—making it impossible to guess who will be the bell cow in any one game or for any significant stretch of time.

But I’m not here to discuss the fantasy impact of the Saints’ backfield, as intriguingly confusing as it may be. Instead, the stated point is to figure out the true state of the backfield as plans for the 2014 season begin in earnest, now that we are post-Super Bowl apocalypse (you know when the Seahawks dropped a nuclear bomb on the entire city of Denver). That joke was mandatory, right?

Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram are all set to hit free agency next offseason. Sproles registers the most expensive cap hit of those three ($4.25 million). Thomas and Ingram are both signed for less than $3 million for the 2014 season.

Meanwhile, Travaris Cadet is also set to hit free agency—the restricted version—after the season, leaving only the Saints’ latest undrafted free agent running back find, Khiry Robinson, as a guaranteed part of the backfield in the 2015 season.

This leaves a big question mark not just for next offseason, but even this one. Do any of these players get cut this offseason, since the Saints are likely to need the cap room to re-sign all-world tight end Jimmy Graham to the extension he has earned?

By examining the value of each player, relative to the scheme, their production and their cap figure we hope now to answer said question.

Darren Sproles, Age: 30, Cap Hit ($4.25 Million)

There is a legitimate debate among Saints fans and analysts alike of which Saints running back presents the most value. Some say the 5’6”, 181 lbs. product out of Kansas State. There is ample reason to believe this. Few players present the versatility and production in three phases of the game—rushing, receiving and returning.

We’ll examine his impact briefly in all three phases—and don’t forget he is equal to Thomas in terms of pass protection too.

As a rusher—quite obviously the main responsibility of a running back—Sproles is limited merely by the number of attempts he registers. In 2013, he was given only 53 rushing attempts. He managed a healthy 4.2 yards per carry with a long of 38 yards. Anybody who has ever watched the Saints knows Sproles isn’t going to carry the ball often, but is quite dangerous when given said opportunity.

As a receiver, Sproles is given infinitely more opportunities and thus is almost infinitely more productive. He grabbed 71 receptions, good for 685 yards and two touchdowns this past season. That doesn’t count the enormous mismatch he is in space or the nightmare he gives defenses when he lines up in the slot next to Marques Colston or Jimmy Graham.

As a return man, though, Sproles recorded career lows in both punt return average and kick return average (actually his career low for punt return average was his rookie year in San Diego but it’s close).

That kind of production, especially as a receiver, should not be taken for granted. The only reason to release him is if it is deemed that a replacement could match that production on a more cap friendly deal (more on that later).