Can Saints keep Mark Ingram from leaving in free agency?

Brees understands Payton's frustration with blown call (0:53)

Drew Brees doesn't have any problem with Sean Payton's reaction to the Saints' tough loss in the NFC Championship Game. (0:53)

METAIRIE, La. -- Mark Ingram and the New Orleans Saints are such a good fit that he might be willing to accept a little less money to stay as a free agent, and the Saints might be willing to pay a little more than they normally would for a No. 2 running back.

Will that be enough to keep them together? That depends on the rest of the NFL.

Ingram, who turned 29 in December, is good enough to be a leading man for a team that doesn’t have an Alvin Kamara on the roster. If another team is willing to offer a bigger role and pay $5 million-plus per year, it’s hard to imagine Ingram staying in New Orleans for a ninth season, especially considering the Saints have less than $10 million in salary-cap space.

Here’s a closer look at the factors involved.

Ingram’s market value

Ingram proved to be a bargain after he signed a four-year, $16 million contract with the Saints the last time he was a free agent in 2015. Over the past four years, he has run for 3,581 yards and gained 4,891 yards from scrimmage with 35 touchdowns in 56 regular-season games, averaging 4.85 yards per carry.

This time, however, Ingram is almost 30 -- a taboo number for running backs. On the plus side, his timeshare with Kamara the past two seasons has helped him keep some tread on the tires.

It’s hard to find a perfect comparison among recent free agents because Ingram is older than most backs with similar talent level.

Last year, Jerick McKinnon signed a four-year, $30 million deal with the 49ers ($7.5 million per year), Carlos Hyde signed a three-year, $15.25 million deal with the Browns ($5.083 million average), Dion Lewis signed a four-year, $19.8 million deal with the Titans ($4.95 million average), and Isaiah Crowell signed a three-year, $12 million deal with the Jets ($4 million average).

In 2017, Devonta Freeman signed a five-year, $41.25 million extension with the Falcons ($8.25 million average) and Latavius Murray signed a three-year, $15 million deal with the Vikings ($5 million average). In 2016, Lamar Miller signed a four-year, $26 million deal with the Texans ($6.5 million average).

Of that entire group, Lewis and Murray were the oldest when they signed their deals at age 27.

Among older backs, Marshawn Lynch was just shy of his 31st birthday when he signed a two-year, $9 million deal with the Raiders in 2017, Jonathan Stewart was almost 31 when he signed a two-year, $6.9 million deal with the Giants last year, and LeGarrette Blount was 31 when he signed a one-year deal worth $2 million plus incentives with the Lions last year.

The sports-contract website Spotrac calculated Ingram’s market value to be $4.4 million per year, which seems like a fair price if he stays with the Saints. But a bidding war could easily boost that number above $5 million per year.

Ingram’s actual market

High-priced running backs aren’t always in high demand. But there are a handful of teams that might be willing to pay a premium.

ESPN Baltimore Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley recently predicted that Baltimore could sign Ingram in free agency. ESPN analyst Bill Barnwell laid out scenarios in which Ingram could end up with the rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers or Oakland Raiders.

Other teams in the market for a top running back could include the Jets, Eagles and Dolphins -- or the Texans and 49ers if they let Miller and McKinnon go.

The big free-agent prize will be Le’Veon Bell. After that, it might be a close second between Ingram and Tevin Coleman. Other free agents include Jay Ajayi, C.J. Anderson, Adrian Peterson and Murray.

Ingram’s outlook with the Saints

Saints coach Sean Payton has shown an ability to feature two running backs. Ingram and Kamara became the first duo to both surpass 1,500 yards from scrimmage in the same backfield in 2017.

Last year, however, Ingram became the clear No. 2 after he returned from a four-game suspension for violating the NFL policy on performance-enhancing substances to start the season. Ingram finished with 645 rushing yards, 170 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in 12 games.

Ingram has said he would love to touch the ball as much as possible. But he has embraced his timeshare and friendship with Kamara -- and the feeling is mutual.

Ingram is greatly respected inside the Saints’ locker room, with players often describing him as the team’s heart and soul. As an added bonus, he is fewer than 100 yards away from Deuce McAllister’s franchise record of 6,096 career rushing yards. Ingram broke McAllister's franchise record of 49 touchdown runs with his 50th late last season.

"I'm not looking just to up and leave New Orleans," Ingram said in January. “We've got a good squad. I feel like we can do this type of thing for many more years. So I'm not looking just to bail out of New Orleans.

"I was drafted here. I met my wife here. My children were born here. Very rarely does anybody get to spend their career in one place. I love New Orleans, I love this team, I love this organization. So we'll see what happens. … Hopefully everything works out, but it's a business. I hope everything works out. I love it here."

Saints’ outlook without Ingram

This is the part of the equation that might keep Ingram in New Orleans.

Although he seems replaceable in theory, that task proved harder than expected during his suspension. At various points in the summer and September, the Saints tried veterans Jonathan Williams, Mike Gillislee, Terrance West, Shane Vereen and rookie sixth-round draft pick Boston Scott. But none of them stuck -- and Kamara wound up taking on a much bigger workload than the Saints would've preferred.

"Mark's been someone who's been extremely familiar with what we do," Payton said last month, stressing how interchangeable Ingram and Kamara are. "In the third down, in the nickel, in the base. There's not one thing where I'm looking at the call sheet and thinking, 'ahh.'"

Unfortunately the Saints’ budget is limited in free agency -- and a pass-catcher should be a higher priority for the offense.

If the Saints decide to go cheaper at running back, they have an intriguing option in fourth-year backup Dwayne Washington, who joined their practice squad last September and ran for 108 yards on 11 carries when the starters rested in Week 17. The Saints also could sign a cheaper veteran in free agency (Barnwell proposed Ajayi and Anderson as possibilities).

But they shouldn’t be eager to let Ingram run off unless they have to.