METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram has heard it all before.
He can't catch; he's got bad hands; he's ineffective out of the backfield. Say it however you'd like. The fact is, though, he ignores the naysayers, and frankly, wouldn't agree with them, either.
'People say what they want; think what they want,' he said. 'Sometimes you're just given a role going into a game and sometimes that's not part of it. So you just grow and learn, and when you have the opportunity to show that you can do it, you just try to take advantage of it.'
The reality is the Saints have never asked much of Ingram in the passing game. They didn't need to. Not with quarterback Drew Brees relying so heavily on the tandem of Pierre Thomas and Darrin Sproles, two of the NFL's best receivers out of the backfield.
Thomas, who is arguably one of the game's best screen runners, led the league's running backs with 77 receptions last season. Sproles, meanwhile, hauled in 71, good for fourth best. Consequently, Ingram has been left with few opportunities, not only last season, but also over the previous two. In 39 games (two playoff), Ingram has just 27 receptions for 160 yards and no touchdowns.
'It wasn't so much a negative on what (Ingram) did, but more that we had these two other guys,' Saints running backs coach Dan Roushar said.
Now, with Sproles having been traded to the Philadelphia Eagles during the offseason, Ingram not only wants a larger role, he's also showing he deserves one. In two preseason games, Ingram has 13 carries for 102 yards and a touchdown while also catching two passes for 27 yards and one touchdown, his first as a pro.
'I want to do everything,' he said. 'I want to be involved in the pass game, run game, picking up pass pro(tection), every single thing like I said to be the most versatile football player I can be.'
At Alabama, Ingram was versatile, and as the Crimson Tide's every-down back, he had a significant role in the passing game. Over three years, he caught 60 passes for 670 yards and four touchdowns. Moreover, on his way to a Heisman Trophy, he caught 32 for 334 yards and three touchdowns while rushing 271 times for 1,658 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Though Ingram hasn't achieved the same kind of production in the NFL, it's not because he's incapable.
'When Mark Ingram first got here, that was not necessarily his role, but I think he has grown into a guy that can in the nickel,' Brees said. 'Obviously, he is a great runner between the tackles, but now he can do stuff on the exterior. We can motion him out of the backfield and he can catch balls out of the backfield very effectively.'
Because of his improvement in pass protection, the Saints are more confident than ever in Ingram's ability to be a three-down back.
'I've seen him really be on queue with protection,' Roushar said after practice on Tuesday. 'We had two hiccups yesterday, (Ingram) had one of them and that would be a rarity.
'He's been really good at identifying and getting on the right people from a protection standpoint and then when he's allowed to get into the route, I've been really pleased with the way he's run routes and expressed them same way I'm pleased with him running the football.
'He's been very decisive and his ball skills are more than functional, they're actually very good.'
Payton has given no signs he's even contemplating ditching his running back by committee system. To the contrary, he believes in it more than ever because of the 'violent nature of the position.'
For years, veteran Pierre Thomas has demonstrated his versatility, but with the emergence of Ingram and the development of Khiry Robinson in his second year, the Saints have a stable of backs they feel can make them less predictable. The Saints hope to keep defenses guessing this year and not allow them to stack the box when Ingram enters or defend against the pass when Thomas does.
'I just know all of us can do the same thing,' Thomas said. 'The coaches see that too, so they're getting everybody in the mixture. You see Mark out there wide, same thing with Khiry. So it's a lot of rotation. We want to make sure we're unpredictable.
'We want to make sure our offense is there with us. If one of us goes in, if Mark goes in, they don't know what it's going to be.'
Still, no Saints running back has averaged more than 13 carries per game since Deuce McAllister in 2006, Payton's first season in New Orleans. Yet, Ingram is running like a back who could warrant a heftier workload.
'I feel like I can do everything that's asked of me,' Ingram said. 'First, second, third, fourth down, whatever the circumstance may be, run, catch, pass, throw, I can do anything.
'I don't think I have to come off the field at all. I know I am an all-purpose back, a complete back. I can do everything.'
Ingram will have yet another chance to jockey for carries before season starts as the Saints travel to Indianapolis to play the Colts on Saturday at 7 p.m.
'If (Ingram) can demonstrate in (practice) and in the preseason, boy, all of a sudden you've got a pretty good idea how he's going to respond when it counts during the 16-game regular season,' Roushar said.
Ingram said he's up to the challenge and won't shy away from his goal of becoming the greatest running back of all time.
'I would have said it as a rookie,' he said. 'I'll say it ten years from now. I would have said it ten years ago. It doesn't matter. I've always wanted to be the best.
'If somebody is out here playing the game and they don't want to be the best ever to play the game, I think they are doing the wrong thing.'