METAIRIE - The New Orleans Saints had been in the market for a reserve running back or two since veteran starter Mark Ingram was suspended last May for violating NFL rules by using performance enhancing substances.
A seven-year pro from Alabama coming off his best season, Ingram gained 1,124 yards last season on 230 carries while catching 58 passes for 416 yards - all career highs. He will be suspended for the first four games - Tampa Bay and Cleveland at home on Sept. 9 and 16 and at Atlanta and at the New York Giants on Sept. 23 and 30.
But the Saints still have running back Alvin Kamara, who was the NFC offensive rookie of the year in 2017 after rushing for 728 yards on 120 carries and catching 81 passes for 826 yards. He also returned 11 kickoffs for a 31.5-yard average with 106-yard touchdown. The club also drafted running back/return man Boston Scott in the sixth round out of Louisiana Tech last April.
But only in recent weeks, the Saints added two free agent running backs in Terrance West (5-foot-10, 225 pounds), formerly of Baltimore, and Shane Vereen (5-10, 205), formerly of the New York Giants.
The Saints have had much success under Coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis at locating running backs under the radar without having to use draft selections or make a trade.
- Pierre Thomas was the team's leading rusher in 2008 with 625 yards and again during its Super Bowl championship season in 2009-10 with 793 yards - 403 more than first round pick Reggie Bush, who was the second player picked in the 2006 draft by the Saints. Thomas was also just 33 yards behind Bush in receiving yards with 39 catches for 302 yards that season.
The Saints signed Thomas as an undrafted free agent out of Illinois in 2007 and later cut that year's fourth round pick - running back Antonio Pittman of Ohio State. Thomas stayed with the team through 2014, finishing second on the team in rushing in 2010-12 and first in 2013.
The Saints did not draft another running back after Pittman until 2011 when it traded a second round pick to move into the first round and took Ingram with the 28th selection. And they did not take another until 2016 when they picked Daniel Lasco out of California in the seventh round, followed by Kamara in 2017 with a third round pick and then Scott. Lasco is out for the season with the same spinal injury suffered last season, Loomis said.
After Thomas, there were several more hidden gems located by the Saints.
- Mike Bell was second on the team in rushing to Thomas that same Super Bowl season with 654 yards. The Saints signed him in 2008 after he barely played in 2007 for Denver following a 677-yard season in 2006 as an undrafted free agent out of Arizona with the Broncos.
- Free agent rookie Chris Ivory led the Saints in rushing in 2010 with 716 yards after going undrafted out of Tiffin University in Tiffin, Ohio, via Washington State. At training camp that previous summer, Payton couldn't correctly remember Chris' last name. Ivory, who struggled with injuries, never repeated that season for the Saints in 2011 and '12, but went on to gain 2,654 yards from 2013-15 with the New York Jets, moved on to Jacksonville for two seasons and just signed a $5.5 million deal for two years with Buffalo.
- Khiry Robinson was second on the Saints in rushing in 2014 with 362 yards after finishing third in 2013 with 224. The Saints signed him in '13 as an undrafted free agent out of a place called West Texas A&M in Canyon, Texas.
- Tim Hightower was second on the Saints in rushing 2015 and '16 with 375 and 548 yards, respectively. The Saints signed him in 2015 after he was out of the NFL for three seasons. A fifth round pick by Arizona in 2008 out of the University of Richmond, Hightower gained 736 yards for the Cardinals in 2010 before playing in 2011 for the Washington Redskins and then getting released. When the Saints signed him, his last action was with the traveling Florida Blacktips of a minor league known as the FXFL (Fall Experimental Football League). A blacktip is a shark.
- West and Vereen now enter Into this Saints' fraternity of the discarded.
"I think we would have been interested in both of them whether Mark was facing a suspension or not," Loomis said. "It happens. Sometimes the price comes into your realm. We felt like they could help us. They are different running backs. Obviously, we've got to fill in for Mark these first four games. We've got some really good candidates for that, and that will sort itself out in training camp."
The Saints signed West, a third round pick by Cleveland in 2014 out of Towson University in Baltimore, Maryland, as a free agent on June 21. He gained 138 yards on 39 carries last season for Baltimore before injuring his calf in week five at Oakland. An inside runner, he led the Ravens in rushing in 2016 with 774 yards and added 236 receiving yards. As a rookie in Cleveland in 2014, West gained 171 yards in 14 games with six starts before being traded in September of 2015 to Tennessee, only to be released two months later, then picked up by Baltimore. He gained only 62 yards for the two teams in eight games in '15.
"With Terrance, you see a physical runner," Payton said. "Both do unique things. Both of those players we felt would help us with regards to Mark's snaps."
The Saints signed the versatile Vereen just over a week ago on July 18. A second round pick by New England in 2011 out of California, his best season was 2014 when he gained 391 yards on 96 carries and caught 77 passes for 447 yards. In the Patriots' 28-24 victory over Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX on Feb. 1, 2015, Vereen caught 11 passes for 64 yards.
"Shane's got a lot of versatility and is someone that we feel like is very good in protection," Payton said. "Also, he's a very good receiver."
After signing with the New York Giants in March of 2015, Vereen played in all 16 regular season games for the second straight year, rushing 61 times for 260 yards and catching 59 passes for 495 yards in addition to returning 14 kickoffs for 321 yards. After playing in only five games in 2016 because of a triceps injury, he played in 16 games last season with the Giants, rushing 45 times for 164 yards, catching 44 passes for 253 yards and returning nine kickoffs for 196 yards. In a 16-13 win over the Saints in '16, Vereen gained 42 yards on 14 carries and caught three passes for 24 yards.
"I've admired him from afar," Saints quarterback Drew Brees told reporters Thursday after the first day of training camp practice. "Really respected what he was able to do in New England and then obviously in New York. Look forward to working with him. He's got a great skill set."
And like many before him, Vereen has admired Brees and the Saints' offensive style.
"The way they use their backs is pretty similar to what I'm used to," he told reporters after practice on Friday. "It's a type of system I feel comfortable in. With the way they spread the ball around and the points they put up, it seems like a fun place to play."
PAYTON, IRELAND ATTEND SPARANO FUNERAL: Saints coach Sean Payton, assistant general manager Jeff Ireland, defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, linebackers coach Mike Nolan and tight ends coach Dan Campbell missed practice on Friday to attend the funeral of Tony Sparano in Wayzata, Minnesota, near Minneapolis.
Sparano, 56, was the offensive line coach of the Minnesota Vikings. He died Sunday of complications from heart disease. Payton was on the same staff with Sparano under Bill Parcells with the Dallas Cowboys from 2003-05.
Shortly after Ireland became general manger of the Miami Dolphins in 2008 under team vice president Parcells, he and Parcells fired 1-17 head coach Cam Cameron and hired Sparano from Dallas to be head coach. He went 11-5 in the 2008 season to win the AFC East and become the first and last NFL coach to take a team into the playoffs after a 1-win season.
Saints defensive back coach Aaron Glenn ran the team during practice Friday.
LSU'S ARANDA VISITS: LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda was at Saints practices on Thursday and Friday. Aranda is friends with Nolan and has frequently visited with Nolan at Saints camp in recent weeks to talk defense. LSU is expected to begin practice on August 4.