METAIRIE, La. (AP) - New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram isn't letting a humbling start to his pro career lower his opinion of what he can still accomplish in the NFL.
With 1,605 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns in his first three pro seasons, Alabama's first Heisman Trophy winner is now a widely perceived under-achiever in the NFL.
Still, Ingram said this week that he sees in himself the potential to be one of the most productive and dynamic running backs in NFL history.
"If somebody's out here playing the game and they don't want to be the best ever to play the game, I don't think they're doing the right thing," Ingram said. "I would've said it as a rookie. I would've said it 10 years ago. I'll say it 10 years from now."
While the preseason doesn't always offer a true reflection of a player's growth, Ingram's performance through a pair of exhibition games seems to back up his assertion that he is increasingly comfortable with what it takes to succeed as an NFL running back - from reading defenses to setting up blocks to pass-blocking. He even appears more involved in the passing game, turning a short catch into a 23-yard touchdown in last Friday night's 31-24 preseason victory over Tennessee. "In high school I played receiver. If you look at my recruiting (bio), it says, 'Athlete,'" Ingram noted. "In college, I caught a lot of passes."
Indeed, many believe he won over 2009 Heisman voters with his 69-yard gain on a screen pass in Alabama's 2009 SEC Championship game victory over Florida.
Ingram has only 24 career receptions for 143 yards and no touchdowns in the NFL, but catching the ball is in his genes. His father, Mark Ingram Sr., played wide receiver in the NFL for 10 seasons, mostly with the New York Giants.
"Running routes and catching footballs was one of the first things I did when I was young. So I'm comfortable catching passes, comfortable running routes," Ingram said. "I haven't had a lot of opportunity to do that here. But I think I can be just as good as anybody else."
This would be a good time to prove it. Ingram is in the final year of his rookie contract after the Saints declined to exercise a fifth-year option. That gives Ingram obvious incentive to be his best yet, though he insists his motivation hasn't changed.
"It is important, obviously," Ingram said of his contract situation. "But every year is important. Just to say I put more emphasis on this year than the past three years just because of my contract year is ridiculous." Saints assistant coach Bret Ingalls, who doubles as offensive line coach and running game coordinator, has worked with Ingram since his rookie season and said Ingram's work ethic and perseverance is paying off. "We just kept reminding Mark to hang in there, keep working hard, do the best you can, and you can see a result here after three years," Ingalls said. "He looks like a guy that gets it and is going to gain yards maybe you haven't seen in the past.
"Look, it doesn't come easy and it doesn't come to everyone," Ingalls continued, "but what we've seen (going into) this fall, we're pretty cranked up."
Ingram had high hopes heading into last season, only to struggle behind a new zone blocking scheme before sitting out several games with a toe injury. However, he was among the Saints' most effective running backs late last season, rushing for 146 yards in two playoff games. "You see some confidence from playing well, from breaking some runs and I think getting a better feel for what we're doing and where he wants to be," right tackle Zach Strief said of Ingram. "He's not thinking. He's reacting, which obviously at that position is important."
While Ingram rushed for only 386 yards last season, he also finished with an average of nearly 5 yards per carry. Through two preseason games, he's carried 13 times for 102 - an average of 7.8 yards per carry - and had a 22-yard scoring run.
"I'm comfortable in the system, comfortable in the offense, familiar with how the offensive line is going to do their scheme - how they're going to attack blocks and what their landmarks are," Ingram said. "That comes with growing a lot, having years and (repetitions) in the league. Going on Year 4, I'm feeling a lot more comfortable and a lot more confident.
"I know I'm an all-purpose back, a complete back," he added. "I can do everything."
Notes: S Jairus Byrd, the Saints' top free agent acquisition on defense, practiced fully Tuesday for the first time since signing with the club in March. Cleared for contact after spending months rehabilitating from back surgery, he even lowered his shoulder into Ingram during 11-on-11 drills. ... Those missing practice included CBs Keenan Lewis and Patrick Robinson, who have minor undisclosed injuries; WR Brandin Cooks, sidelined a second straight day with an illness; and LG Ben Grubbs, who had left practice with an undisclosed ailment Monday. Grubbs has missed most of training camp because of back soreness that sidelined him for much of the first few weeks of camp.
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