WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, West Virginia — As Saints quarterback Drew Brees rolled away from pressure, Mark Ingram raced out of the backfield and toward the left sideline, where he nimbly made a tough, twisting catch on a throw over his back shoulder.
His father, former NFL receiver Mark Ingram Sr., might have enjoyed that play, even if it was only in training camp. The younger Ingram, now entering his fifth NFL season, hopes he'll be able to show off more of his receiving pedigree when it matters.
"I've always wanted to do that since my first day here. I've always believed in myself that I could contribute in the passing game, coming out of the backfield, running routes," Ingram said after practice Wednesday. "I'm looking forward to that, hopefully expanding that role."
Given some personnel changes in New Orleans this offseason, Ingram could get his wish.
The Saints released Pierre Thomas, among the club's most productive receivers out of the backfield, particularly on screen passes.
Last season, Thomas led all Saints running backs — and was fifth on the club overall — with 45 receptions for 378 yards. Ingram, whose maiden Pro Bowl nod came largely because of his 964 yards rushing, was third in receiving among Saints running backs last season with 29 catches for 145 yards.
During 11-on-11 drills in full pads Wednesday, Ingram caught a couple passes from Brees and another from backup Ryan Griffin.
Sean Payton said it's difficult to discern a resemblance between the way the younger Ingram catches the ball and how his father did it, largely because they've played different positions. Yet Payton stressed, "Mark has that versatility, though, where we feel like he absolutely is someone who can help us not only in the running game but in the passing game."
Fellow Saints running back C.J. Spiller, acquired this offseason, also is expected to be involved in the passing game, an area in which he thrived in Buffalo. Still, Ingram believes he has the tools — even the resume tape — to push for more opportunities as well.
When Ingram was young, his father worked with him on his receiving skills and technique, and the younger Ingram played receiver in high school in Michigan.
After Ingram converted to running back at Alabama, he became the vaunted football program's first Heisman Trophy winner partly because of his ability to turn short passes into sizeable gains.
Ingram is quick to point out that one of his favorite highlights of his college career came on a screen pass, in the second quarter of the 2009 SEC championship game. After catching the pass at Alabama's 25, Ingram accelerated rapidly, splitting two Florida tacklers at the 40, then cutting behind a block as he scampered across midfield. He slipped one more tackler before being pushed out of bounds at the Gators 3-yard line.
He finished that season with 32 catches for 334 yards and three TDs receiving.
In a 2010 game against Mississippi State, Ingram lined up wide on the right side, caught a bubble screen as he cut inside of a block by Julio Jones, and raced away from pursuers for an 80-yard score.
"I've been doing it," Ingram said of his ability to make plays as a receiver. "I've just been waiting on my opportunity where I can do it here."
Notes: Safety Jairus Byrd, trying to come back from knee surgery that sidelined him most of last season, remained absent with an undisclosed ailment that has sidelined him all six days of practice at training camp. "He is progressing well," Payton said. "I think sooner than later we are going to get a chance to see him, and at the same time we are going to be smart." Asked if Byrd's absence related to the safety's surgically repaired knee, Payton said, "Next question." ... Other absences from the padded practice session included inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, outside linebacker Anthony Spencer and tight end Josh Hill. Cornerback Keenan Lewis left during practice, as did receiver Brandon Coleman. Payton generally declines to discuss injuries during preseason, when the NFL does not require injury reports.