Thomas wants to run

Published 12:22 am Sunday, May 24, 2009

Pierre Thomas was still a senior at Illinois when the speedy Reggie Bush and powerful Deuce McAllister combined to give the 2006 Saints a dynamic running game that helped carry New Orleans into the playoffs.

With McAllister leaving last winter, Thomas has bulked up for his third pro season, hoping to prove he can be the Saints’ premier power runner of the future. “I want the same thing Deuce and Reggie had in ’06, so me and Reggie can do the same thing,” Thomas said after an offseason practice at the Saints’ headquarters this week.

Last season, Thomas’ playing weight was around 210 pounds. Now with a more barrel-chested look, the result of a new weightlifting regimen, Thomas said he weighs between 220 and 225, pushing beyond the limit coaches had set for him.

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“Hopefully, they’ll raise up my weight limit to 225, but I don’t know yet,” the 5-foot-11 Thomas said. “I’m going by their rules, but I’m trying to show them I can play with this weight.”

For now, there are no full-contact practices. That begins in training camp. Until then, it can be tough for running backs — especially those trying to show they can be human battering rams — to know how well they’re doing.

Sharing carries with Bush, Thomas was the Saints’ leading rusher in 2008, gaining 625 yards on 129 carries, an average of 4.8 yards per carry. His nine rushing touchdowns also led the Saints and one of those scoring runs went for 42 yards, his longest run of the season.

Thomas had a few glaring failures in crucial short-yardage situations during losses at Washington and Denver last season, but head coach Sean Payton said he thought the main problem with those particular plays had more to do with blocking than Thomas’ running ability in the clutch.

For the entire season, the statistics seemed to back Payton up. Thomas was stopped for only six losses as a rusher, or 4.7 percent of the time. Among running backs with at least 100 carriers, that was the lowest percentage of runs for losses in the NFL.

And yet, after McAllister’s release last winter, Payton talked of adding another big running back.

During the draft, the Saints attempted to trade for Ohio State running back Chris “Beanie” Wells. After that failed, the Saints signed a pair of burly running backs — Wisconsin’s P.J. Hill and Western Illinois’ Herb Donaldson — as undrafted free agents. Donaldson is 5-10, 226 and Hill 5-10, 218. Payton also spoke of his interest in seeing what reserve running backs Mike Bell (6-feet, 225) and Lynell Hamilton (6-feet, 235) could do with more time to adjust to the Saints’ system.

“They think they need a bigger back,” Thomas said. “I can do most of the same things Reggie does. … I’m very versatile. I can be used in so many different ways — special teams, out there on the wideout, in the backfield — so I think that’s what they see me as, but I’m trying to show them I can be that power back that they need.”

Indeed, Thomas was effective in several roles, particularly on screen plays. He had 31 catches for 284 yards and three TDs. He also returned 31 kickoffs for 793 yards (a 25.6-yard average), with a long of 88 yards.

Late in the season, however, the Saints settled on Courtney Roby as their primary kick returner, allowing Thomas to focus more on running back. Roby remains on the roster.

Thomas, meanwhile, also has been trying to improve his leg strength, increasing his squats from 495 pounds to 675.

“I can break the one-arm tackles and if (tacklers) are there, I can put my shoulder down and I’ve got enough leg power that I could probably burst through or knock them back a few yards,” Thomas said. “My speed is not there compared to Reggie’s for an outside run. … I can get it out there and I can make some guys miss, but I feel that the inside run is more my style, more my feel and it will work better for me.”