In 2010, undrafted rookie running back Chris Ivory smashed through the bottom of the Saints roster like a sledgehammer. Injuries to Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas paved a path to relevancy for Ivory -- a trail that led him to a 158-yard breakout performance over the Buccaneers in Week 6 of that 2010 season.
The trail then steered Ivory to his first meeting with Jacksonville Jaguars head coach (then Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator) Gus Bradley. The rookie Ivory ran up, down, and all around Bradley's defense in Week 11, collecting 99 yards and a touchdown in a winning performance that would stick with the Seattle coaches for quite a while.
"He's a freaking stud," Pete Carroll admitted after the game.
Since breaking out as a rookie six years ago, Ivory's career has carried him through two teams, several roles, and many comparisons. A lot of fans like to link Ivory's hostile elegance to Marshawn Lynch, and the relationship isn't too far off. I like to consider Ivory as the running back that Trent Richardson should have been, sort of. Ivory is less coiled than Richardson, but enjoys more patience and backfield cutting ability. Ivory also has a knack at finding daylight -- a skill that he has polished over his last three seasons with the New York Jets.
The Jaguars contract this offseason has thrusted Ivory into the light once again, though, he's no stranger to attention. Coaches have been game-planning for Ivory since his early days in New Orleans. Ivory's 4.6 yards per carry career average places him at seventh among active NFL running backs -- a list Ivory seems more likely to continue climbing than fall off of.
Ivory's running is truly poetic -- a blank verse of aggression and irregularity, but uniformity in the same form. The timing of Ivory's signing spells sidekick while his paycheck says otherwise, but don't bother assigning Ivory to a predetermined role in Jacksonville -- he's a bendable asset with a profitable skill set.
A workhorse? Ivory has been that. A situational bowling ball? He's seen that role as well. Last year, Ivory ran to his first 1,000-yard season and earned his first Pro Bowl selection.
Ivory's climb to a 1,000-yard season was as steady as it was unique. Not often does a player -- a running back, much less -- leave his injury issues behind him in a trade. Ivory filled many roles as an undrafted Saints player, but lost playing time over the first three years of his career due to several injuries -- a pattern that had haunted him since college.
After a trade shoved him to New York, however, Ivory played in 46 of 48 games during his three-year contract. Ivory came close to 1000 yards in both of his first two seasons as a Jet, and finally posted a 1,000-yard Pro Bowl season in 2015 that landed him at the feet of a $32 million Jaguars contract.
In an effort to illustrate Ivory's ascend through his last four seasons, I've pulled a single play from each of these seasons. Starting with 2012 -- the season before Ivory was traded -- I've complied a snapshot-chronicle, of sorts. Taking Ivory in year-by-year should allow us an opportunity to better appreciate which version of Ivory has arrived in Jacksonville.
2012: 40 rushing attempts, 217 yards, 5.4 yards per carry
After completing his first two injury-shortened seasons, the Saints gifted Ivory with a signing bonus in 2012. Ivory played in only six games that year -- all of them arriving in November and December. Still, Ivory was able to contribute in a pretty substantial way, posting 5.4 yards per carry in a situational role that allowed him opportunities to take full advantage of the defenses he faced.
The example I have placed below is of one of Ivory's best efforts of his entire career. In an effort to maintain the beauty and absurdity, I have restrained from marking on any of the 13 still frames. The ride is beautiful on its own.
Ivory lines up as a single back.
At the snap, the offensive line slides to the left. Drew Brees extends the ball to the left for Ivory, while the Falcons linebackers are sucked in like a magnet.
Suddenly, Brees reverses the handoff point. It's a counter play.
The tight end loses hold of the linebacker. Ivory quickly gets horizontal, using his speed to evade the tight end's forfeited assignment and get to the edge.
After Ivory escapes the first defender, he paralyzes the cornerback with a hesitation and takes a big step towards the sideline.
Finally, Ivory gets vertical. Ivory accelerates to get north as quickly as possible.
This frames appears to be the beginning of the end. The Falcons finally trap Ivory against the sideline when a safety makes his way over top.
Unfortunately for the Falcons, Ivory is pretty damn good at escaping traps. Ivory bursts through the contain with a quick, decisive change in direction.
Ivory stumbles, but regains his balance.
Suddenly, Ivory gets horizontal again. He's changing direction in an effort to outrun the defensive backs above him.
As Ivory makes his way across the field, he encounters his last challenger -- cornerback Dunta Robinson. Robinson stays step for step with Ivory, finally making an effort to tackle the running back in the center of the field.
But after all of the effort Ivory had put in to get to this point, he wasn't going to get taken down by an upright cornerback. Ivory deploys a mean stiff arm, literally heaving the defender off of him.
With the entire Saints squad stuck eating his dust, Ivory high-steps into the endzone. That's six points on the end of a determined 56-yard effort. Plays like this are the reason why I don't think the Lynch comparisons are misplaced.
Ivory's Saints career would end alongside the 2012 season four games later. Traded for a 4th-round pick, Ivory was off to fulfill a larger role in New York.
2013: 182 rushing attempts, 833 yards, 4.6 yards per carry
Ivory's 2013 numbers were nothing to sneeze at. The Jets received 15 full games of production from their newly-acquired back -- the most of any Ivory season up to that point. Ivory broke off many highlight runs and earned his new $10 million contract in pass protection.
Still, it's worth pointing out that much of Ivory's 2013 success can very well be attributed to his offensive line. The Jets posted the 6th-ranked rushing attack in 2013. Watching the film back, I couldn't help but take note of some of the dump truck-sized holes Ivory ran through on his most notable runs. This doesn't take away from what Ivory accomplished in 2013, of course. But it does mark the beginning of a transition, in a way -- an evolution from creator into sustainer.
Ivory would continue to refine the demeanor he adopted in New York over the next three seasons, becoming a damn good all-around running back. But for now, we'll focus on his first season in green.
I love the play below -- Ivory takes it to his former team just months after they trade him away.
The Jets line up in I-formation. The Saints load the box with defenders. A fullback will lead the way for Ivory.
At the snap, a hole opens up almost immediately for Ivory.
Ivory makes first contact as he explodes through the hole. The Saints single-high safety eyes the congestion, then accelerates towards the confrontation.
This is the most pivotal moment in the play -- Ivory breaks the initial tackle in the trenches, exploding out into the open field. The Saints safety appears to take a terrible angle as he approaches Ivory, but there's actually more to the situation than you can uncover in these still frames. Ivory accelerates so quickly after breaking the first tackle that the safety is forced to react faster than he can adjust his momentum. To put it simply, Ivory's burst forces the safety's trajectory, in a way.
Ivory turns up the sideline, running away from the Saints defense.
Eventually, Ivory is forced out of bounds at his former team's sideline. He stares his old teammates down for a brief moment, then jogs back to his huddle.
Ivory would go on to post 139 yards in a Jets win over the Saints that day. The next season would gift Ivory with even more carries.
2014: 198 rushing attempts, 821 yards, 4.1 yards per carry
The Jets -- as an offense -- took a huge dip in 2014, but Ivory's production mirrored the season that preceded it.
Ivory played in all 16 games -- most of them in front of or beside veteran running back Chris Johnson. Ivory's most impressive effort of 2014 was a 71-yard touchdown dash. The run marked the 2nd-longest rushing touchdown in Jets history.
The Jets played around (probably too much) with many pistol formations in 2014, using situational quarterback Michael Vick's speed and speed-back Chris Johnson's agility in an effort to push and pull the defense. Chris Ivory's utility, however, shined brightest in more traditional sets. His phenomenal 71-yard touchdown run started in shotgun.
Ivory lines up beside Jets quarterback Geno Smith.
Ivory receives the hand off and points his body toward his center. Ivory is looking to hit the A-gap, opening quickly as the center approaches the linebacker.
Ivory bursts through the gap and breaks his first arm-tackle -- an ability he's refined over his six-year career.
As the left tackle arrives at the second level, Ivory waits patiently behind him for the linebacker and safety to close in.
Ivory bursts through the other side of a great block. A couple of Raiders players catch up to Ivory from behind.
Unsurprisingly, Ivory shreds the tackle. When Ivory reaches a the second level, he's tough to bring down -- it's almost as if he gets slipperier the further he travels downfield.
Of course, Ivory isn't finished yet. He breaks another tackle on his way into the open field. This is the moment you can tell it's going to be one of those runs.
Ivory speeds up and sprints toward the end zone. Several Raiders are in pursuit behind him.
At the ten-yard line, a cornerback finally catches Ivory from behind. There are now two scenarios that could play out -- Ivory could stumble and go down, like a normal running back at top speed, or...
...he could carry his defender 10 yards into the end zone. That's pure determination.
The next season, his last as a member of the Jets, Ivory would display an even more determined effort.
2015: 247 rushing attempts, 1,070 yards, 4.3 yards per carry
Ivory mashed together his first two seasons with the Jets, put it behind him, and then took his game to an entirely new level in 2015. Ivory collected 1,070 yards in 15 games on his way to his first Pro Bowl -- a collection of aggression and determination made from plays like the one below.
This play is insane. There's really no better way to put it. This play is effort, speed, agility, vision, and defensive breakdown all wrapped together in a elephant-sized package.
In several ways, this play parallels the play I broke down about 1,200 words ago -- Ivory's insane effort against the Falcons in 2012.
Ivory squats in the backfield -- the calm before the storm.
At the snap, Ivory is already in trouble. The right guard doesn't get a good enough piece of his assignment -- a linebacker closes in on Ivory.
Ivory takes a beautiful cut to avoid the defender in his face. This would be the highlight of the play if there wasn't more to come.
As Ivory pushes the linebacker off, he focuses on what is in front of him.
Ivory heads north, where he is boxed in by three Dolphins. He's surrounded.
Without hesitation, Ivory is swallowed by all three defenders.
Somehow, Ivory keeps his legs driving and maintains his balance. It's almost as if Ivory just decided he didn't want to be tackled. Ivory spins out -- he's the only one of the four-man collision left standing.
Ivory isn't out of the woods yet. Even with three Dolphins face down on the turf, a defender is still in perfect position to bring Ivory down.
Then, like he's done time and time again, Ivory rips through the tackle. There's no way he's going down now -- no way.
Ivory breaks to the right. Brandon Marshall picks up a crucial block. No one will catch Ivory now.
Touchdown. Every Dolphin in the aquarium just got eaten alive by a shark.
Ivory finished the 2015 season just shy of the AFC rushing title. As a free agent the next offseason, he signed a five-year contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
This is where it gets interesting.
Like I said earlier -- there's really no point in making too many assumptions about Ivory's role in Jacksonville at this stage. Only time can unravel the path ahead for a free agent addition, no matter how black and white the situation is drawn up.
Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell sings the beautiful tune of a 50-50 system -- a fairy tale that features team cornerstone T.J. Yeldon and budding star Chris Ivory together in an evenly split, perfectly fair, seamlessly productive cooperation. Caldwell has alluded to a true two-back system for quite some time -- something a team needs to maintain consistent production in today's NFL.
And all of this sounds great -- the Jaguars finished 27th in the league in rushing last year. The team addressed a need in free agency, and if we're being completely honest, almost any of the more notable free agent backs could have filled the hole.
Chris Ivory, however, is an interesting plug for the Jaguars. Ivory has spent the last six seasons elevating his role -- as we uncovered in the still frames -- but he'll most likely sink back down to Earth a bit in 2016. Ivory's role has yet to be defined -- no matter how hard Caldwell pushes the 50-50 concept -- but it's safe to say it probably won't look anything like the role he held in his Pro Bowl season last year.
In the end, none of this matters. If the Jaguars arrive at a point where they don't have enough carries to go around next season, they're probably sitting in a good situation.
Still, to me, Ivory is the most interesting free agency signing so far. The rest of the Jaguars' free agency haul have a straight path in from of them. They were signed for depth, to start, or to compete -- it's all defined.
Chris Ivory, however, joins the team as an accomplished player without an obvious spot in the rotation.
And as strange as that is, I have a feeling it'll work out for both Ivory and the Jaguars. Ivory has spent six years growing as an NFL player -- what's one more role change?