With two preseason games left, the search for that role appears wide open.
Running back P.J. Hill, a promising second-year pro out of Wisconsin, was waived on Monday and is expected to be placed on injured reserve with a partial triceps tear that will sideline him for the season.
Hill's injury comes less than two weeks after a season-ending right knee injury to Lynell Hamilton, who entered training camp as the leading candidate to become the third running back after Mike Bell, who handled that role in 2009, left for Philadelphia in free agency.
"There's a couple players that aren't here who were here a year ago at this time, Lynell being one of them, who's now injured, Mike Bell certainly being the other," Payton said. "These other guys are going to have to really step up and prove themselves for a spot on the roster."
Now that Hill is out, the "other guys" now consist of undrafted rookie Chris Ivory, recently acquired veteran free agent Ladell Betts and Wynn.
Ivory, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound power runner who last year transferred from Washington State to Division II Tiffin, has impressed Payton so far, rushing 26 times for 96 yards and one touchdown in two preseason games. However, he has made some rookie mistakes and last Saturday against Houston, he was unable to score on first-and-goal from the 1.
"He ran hard and had good effort. He's got good balance," Payton said. "He finishes runs well, which has been pretty exciting to see, and yet there's a ton of things that he's working on like any rookie would be."
Betts, who in 2006 rushed for more than 1,000 yards with Washington, has yet to practice since being acquired last week. He is recovering from a serious left knee injury from last season in which both his anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments were torn. However, Payton said he expected Betts to see some playing time in the next preseason game against San Diego on Friday night.
"Trying to get him into the preseason will be important, just so we can see what we have," Payton said. "Certainly his experience matters, and yet you still want to see what you have in the player, especially someone who came off an injury like that."
Wynn is a fourth-year pro who spent his first three seasons in Green Bay. He played in only four games in 2009 before a torn meniscus in his knee ended his season.
"He's versatile. He's had experience in an offense similar to ours," Payton said. "With P.J.'s injury, we felt it necessary to bring him in here."
Wynn said he canceled a visit with a team in the fledgling United Football League when he got the call from the Saints.
"I'll have to get in the playbook, because you can't make no plays standing around trying to learn," Wynn said. "So that's the most important thing I'm worried about."
Payton agreed that there is some urgency for the new running backs to learn the playbook, but added that the timing could have been worse.
"It's harder when it happens in-season and a player arrives on Tuesday, study the playbook, practices Wednesday and he's playing in the game," Payton said.
"Whether it was Pierre, Reggie, Lynell or Mike Bell, all four of them played a pretty important role for what we did offensively," Payton said. "My experience has been, you've got to have depth at that position because the season's long and those guys get hit often."
Notes: Starting RT Jon Stinchcomb returned to practice for the first time since bruising his shoulder in practice last Wednesday. Reserve S Usama Young also returned from a hamstring pull that had sidelined him since Aug. 14. ... Rookie TE Jimmy Graham and second-year LB Stanley Arnoux remained out, both with right ankle sprains. ... All-Pro FS Darren Sharper and veteran LB Clint Ingram, who are both recovering from left knee surgeries, still have yet to practice since opening camp on the physically unable-to-perform list.
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press