Yesterday I wrote about how tight end Jimmy Graham's potential to bounce back from a "down year" in 2012 might be the greatest reason for optimism surrounding the New Orleans Saints this season. I'd put tailback Darren Sproles in the same boat.

Sproles also fell back down to earth last year after an other-worldly 2011 performance - in part because of increased attention from opposing defenses, in part because the Saints struggled to give enough touches to all of their talented tailbacks and in part because of a hand injury that sidelined Sproles for three games.

Getting Sproles more involved this year will certainly rank as one of Coach Sean Payton's top priorities as he tries to revive his dominant offense this season.

All three of the Saints' top tailbacks - Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram - should have more productive seasons now that fellow tailback Chris Ivory has been traded to the New York Jets and the team is so focused on improving the run game.

"We knew last year, that wasn't the kind of year that we wanted. So we'll try to get better this year," Sproles said of both himself and the entire Saints offense. "And it helps that (Payton) is here."

It's way too early to evaluate how Sproles is looking in practice since the Saints aren't wearing full pads or going through full-contact drills. But he looks as fast and fluid as ever. And he did look awfully comfortable cruising around the corner on a couple of swing passes and sweeps in team drills during Wednesday's minicamp practice.

"With Darren, he's got a unique skill set," Payton said. "He's real sudden. I still see him as a valuable runner as well as a receiver."

Sproles only ran the ball 48 times last year for 244 yards in 13 games played (a 5.1-yard average). In 2011, he ran the ball 87 times for 603 yards (a whopping 6.9-yard average).

Sproles' catches were also down slightly from 2011 (86 for 710 yards) to 2012 (75 for 667 yards). He went from nine offensive touchdowns in 2011 to eight last year.