In an offseason where there wasn't much going on, the Saints sure found ways to retool their roster.
Before the NFL's labor dispute began, the Saints trimmed some fat by releasing tight end Jeremy Shockey and bulked up by signing defensive tackle Shaun Rogers. They also extended the contract of Pierre Thomas while not doing any readjustment for fellow rusher Reggie Bush, only to trade him in July and replace him with Darren Sproles. And then during Day 1 of the NFL Draft, Sean Payton & Co. improved their pass rush with the drafting of defensive end Cameron Jordan while splurging with another first-round pick via trade in power rusher Mark Ingram.
And now a team that was dangerous to begin with looks even scarier to opponents. Though the Saints aren't entirely free of problems -- Marques Colston, Robert Meachem and Pierre Thomas are coming off of surgery this offseason -- they are loaded to make another run at the Lombardi Trophy.
Much of that success will fall on the shoulders of Drew Brees. A key figure in the NFL labor dispute, Brees overcame playing on an injured knee for part of last season to finish as a Top 6 Fantasy quarterback. Because the knee injury is behind him, many Fantasy owners believe Brees will improve on his 2010 stats and be a Top 3 Fantasy passer. With burgeoning talents like Jimmy Graham and Lance Moore combined with the receivers he's got, there's no reason to believe he won't -- unless Ingram dominates on the ground and takes the ball out of his hands, of course.
Bust ... Pierre Thomas, RB
Ever since he came into the league, Thomas has been a favorite of mine. He's been a rare versatile rusher capable of doing anything asked of him -- except stay healthy. The poor guy messed up his ankle twice last season, and while the Saints showed him some gratitude with a contract extension, they also shored up their backfield by trading a future first-round pick and more for Mark Ingram and signing Darren Sproles to help replace Reggie Bush. Obviously, the addition of Ingram doesn't suggest that they'll put their eggs in Thomas' basket. Instead, figure that the Saints will take advantage of Thomas' versatility and use him as a rusher and a receiver in a part-time role. Draft accordingly, or better yet, don't draft him at all unless you pick up Ingram.
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Impact rookie ... Mark Ingram, RB
Duh! If the Saints ponied up a handful of picks to get this guy, you better believe he'll see a lot of playing time. At one point last year New Orleans' run game was down to Julius Jones and Ladell Betts, and between them rushing touchdowns were a challenge. Enter Ingram, who averaged 5.7 yards per rush in college and a touchdown every 13.6 carries, to shoulder the rushing workload. Not only can Ingram run powerfully between the tackles, but he caught 53 passes in his last two seasons at 'Bama and could serve as a short-area outlet for Brees. And speaking of Brees, so long as he's back there, defenses will never load the box to try and slow down the run -- that's an open invitation to get ripped by Brees. Ingram is expected to get close to 1,000 total yards and six touchdowns, but he might blow the doors off of that even with Sproles in the fold.
Breakout ... Jimmy Graham, TE
We're not going to recite the hype that others have spewed about Graham. We won't remind you of his four touchdowns over his final three games, or that if you extrapolated his stats from his final eight games that he would have had 52 catches for 614 yards and 10 touchdowns over a full season. No, we won't bowl you over with numbers. Instead, we'll point to his playing time in his final eight games, and how Drew Brees couldn't help but look his way in the red zone (nine targets, seven red-zone catches, five touchdowns). We promise that the Saints already have a play in their arsenal where Brees fakes the handoff to Ingram and throws a tall dart to Graham for six. And that you'll see it many times. His yardage numbers probably won't be on par with the likes of Antonio Gates or Jason Witten, but he should still be a solid factor in the New Orleans offense, especially with a year of work already under his belt.
They'll start with a tall order: at Green Bay to kick off the season and then a home date against the Bears. But after that the Saints should roll. Expect a lot of high-scoring games as they'll take on some potent offenses this season, but there isn't a defense that should shake Brees' boots. Ingram could put up some impressive totals in Weeks 3 through 9 -- definitely watch out for that. Not even a three-game road trip during that early chunk of the year is enough to dissuade owners from Saints on Draft Day.
Training camp topics
Back in 2006, the Saints had Reggie Bush fall into their lap on Draft Day and ever since was a key figure on the field and off. But with a huge contract number on him for 2011, the team dealt him to Miami for a draft pick. In the process, they replaced him with Darren Sproles, who should pick up Bush's special-teams reps immediately and work his way into a role on offense too. Here's the kicker: Will Sproles impact the run game as much as Bush did, or might he take on a lesser role and open the door for Ingram, Thomas and receiver Lance Moore to pick up the touches left behind by Bush?
The health of receivers Marques Colston and Robert Meachem are obvious concerns heading into camp as well. Colston had another microfracture procedure on his knee and got work done on his wrist while Meachem took care of a left ankle issue that had reportedly bothered him since he was a kid. Both should be OK for training camp. Colston has become a staple in Fantasy Football and is a pretty consistent choice as a low-end No. 1/top-end No. 2 receiver. Meachem has been the opposite: Inconsistent as can be but with off-the-charts potential. If Meachem feels as good as he says he does and can earn regular playing time, he could surprise us (or not surprise you if you read this and then draft him late).
If you miss on an elite DST on Draft Day, the Saints are worth a look with one of your last two picks. They boast one of the best secondaries in football and added run stuffer Shaun Rogers to a pretty good front seven, even with the loss of Remi Ayodele. Their linebacking corps needs sorting around Jonathan Vilma and their pass rush needs improvement, but defensive coordinator Gregg Williams could fix those issues in short order and make this defense ferocious. The schedule is challenging for the defense but they could be a nice bargain.
Marques Colston (knee, wrist; probable for the start of training camp) ... Robert Meachem (ankle; probable for the start of training camp) ... Pierre Thomas (ankle; questionable for the start of training camp) ... Chris Ivory (foot; questionable for the start of training camp).
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