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2014 Fantasy Outlooks: New Orleans Saints

Senior Fantasy Writer
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The Saints continued to pay dividends for Fantasy owners in 2013, though not entirely to the levels we would have liked.

New Orleans averaged 399.4 yards and 25.9 points per game, both in the Top 10 among all teams, but that was down from where they were in 2012. Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham played to expectations, but no one else on the Saints was a game changer for Fantasy owners. In a sense, albeit a small one, the team became less effective.

Maybe the Saints recognized that as well, particularly after making the playoffs but crumbling in brutal fashion at Seattle. So this spring the team sent veteran running back Darren Sproles to Philadelphia for a draft pick, getting younger at the position while also saving valuable cap space. They also drafted Brandin Cooks, a 5-foot-10 burner from Oregon State who has drawn comparisons to DeSean Jackson and figures to be used in a number of ways right away.

The team is also planning to keep a close eye on Marques Colston's practice time, letting him rest more often so he can play more effectively and not miss time with nagging injuries. While these changes are meant for the best, it's not expected to change the overall philosophy of the Saints. Coach Sean Payton already said this spring that they're not going to become more of a running team, meaning that they should still be as pass-happy as expected.

What wasn't expected was the quality play from the Saints defense last year. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who had worked under that same title with three other teams (four if you count the Rams), had some of the best success he ever experienced when he led the defense to rank fourth against the pass, 19th against the run and most importantly fourth in points allowed at 19.0 per game. His unit got much better this offseason with the addition of safety Jairus Byrd, cornerback Champ Bailey (who will likely play in a supporting role and not an every-down starter) and rookie corner Stanley Jean-Baptiste. With Kenny Vaccaro coming back from an ankle injury that cost the Saints big-time down the stretch and the pass rush getting a smidge deeper with Victor Butler finally healthy, the unit should continue playing well.

It all sets up for another playoff run for the Saints. If the defense can hold up, they just might have what it takes to get past the Seahawks if they get into a rematch come January.

Sleepers ... Khiry Robinson, Travaris Cadet

When the Saints needed a running back late last season and into the postseason to help in the run game, Robinson got the call. In his final three games -- one regular-season game and two playoff matchups -- Robinson totaled 152 yards on 33 carries (4.6 avg.) with a touchdown at Seattle. He got the opportunity because Pierre Thomas was out for the playoff run but could very easily take a lot off of Thomas' plate in the early going and potentially become the physical, tough back that Mark Ingram never really became.

Cadet was first mentioned by Sean Payton as a replacement for Darren Sproles back in March, and admittedly they have the same kind of skill set. The biggest problem both these guys have is that Thomas can do what they do, and the coaches might trust him out of the gate rather than these guys.

Think about drafting Thomas and Robinson with consecutive mid-round picks, or go with Robinson in the middle of your draft without Thomas. Cadet should be had with one of your last three picks ... assuming he doesn't pick up steam during training camp.

Bounce-back candidate ... Marques Colston

Colston dealt with a foot injury in the first chunk of the season but seemed to get over it by mid-November. Proof of that is in his numbers: In his final 10 games of the year -- including the postseason -- he caught 61 passes for 761 yards and five touchdowns. If you were to extrapolate those numbers over 16 games, he would have notched 97.6 catches for 1,271.6 yards and eight scores -- considerably strong numbers. Just as importantly, Colston showed he was still that same 70-yards-a-game guy that he had always been.

If Colston's healthy through training camp and into the preseason, it's probably worth taking him as a No. 2 Fantasy receiver. After all, if Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills and Brandin Cooks are dragging defenders all over the field (and they'll get their numbers, too), it only opens the door for Colston to exploit single coverage. Just make sure you know the 31-year-old's status just before your draft.

Rookie sensation ... Brandin Cooks

2013 Touches Leaders
837 total touches
Pierre Thomas 224 (147 car., 77 rec.) 26.7%
Darren Sproles 124 (71 rec., 53 car.) 14.8%
Jimmy Graham 86 rec. 10.3%
Mark Ingram 85 (78 car., 7 rec.) 10.2%
Marques Colston 75 rec. 8.9%
Khiry Robinson 54 car. 6.5%
All others 189 22.6%

The Saints have averaged 661.3 pass attempts over the last four years -- there are enough passes to go around, even to a rookie. We've seen Sean Payton work wonders with uniquely-skilled players, guys like Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles. Cooks is one of those guys -- not a behemoth but amazing sub-4.4 speed and dazzling quickness. And he's going to be in an offense that loves to pass and already has established weapons that defenses have to account for.

Cooks might be best used as an underneath target for Brees, someone who can cross the middle of the field and take a short pass a long distance. At Oregon State last season, he caught 120 passes for over 1,600 yards and 15 touchdowns. You'd be foolish to think he could pull off that much in his first season, but half of that? Legitimately possible given his skills and the offense he's in.

He's our favorite rookie receiver to draft this summer beginning with a pick around 80th overall in seasonal leagues. It goes without saying he's also worth a pick between fifth and 10th overall in rookie-only drafts.

Schedule analysis

Look for the Saints to get off to a very good start thanks to their early season schedule, even if they don't play at home until Week 3. In fact, they could potentially be 6-0 heading into their Sunday night game vs. the Packers in Week 8. After that, things get ugly: Four days after the Packers they play at Carolina and then host the Niners, then the Bengals, then the Ravens (arguably the toughest three-game homestand any team will have this year), then at Pittsburgh and home to face the Panthers again. That's brutal, particularly on the run game.

If you do get off to a hot start with Pierre Thomas or Khiry Robinson, bail out by Week 9. The Week 16 matchup home against the Falcons should be a biggie, helpful for Fantasy owners late in the year. They're going to make the playoffs again.

Training camp battles

Will Jimmy Graham be there?! This battle is between Graham and the front office. As of now, Graham has been franchised by the Saints as a tight end (he lost his battle to get tagged as a receiver and thus get paid an additional $5 million guaranteed). As Fantasy fans, we just want Graham in training camp on time. This is because we've seen a number of players hold out of camp, come back and do too much too soon and underperform. Fantasy owners who spend a first-round pick on Graham can ill afford such a scenario. The Saints open camp on July 24 -- if Graham is not there soon after the gates open up, we'll all have to take a step back on him.

How will the running backs shake out? The Saints have a do-it-all back in Pierre Thomas, but he'll turn 30 in December and is starting to slow down judging by his rushing average. They have a young power back in Khiry Robinson, who came through for them last winter but doesn't have experience. Mark Ingram is a power back who does have experience but not a lot of big games (11 touchdowns and eight games with 10-plus Fantasy points in 37 career outings). Travaris Cadet keeps getting mentioned as a replacement for Darren Sproles, which puts him in play as a possible Fantasy sleeper. It'll take the summer to get a good grip on what to expect from the Saints' backs -- Thomas has the pedigree but Robinson and Cadet have the upside.

Bold prediction

Kenny Stills is a pretty prominent sleeper in Fantasy circles, but it's hard to get behind him. The metrics on him from last season were great: He caught 62.7 pct. of his targets, averaged 20.0 yards per catch and had five plays of 40-plus yards. And while everyone expects him to get more than the 51 targets he had last year, there's still the reality that the Saints have plenty of other mouths to feed, such as Graham, Colston and Cooks, the rookie they traded up to get in the draft. The call here is that Stills will be better, but not to the point where Fantasy owners will feel good starting him, as he'll likely be inconsistent. Last year he had four games with 10-plus points and 11 games with four points or less. If the Saints felt great about him, why did they move up in the draft for Cooks?

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Player News
Healthy Gerhart could put squeeze on Jaguars RB Robinson
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(10:30 am ET) Jaguars running back Toby Gerhart appears on the verge of returning to game action after missing the last two weeks with a foot sprain. He practiced on a limited basis Wednesday.

"He said he felt pretty good," Gus Bradley told the Florida Times-Union. "I think the last two weeks have been tough on him, but today he felt a lot better and felt like it was beneficial to have that time off."

Now it must be determined if he's still the featured back. He managed a 2.6 YPC average in 48 attempts before going down. Meanwhile, Denard Robinson emerged in Week 7 to rush for 127 yards on just 22 carries in the team's first victory of the season, a lopsided defeat of Cleveland.

"I think we'll continue to mix and match a little bit," said offensive coordinator Jeff Fisch. "I don't exactly how that will all play out yet."

The Jaguars host Miami on Sunday.


Seahawks coordinator 'disappointed' about Harvin's tenure with team
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(10:29 am ET) Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell expressed his disappointment wide receiver Percy Harvin wasn't able to have more personal success with the team prior to being traded to the Jets last week. Bevell, who was the Vikings offensive coordinator during Harvin's first two years in the NFL (2009-10), was hoping his history with Harvin would be a major factor during his tenure with Seattle.

"I was disappointed, you know. I was disappointed. I did have a history with him, and I thought it would be a different outcome. But I guess that’s just the way it went," Bevell said, per The News Tribune. "I think we have a phenomenal atmosphere here. It’s led by coach (Pete) Carroll. I think he gives the guys great freedom to be who they want to be. I think he sets the tone for the whole program. It’s an upbeat program. Obviously we are very positive here. It’s just disappointing."

Harvin recently expressed his disappointment with how he was used on offense in Seattle. Bevell said he called bubble screens and hitch routes for Harvin to keep teams from double-teaming him downfield.

"I had many conversations with him about it, just about his role and the things that we would ask him to do. He never articulated that to me," Bevell said. "I mean, he caught a deep ball in the Washington game (40 yards for what would have been a touchdown but for a personal foul on guard James Carpenter that negated the catch); unfortunately it got called back. But the thing was we wanted to make sure he was going to be involved in the game and get the touches. You know, you can just double team somebody and just take him out of the game (with deeper balls). He never did. But we’ve moved on past that. It’s left in the past."


Report: Lions blew protocol Sunday in case of LaAdrian Waddle
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(10:19 am ET) The Lions allowed right tackle LaAdrian Waddle to return to the game Sunday against New Orleans after slamming his head to the turf on the extra point that secured the victory, the Detroit Free Press has reported.

Jim Caldwell admitted that Thursday despite claiming that he and general manager Martin Mayhew followed NFL concussion protocol "to the letter."

Waddle stayed in the game for the kneel-down play that ran the final seconds off the clock. "We knew exactly when it occurred and what happened within the context of it," Caldwell said. "It was the last play of the game for him. It was actually on a field goal, the PAT at the end. It's the last play of the game for him."

Protocol requires that a player must be removed if a brain injury is suspected. Yet Waddle was indeed in the game thereafter. Why was he allowed to return to the field?

"Well, in terms of they knew exactly what happened to him in terms of he banged his head on the ground after where he gets up," Caldwell said. "It wasn't to the point where they thought he was concussed at the time. The final snap of the game, we knew it was only one snap, then the doctors reviewed him, took a look at him, it wasn't one of those situations where he felt he had to go in the locker room right away. But they did know he banged it when he came off, and that he was good."

Waddle did not participate in Wednesday practice.


Reggie Bush, three TEs sit out practice Thursday for Lions
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(10:18 am ET) Lions running back Reggie Bush (ankle), tight end Eric Ebron (hamstring), tight end Joseph Fauria (ankle) and tight end Brandon Pettigrew (foot) all sat out practice Thursday. Bush was the only player of the four to practice Wednesday.

The Lions are preparing to play the Falcons in Week 8.


Mayhew: Lions plan to activate T.J. Jones off PUP list soon
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(10:14 am ET) Lions general manager Martin Mayhew said Thursday the team plans to activate wide receiver T.J. Jones off the PUP list in the coming weeks, per the team's official website. Jones has been sidelined all season due to a shoulder injury.

Mayhew: Lions have no intentions of dealing Ndamukong Suh
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(10:10 am ET) Lions general manager Martin Mayhew said he has no intentions of trading defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh, who could be a free agent after the season. Mayhew added he doesn't expect the team to be active at the trade deadline, according to the team's official website. 

Lions WR Calvin Johnson could be game-time decision Week 8
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(9:59 am ET) Lions coach Jim Caldwell said wide receiver Calvin Johnson felt good Thursday after practicing in a limited capacity Wednesday, according to the team's official website. Caldwell said Johnson would do more at practice Thursday and he did just that.

At Thursday's portion of practice open to the media, Johnson was seen cutting and running routes. Johnson was running routes with his helmet on Thursday.

The veteran wide receiver is trying to make his way back into the lineup Week 8 at Atlanta after missing the last two games due to an ankle injury. Johnson said he could be a game-time decision Sunday, per ESPN.

"You want to push it. I want to push it, but we're trying to be smart about it," Johnson said. "Trying to take advice from the training staff that they are giving me and go with that."

Johnson has totaled just three catches for 19 yards in his last two games and hasn't scored in his last four games.


Report: Darrelle Revis apologizes to Belichick for tardiness
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(9:50 am ET) Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis returned to the team's facility Tuesday hours after being sent home for tardiness so he could meet with head coach Bill Belichick to apologize, according to CSNNE.com.

A source close to Revis said the veteran cornerback is "very contrite" about having overslept Tuesday morning and showing up late to the team's facility, as first reported by The Boston Globe on Wednesday.

"He understands the policy and understands he broke the policy," the source said.


Seahawks RB Robert Turbin to fill fullback role
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(12:33 am ET) Seahawks running back Robert Turbin will continue to serve as the team's fullback after starting fullback Derrick Coleman broke a bone just before kickoff in Week 7, Pro Football Talk reports.

"I just want to win," Turbin said about his new role. "I want to help the team as much as I can. I’m a team guy. If they need me to take on the role for the next few weeks or whatever the case may be, than sure."

Seattle reportedly brought in free-agent fullback Greg Jones for a workout Tuesday but decided to roll with Turbin in the role. However, the team could choose to run fewer two-back formations while Coleman is out.


Report: Dolphins DE Dion Jordan expected to play vs. Jaguars
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(12:11 am ET) Dolphins defensive end Dion Jordan is expected to play in Sunday's game against the Jaguars, the Palm Beach Post reports.

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