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
|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%|
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.
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.
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?