Before I wrote this piece, I was thinking about how much times have changed.
As a kid of the mid-late 80s and early 90s, my dad and I were big collectors of baseball cards and moderate collectors of football cards. Back in those days, I remember that Topps released their "1,000 Yard Club" cards to recognize the special achievement of those players. I'm not sure if Topps still does that, but it had me wondering about how significant of a change the NFL has made with the progression of the passing game.
|YEAR||1000 YD REC||1200+ YD REC||100+ CATCHES||4000+ YD QBs|
To explain the chart above, I tallied how many wide receivers in the NFL had 1,000 yard seasons, 1,200+ yard seasons, 100+ receptions, and how many quarterbacks threw for over 4,000 yards. If this doesn't obviously show how much the NFL has become a passing league, then I don't know what will.
Of the 20 wide receivers that had 1,000 yards or more receiving in 2012, only five were drafted lower than the 4th round or were not drafted at all. Two of those five were Saints players (Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Victor Cruz, Wes Welker, and Steve Johnson). Drew and his crew must be doing something right.
The Saints passing game has been one to welcome new faces to the party. A "raw" tight end out of Miami named Jimmy Graham has suddenly become possibly the best tight end in football. Undrafted free agent Joseph Morgan has shown potential as the new deep threat, averaging nearly 40 yards per reception in his first full season. The party must continue, so let's see if the Saints can continue the fireworks in the passing game with what may be the most raw wide receiver group of the Sean Payton/Drew Brees era.
THE WIDE RECEIVERS:
Arguably the best wide receiver in Saints history, the former 7th round pick out of Hofstra has been the model of consistency for Drew Brees. As underrated as they come, Colston has enjoyed 70+ receptions, 1,000+ receiving yards, and 7+ TDs in every season in which he has played at least 14 games. This could be a big franchise record breaking season for Colston, needing only one reception to be the all time Saints reception leader and 461 receiving yards to be the all time receiving yards leader. He's already the all time receiving TD leader and has played 41 less games than Eric Martin in the black and gold. If there is one thing that worried me about Colston in 2012, it would be his fumble total. In his first six seasons, Colston fumbled the ball 5 times. In 2012, Colston fumbled 4 times, losing 2 of those fumbles. Hopefully, Colston fixes that problem and continues to be the sure handed play maker that we have enjoyed for the past 7 seasons.
What to watch: Since Jimmy Graham came to town, Colston has been a consistent 80+ catch, 1000+ yard, 7+ TD receiver, which is even slightly better than his average. Colston is at the peak of his career and should have another tremendous season if the rest of the talent prevents him from being a target of double coverage. Colston is a mismatch in single coverage and should continue to wreak havoc with Graham on the field.
The eighth year wide receiver out of Toledo is about as sure handed as any player to ever wear a Saints uniform. In his career, he has caught about two thirds of the passes that have come his way. What's more impressive is that he has just one fumble in his seven year NFL career. The 5'9" Moore plays bigger than his size and is more than ready to play the role as the undisputed #2 wide receiver in this offense. Coming off of his first 1,000 yard season without Coach Payton on the sideline, the sky's the limit for another receiver that is in the prime of his career.
What to watch: Traditionally, Lance Moore has lined up in the slot and has caused plenty of havoc (similar to a Wes Welker) from that position. It will be interesting to see if the Saints' coaching staff finds new ways to get the ball into the hands of the sure handed Moore. Lance has tremendous football instincts, so I wonder if we may see new things from the play maker in 2013. Expect another 1,000 yard season and possibly a 70-80 reception total.
Of all the players in this preview, I feel that Morgan is the one that has to show the most improvement in 2013. Sure, 37.9 yards per reception is a fun stat and all, but if all he can be is a deep threat, then the Saints better be prepared to have another possible #3 wide receiver. Morgan caught 10 of 21 passes thrown his way (47.6%). When the QB on the roster usually completes 65-70% of his passes, that is not a number I want to see my 3rd WR have. Morgan seems raw, maybe a little like Devery in his early years. But make no mistake about it, if Morgan learns to run solid short and intermediate routes, he could be a very bright spot for this franchise's future.
What to watch: I expect Morgan to get first dibs at the #3 WR position. With the return of Payton, Morgan can benefit from new creative ways to be used and could possibly have a 35-45 catch season with 6-8 TDs. Let's hope we see growth from the speedy talent.
After the 2012 draft, I was hoping that Nick Toon would be Colston 2.0, but he never took a regular season snap with the Saints. While I am not ready to lock him in as a 3rd or even 4th WR on the depth charts, Toon certainly has the talent to be a huge part of this offense right away. At Wisconsin, Toon was a sure handed guy with some big play ability. He has great size and could break through with a healthy preseason this time around.
What to watch: The ideal scenario would be for the Saints to use Morgan as a 3rd WR in certain situations and to use Toon in others. For example, in long distance passing situations, Morgan may be the answer. But in running/short distance situations, the Saints are hoping that Toon's size and physical play shows up this preseason.
The man may wear a dress, but he was a play maker at Oklahoma. He has the ability to stretch the field and physically come down with the football. If healthy, Stills could compete for even a #3 spot further down the road.
What to watch: While some Saints fans are ready to crown Morgan and Toon as the 3rd and 4th receivers on the depth chart, don't count out what Kenny Stills could bring to the table in a Drew Brees passing offense. An impressive camp could go a long way, as Toon is also basically starting from scratch and Morgan has been a bit of a one trick pony. The battle between Morgan, Toon, and Stills could be very interesting.
The long time special teams ace seems to always be on the bubble in preseason, but finds a way to make the roster. With the addition of long time special teamers Jim Leonhard and Chris Carr, could this be the season where the 30 year old Roby is sent packing?
What to watch: The position depth at WR could make things difficult for Roby to crack this roster once again in 2013. While his value as a WR is slim, Roby has been a big part of this special teams unit. Once again, Roby will have to prove to be one of the best special teamers on the roster to have any shot of wearing the fleur-de-lis in 2013.
Andy Tanner: Since December of 2010, Andy Tanner has been signed and resigned to the practice squad an unbelievable 14 times. While this shows that not too many other teams are interested in Tanner, the Saints continue to see a usable upside there that they have yet to exploit. After Tanner's solid 8 catch, 120 yard preseason in 2012, the Saints are hoping to see Tanner build off of that and possibly shock the Who Dat Nation with this hard working youngster making the roster.
Saalim Hakim: As the younger brother of Az-Zahir Hakim, Saalim is trying to break through and have even something similar to his brother's nine year career. Saalim has unbelievable speed, but speed doesn't catch footballs. There's been a lot of buzz at Saints camp about this kid, which may further put Courtney Roby's roster spot in jeopardy.
THE TIGHT ENDS:
Okay, let's be serious here. When 85 catches, 982 yards, and 9 TDs is considered a DOWN YEAR FOR A TIGHT END, this will quickly help you understand what the expectations are for the 26 year old Graham. I watched this guy in a video beat former college teammate (and track star) DJ Williams in a 40 yard dash (watch here). This man is one of a kind, and when 100%, is one of the 5 most unstoppable players in all of football.
What to watch: It may or may not happen this season, but the time will come when this man will have 100+ catches, 1300+ yards, and 13+ TDs. When he's right, he is simply unstoppable.
Watson may be approaching the downside of his career, but the tenth year tight end seems to still have plenty left in the tank. While he may have been more known for his seasons as a New England Patriot, Watson has been more active in the Browns offense the past three seasons than he was with Brady and company. Watson should fit in perfectly as Drew Bree's 2nd tight end.
What to watch: Ben Watson has a pretty solid reputation of being a quality teammate and could prove to be a leader for the Saints offense. I would definitely consider Watson to be an upgrade over David Thomas, but we will see if the soon to be 33 year old will continue to be a decent playmaker and blocker on offense.
Mike Higgins: While it seems like Higgins has the advantage of retaining the 3rd tight end position, don't be surprised if he is pushed for the job. In limited opportunities, Higgins has been on the field in major game situations, but most of his time was due to a lack of other options. Higgins' competition isn't intimidating, so he should be safe.
Josh Hill: The undersized Hill is a solid pass catcher, but is undersized for an NFL tight end position. Unless he puts on size and shows surprising improvement as a blocker, Hill should be a cut.
Keavon Milton: The huge tight end may be the exact opposite of Hill. He is a capable blocker, but is definitely not an NFL ready pass catching tight end. Like Hill, I expect Milton to be cut.
For the first time, Drew's crew will be without Devery Henderson, who had a difficult 2012. The big question in camp is who will take over his role, and who then will be the 4th wide receiver on the depth chart? While the obvious and easy choice is to put Morgan in Henderson's spot, Nick Toon and Kenny Stills will be gunning for an opportunity to see playing time in three wide receiver sets. We should also see plenty of two tight end packages, which may affect the importance of the 4th receiver battle. Regardless, the battle at wide receiver in camp should almost be as interesting as the linebacker competition. If one thing is certain, Drew's crew will be ready to shoot for another top ranked offensive season in 2013.