Over the next month or so, we're going to look over the Saints' roster by breaking it up into squads: the receivers, the running backs, the linebackers, the cornerbacks, etc. First up is the wide receiver corps—maybe the most talented in the league, certainly the most underappreciated.
In the last three years, Drew Brees has smashed one Saints record after another—even ones he already held. Most yards in a single season, most completions, most attempts, most touchdowns. We think of him as Robo-QB, the Machine That Can't Be Stopped.
It's easy to forget that at the other end of every reception is a receiver who did his job. For all Brees' talent and ability, if the receivers weren't up to snuff the Saints wouldn't even sniff .500. The truth is, over the past three years they've been the best in the NFL, but don't hold your breath waiting for them to get the credit they deserve. (After all, "Brees can make anyone look good...")
2009 should be another good year for the receiving corps: it is talented, stable, and has several years of Payton's system under its collective belt. Yet each single receiver has at least one lingering question hanging over him at the start of this season. Let's take them one by one.
1. MARQUES COLSTON
After coming from out of nowhere in 2006 and shocking the NFL, Colston has done almost everything he could have done to become an All-Pro. Instead, what you hear about him from all quarters is that he's "not a true number one receiver." If 215 receptions, 3,000 yards, and 24 TDs in 41 games isn't good enough for a number one receiver, then I'm an amoeba.
From the beginning, Colston has wowed Saints fans. He's like a bigger, faster, taller, more athletic version of Danny Abramowicz, and his signature characteristic was the same as Danny's: if a ball entered his zip code, it was as good as caught.
Until last year.
After hurting his thumb in the opening game against Tampa, Colston missed five weeks. When he came back, he wasn't the same guy. Suddenly balls were clanking off his hands. He had three drops in one afternoon against Atlanta, a dropped TD against Carolina, and in general looked as though something was still bothering him. According to stats from the Washington Post, Colston had 8 drops in 11 games last year, with only 47 receptions. Not Braylon Edwards stats by any means, but still cause for concern. What if the thumb continues to plague him?
There seems to be no reason to think it will. First, he seemed to become the Colston of old, stats-wise, in the last three games of the season, catching 22 passes for 306 yards and four touchdowns. Second, he had the same thumb injury in college—to his right thumb—and he came back from that just fine. Finally, he had a very good mini-camp, as reported by Mike Triplett:
Colston looked to be in vintage form on several plays, by the way, catching everything thrown his way as if his hands were made of Velcro. His most impressive grab came on a low line drive from Brees in traffic. Colston reached down and snagged it one-handed with his left hand.
Plus, Colston is highly motivated to put 2008 behind him and prove to the world that it was last season, not his first two, that was the fluke. "It was definitely a trying season. I'm just glad it's done and over with and I have a clean slate this year to come out and play the way I know I'm capable of playing."
Will the old Colston be back this year? Yes. Colston will be fine. "Quiet Storm" will make landfall on schedule and blow through the NFL on his way to the Pro Bowl.
After Colston's injury last season, Moore took over as Drew's most dependable target, surprising everyone—except New Orleans fans, who already knew he had hands of glue. His season wasn't quite a repetition of Colston's spectacular 2006—Moore wasn't scintillating, just uber- dependable. Whenever Drew needed someone to make a play, Lance was there.
Fantasy football fans question whether Moore can duplicate his 2008 season; but in the real world, it won't matter. If Colston is all the way back, he'll probably double his reception totals, and most of those extra catches will come at Moore's expense. That's not a bad thing for the Saints. Besides, the NFL understands now that it can't underestimate Moore; and if teams try to key on Colston, Moore will be there to make them pay.
The only problem is that Moore, too, is coming back from an injury, and a far more serious one.
Moore tore his labrum and dislocated his shoulder during the offseason while lifting weights. The labrum is a ring of cartilage attached to the scapula that helps to hold the head of the humerus in place. If it is damaged, the humerus has a greater tendency to slip— causing a dislocated shoulder, which is exactly what happened to Moore. This is a serious matter for wide receivers, and not simply because they must be able to absorb hits: a torn labrum restricts the shoulder's range of motion, making it impossible to raise the arms to their highest. For a 5'9" receiver, this is especially critical.
The good news is: first, that the surgery was done by Dr. James Andrews, the same orthopedic surgeon who performed labrum surgery on Drew Brees. Second, that Brees happens to play on the same team as Moore (bet you didn't know that), and is the perfect inspirational example. Coach Payton—if you can take him at his word—reportedly isn't worried:
"The key is just to make sure that he’s healthy enough so that he doesn’t re-injure the shoulder," Head Coach Sean Payton said. "He is someone who’s very intelligent, very smart. You don’t like it when players are missing reps, but in his case he has a good grasp as to what we’re doing. I think he’s going to be close to ready when we start." [WWL-TV]
There's no reason to think Moore won't be back; but on the other hand, there's no reason to think he will, because there's been no word on how his rehab is going (which is soooo atypical of the Saints). No news may be good news...or it may be bad news. We just don't know. Given the history of similar injuries in the NFL it would seem that Lance has ample reason to hope—Rod Smith, Ashley Lelie, Chad Johnson, and Plaxico Burress, to name a few, have all had separated shoulders at one time or another, and come back from them.
Can Lance Moore repeat the success of last season? Depends on your terms. Will he catch as many balls and make as many touchdowns? Probably not, but only because Marques Colston figures to be healthy again. Barring lingering effects of the shoulder injury, though, he should still be the favorite for the second receiver slot.
Everybody and his neighbor's mother's hairdresser knows the problem with Devery Henderson: he couldn't catch water if he fell out of a boat. Sure, he has an outrageous YPC, but it would be considerably lower if you factored in his drops.
Except that last season, Devery suddenly changed: with only two drops the entire year, he was making like Colston, catching everything thrown to him, and still he led all wide receivers with a 24.8 YPC, the highest of his career. So the question dogging Henderson is essentially the same as Moore's: can he do it again?
Mike Detillier thinks so. "From what I have seen this weekend," he wrote following the first mini-camp session in June, "Henderson will put up even more impressive numbers this season, if he can stay healthy. Nakia Hogan of the Times-Picayune concurred:
Henderson caught the ball smoothly and routinely beat defensive backs down the field during both workouts.
Payton said he's been impressed with the way Henderson has been performing in practices. Henderson has been taking more repetitions at the "X" receiver, the position played by Marques Colston, who has been limited after having offseason knee surgery.
"He's taking some reps at 'X' right now, which is really the other side of the formation with Marques not going full speed yet," Payton said. "It's helpful when you can move him a little bit. Certainly he knows the 'Z' position, but outside of the specific position, he's catching it cleanly and playing with confidence and he's done a good job." [Nola.com]
Imagine what it could mean if Henderson develops into a receiving option as reliable as Colston or Moore, but faster than either. Devery's career average is 21.6 yards per catch; if he merely doubles his receptions (to 64), that means nearly 1,400 yards receiving. That could make him the leading receiver in Saints history. Hey, just saying.
Can Devery Henderson continue to develop as a reliable wideout? Yes. It appears Devery has taken all the criticism to heart and is determined to make all the naysayers eat crow. A Super Bowl could make Crow Sauce Piquant the most popular dish in the French Quarter.
Robert Meachem is the biggest enigma on the Saints. During the 2008 season he was second to Devery Henderson among wide receivers with a 24.1 YPC and scored three touchdowns...on only 12 receptions! With those numbers, why wasn't Meachem playing more?
Nobody outside the Saints knows for sure, and nobody inside the Saints is talking. Again like Henderson, Meachem had an impressive mini-camp:
"Meachem continues to get better, not only physically,'' Brees said. "He's a big strong guy who will get the ball for you. I see the confidence level starting to come out. He's giving me that look for me to believe in him, trust him and that he can make plays and I'm liking that.'' [Pat Yasinskas, ESPN]
There's really little to go on in evaluating Meachem. We saw him play well last season, when he saw the field. Plus he looks good in practice. That's all we know.
Will this be Robert Meachem's break-out year? I dunno. You? My guess is "No"—but for reasons similar to the case of Lance Moore: there's just too much competition from other receivers on a very deep receiver corps. Meachem must beat out not only Henderson, but also...
If Robert Meachem is the biggest enigma on the team, it's only because we ought to know more about him. Arrington, on the other hand, is a near-total blank. In his rookie training camp, he looked to be the 2008 version of Pierre Thomas and Marques Colston: players who came out of nowhere to make significant contributions, or even start. Then, after two catches in the first preseason game at Arizona, he injured his foot. Arrington never was active the rest of the season, going on injured reserve before the season started.
All we have to go on are college videos, our memories of training camp, two game receptions...and the opinion of Sean Payton:
"Adrian Arrington would be a name, just be mindful of this player," Payton said. "I like this guy a lot. He's smart, and he's big. The first three weeks or so of training camp he was doing a great job before he got injured." [Nola.com]
It has been rumored that Payton knows a lot about the passing game.
Will Adrian Arrington make a significant contribution to the team this year? Yes, is what my gut tells me (and my gut is considerably bigger this year than ever before). Last year, the Saints made use of five receivers: Colston, Moore, Henderson, Meachem...and David Patten, whose time was limited by a groin injury. Patten only caught 11 passes in five games, but that averages to 35 receptions over a full season—about as significant a contribution as Devery Henderson's. My guess is that Meachem and Arrington will be competing for most of the year to be the number 4 guy...and that even the number 5 guy has a chance to make a real contribution.
COURTNEY ROBY, SKYLER GREEN, ROD HARPER, MATT SIMON, PARIS WARREN, D'JUAN WOODS
Will any of these make the roster? Yes, but not as receivers. Roby and Green have the inside shot at a roster spot, but because of their return skills. None of these guys—probably—will make the roster purely as a wide receiver; they'll have to demonstrate special teams talent as well. My own feeling is that Roby is the man. Call me conservative.