The wide receiving corps of the New Orleans Saints is, to be frank, enigmatic. This is for a multitude of reasons:
1.) It isn't easy to judge a group that has the benefit of Drew Brees throwing to them.
2.) They've been in a state of flux throughout this entire offseason, thus making them harder to evaluate.
3.) And perhaps most importantly: It's very difficult to tell who will be on the 53 man roster, let alone who will see playing time. For this reason, this group will be arguably the most important to revisit come the end of the preseason, when official rosters are announced.
For the purposes of this evaluation, I'm including Tight Ends as part of our wide receiving corps. Jimmy Graham, if you're reading this, you'll need to call me in order to obtain the rights to use this piece as evidence for your grievance. I know it's very compelling evidence, but I refuse to let it be held against me or this team.
The Saints offense is notoriously run through various packages and sub packages designed to keep defenses off balance. There isn't a standout #1 receiver in the Saints offense, they're more of a HYDRA type squad. Kill one head and two more reappear. Currently the Saints receiving depth chart is as follows (in no particular order):
- Marques Colston
- Kenny Stills
- Brandin Cooks
- Robert Meachem
- Joseph Morgan
- Brandon Coleman
- Nick Toon
- Charles Hawkins
- Seantavius Jones
- Chris Givens
- Andy Tanner
- Jimmy Graham (TE)
- Benjamin Watson (TE)
- Josh Hill (TE)
- And Je'Ron Hamm (TE)
Now then, going into the preseason, the first 6-7 receivers and 2-3 tight ends are likely favorites to make the roster (ok I lied above, maybe there was kind of an order), as much as I'd like to have guys named Seantavius and Je'Ron on the team. They may be good practice squad guys, but they're very raw young players with upside, probably not NFL ready just yet.
To get down to brass tacks, the wide receiving corps isn't spectacular. Cooks brings flash to a unit that was very boring up until Stills joined, but even Stills was rarely utilized last season. The Saints Gulf Coast Offense runs a lot of vertical routes designed to exploit the zone packages that are common in the modern NFL. Brees uses seam routes as well as any QB in the NFL, and for this reason the big play threat is still present in the Saints offense.
The problem is that there are a lot of unproven question marks taking the field next season. Cooks's risk for injury is, in my opinion, overblown. If a guy wasn't hurt in college, he wasn't hurt in college, so speculating on his odds of first time injury in the NFL is silly. What isn't silly, however, is being concerned about a smaller guy taking an NFL field for the first time against NFL talent. Cooks is 5'10", so he'll likely be spending a great deal of time in the slot. In college, he could always get away on pure athleticism, but if that isn't the case in the NFL then he could be massive waste of a draft pick. Do I think that this will be the case in the NFL? No, of course not, 4.33 speed doesn't just happen, but his route running will have to be as precise as it was in college and then some for his college numbers to translate to the next level. Also, he'll be invaluable to a screen offense that was very bland last year. Cooks has big play ability on underneath routes, and the Saints really struggled with YAC last season from guys not named Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles.
Then there's Marques Colston and Brandon Coleman. I'm putting them together because one is aging, and one is fresh. Their measurables are almost exactly the same. Their last names even kind of sound alike. They're listed at 6'4" & 6'5" and 225 & 220 lbs, respectively. For Coleman to make the roster, he'll have to follow the Colston route: be smarter not better. Colston's athleticism was never completely astounding, but he's the ultimate right place right time player. He can be a matchup nightmare as well. Payton always knew where to plug Colston to exploit a mismatch, and Coleman will have to be the exact same way. Colston is getting older, and his career may be reaching its twilight, but Coleman can have a bright future in the Saints offense if he's patient with it. Whether or not he makes the pro squad (I believe that he will), he can be a valuable asset for the New Orleans offense now or in the future, particularly under Colston's tutelage.
Nick Toon is a standalone guy, and all I'll say on him is this: He has talent. I like him a lot, and he has one of the top 5 best first & last name combinations in the NFL. But he had better pull it together in the upcoming preseason, because if the Jets game was any indication he's not yet NFL ready. Toon is fast for his size, and if he softens his hands he can be a real threat in the Saints offense. Hopefully this offseason really improves his game, because I'd love to see him catching balls in black & gold consistently over the next few years, but he's definitely a bubble guy coming into the 2014 preseason.
Kenny Stills, Robert Meachem and Joe Morgan are the "burners." Their role in this offense is to run fast, run straight, and pull those safeties away from the middle of the field. In 2013, Kenny Stills's numbers were as follows: 32 catches for 641 yards (20 YPC) and 5 touchdowns. Meachem caught 16 balls for 341 yards (20.3 YPC) and 2 touchdowns. In 2012, Morgan's only year with stats, he caught 10 catches for 379 yards (37.9 YPC) and 3 touchdowns. But stats are boring. Their time on the field was almost always running seams and 25 yard post routes, absolutely designed to keep defenses on their heels.
The common denominator here is averages inflated by a small number of catches. These guys effectively stretch the field. All three of the above players played in at least 14 games to attain those numbers. People can argue all that they want that Stills will be delegated a larger role next year, I'm not buying it. Payton seemed very comfortable with his role last season. With that being said, one of these players will need to step up and split out as a number 2 receiver. Obviously the Saints will move everyone all over the field, but on paper Cooks doesn't match up well against the rangy corners that are becoming more popular in today's NFL on the outside. Furthermore, there's the question of Morgan's ability to stay healthy. Putting all of our eggs in a basket that has shattered twice seems like a bad idea, so it is extremely risky to say that he'll "be back," when we just don't know that yet.
The tight ends are another beast entirely. Jimmy Graham and Benjamin Watson are likely the two locks to make the roster at this position, with Josh Hill spelling them from time to time. Both of the first two are below average to average run blockers and good to great pass catchers. I'm sure y'all can figure out who is who. Graham is, in essence, a number 1 receiver. He led the team last year with 86 catches (and that was on a wobbly foot) and a monstrous 16 dunks on the goalposts, one for each touchdown. Watson was literally the median average of pass catchers at 19. He wasn't dazzling, but he's a quiet, strong player, perfect for the Saints style. Graham adds to the seam routes that the Saints run so well, and he can absolutely carry defenders. He high points the ball, he does it all. We know what we're getting with Graham. Watson, on the flip side, is the consummate professional. He rarely drops passes or tries to get cute, he just does what's asked of him. It's hard to ask for much more than that from a guy that was picked up as a receiving tight end.
The Saints receiving corps doesn't lack talent, but it does lack experience. Colston has 9 years of experience, Meachem has 8. After those two, the rest of the depth chart has 10 years between them. That's 8 players. There are a lot of unproven folks on the depth chart, and a lot of role guys as well. Luckily for the Saints, role players are all they need due to having a star QB that proliferates the ball as well as anyone in football. There is no shortage of depth in terms of bodies on the Saints depth chart at receiver, but depth in terms of talent may be another story. There are all sorts of extraneous factors that make it impossible to evaluate receivers in a vacuum, but if we're going by talent and projections, I'd have to say that they're solidly above average. The only real proven standout talent among these guys is Graham, and everyone else is fairly raw outside of Colston, Watson & Meachem, who know their roles within the offense. None of these players are physical freaks, but they play well for what they're needed for.
Overall Grade: B