The New Orleans Saints have not had a wide receiver make the Pro Bowl since Joe Horn pulled off the feat in 2004. That is a remarkable statistic when you consider the passing statistics put up by Drew Brees since 2006. They have certainly not lacked talent at the position. Marques Colston is one of the better players in franchise history, and players like Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem, Lance Moore, Kenny Stills, and Brandin Cooks have all produced within the Saints offensive system.
Canal Street Chronicles continues our training camp preview by looking at what the Saints 2017 version of this position may look like.
(*) denotes rookie
Camp Roster: Michael Thomas, Willie Snead, Brandon Coleman, Ted Ginn Jr., Tommylee Lewis, Jake Lampman, Jordan Williams-Lambert, Corey Fuller, Rashad Lawrence, Justin Thomas*, Travin Dural*
Offseason Losses: Brandin Cooks (trade)
Offseason Additions: Ted Ginn Jr. (free agent)
Perhaps the biggest change made on this entire team over the offseason is the loss of Brandin Cooks. Cooks, a two-time 1,000-yard receiver, was traded to the New England Patriots in exchange for the Patriots 1st round draft choice, which New Orleans used to select offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk. The unquestioned No. 1 wideout on the Saints roster now is second-year pro Michael Thomas. Thomas, a 2nd round draft choice last year, led the Saints with 92 receptions and 9 touchdowns. His 1,137 receiving yards were second only to the 1,173 by Cooks. A big target (6-foot-3, 212-lbs), with decent speed and terrific hands, Thomas is also a very good route runner that is also a good film study and known for his hard work on the practice field.
Thomas seems poised to step into one of the NFL's elite receivers. Willie Snead came up just short of 1,000 yards receiving for the second straight year in 2016. His 72 receptions for 895 yards were both 3rd on the team behind Cooks and Thomas, and he is a favorite target of Drew Brees on third downs. Snead is one of the better route runners in the league, possessing good speed and the ability to make a play at every level. Brandon Coleman enters his 3rd year with the Saints, and will enter camp as the No. 4 receiver. He still struggles with drops at times, but did noticeably improved his route running in 2016, particularly in the red zone. Coleman is earning the trust of quarterback Drew Brees, and may see an increase in targets this season.
Ted Ginn Jr. was signed as a free agent away from division rival Carolina in the offseason. Ginn brings a game-breaking deep threat on the outside, a threat to take the top off a defense every time he's in the game. He also brings an added threat in the kick return game, with 7 kickoff or punt return touchdowns in his career. Ginn is playing with his 5th team in eleven years, and the primary reason for that is that he can't hold on to the football. Granted, Brees is by far the best and most accurate quarterback that he's played with, but reliance on Ginn's consistency is unwise.
Corey Fuller and Tommylee Lewis are the only other receivers on the Saints camp roster with an NFL regular season reception. Fuller caught 18 passes for the Detroit Lions in 2014 and '15, and Lewis hauled in 7 receptions as an undrafted free agent for the Saints last season. Fuller was a standout at the team's OTA workouts this spring, and has an all-around skillset that makes him the favorite in the eyes of many for what could be the final receiver spot.
Lewis was a training camp standout for the Saints last summer. Despite his lack of size (listed at 5-foot-7, 168-lbs), he showed little hesitation when running the entire route tree, even though he was most effective when given the ball in space on quicker outside routes. His primary role for New Orleans in 2016 was as punt returner, where he averaged 11.4 yards on 14 returns. With Ginn and rookie running back Alvin Kamara likely to be the primary punt and kickoff returners, Lewis will have to stand out at wide receiver to make this year's roster.
Lampman and Williams-Lambert were also undrafted free agents in 2016 that spent the year on the Saints practice squad. Lampman did see action in six games on special teams last season, but had an outstanding collegiate career as a wideout, showing the type of ability to make him a solid slot receiver at the pro level. Williams-Lambert, a college teammate of Willie Snead at Ball State, also had a terrific college career. He possesses a similar skill set to Brandon Coleman; he doesn't have great speed, but ideal size to be a good mid-range receiver. Should Coleman falter, either of these players could surpass him on the depth chart with a great preseason.
Local product Travin Dural will likely be a fan favorite early in camp. An undrafted free agent from LSU, Dural possesses good size and ideal athletic ability for the position, but does struggle with drops. Another intriguing athlete is Justin Thomas. A quarterback in college at Georgia Tech, Thomas has elite speed and athletic ability, and could be absolutely electric with the football in open field. Unlikely to stick on the roster this season due to inexperience, Thomas is a likely candidate for a "redshirt" season on the practice squad if he shows potential as a wideout. Rashad Lawrence was signed to a futures contract shortly after the regular season ended. He has been on practice squads of the Redskins, Bears, and Jaguars over his three year career, now getting a chance with New Orleans to make an NFL roster.
Outlook: Saints fans would be wise not to make a drinking game out of the number of times Ted Ginn Jr. drops a pass this season. Ginn will have the greatest influence as a kick returner for the New Orleans Saints in 2017. Offensively, he will be used primarily as a deep threat, but not likely a big part of the offensive game plans. Michael Thomas and Willie Snead will be the focal points of this passing attack. Thomas seems ready to step into the top echelon of wide receivers in the NFL, he was already often the top receiving option by the end of last season even before Cooks' departure. Snead recently signed his exclusive rights free agency tender, essentially playing this season under a one-year contract. Whether the Saints sign him to a long term contract before the end of the season is a storyline worth watching. Unless the Saints bring in another veteran, Coleman and Fuller are the current favorites for the final two roster spots at receiver, barring a breakout performance from one of the other young receivers.
The New Orleans Saints are going to replace the departed production of Brandin Cooks by continuing to spread the ball around. Thomas and Snead will be the leading receivers, but more will be expected from players in complimentary roles. Rookie running back Alvin Kamara could play a big role in the team's passing attack, and we will probably see more passes to the tight end position in 2017 then we witnessed last season. You don't replace the production of a two-time 1,000-yard receiver easily, but as we've learned from the New Orleans Saints during the Drew Brees era, the receiver position will produce.