I’m gonna keep it real with y’all: I don’t know much about basketball. It’s not a sport I have much experience with, but it’s fun, the New Orleans Saints are fun, and by chance so are the New Orleans Pelicans, our local pro basketball team that you should be supporting. I want to take a second to thank my friend Ryan Berger, a fervent Saints and Pels fan displaced to New York (follow him on Twitter @RyanBergerOSU). He proofread this piece to help me look better, for which I’m very grateful.
Anyway, Sean Payton has made it clear throughout his coaching career that he values a diverse assortment of body types at receiver, at times likening it to the different height-weight-speed combinations you’ll find on a basketball court.
That makes sense for a couple of reasons. The Saints run a passing offense dedicated towards finding mismatches - faster receivers lined up against slower linebackers, bigger receivers against smaller defensive backs, etc. It’s why Darren Sproles, Jimmy Graham, and Alvin Kamara found so much success here.
A quick note before we dive in: basketball changes even more quickly than football and is often on the cutting-edge of innovation in training methods and play designs. That’s also true for position designations as more athletes develop skills that previously were not common - look at the Pelicans’ biggest players (Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins), traditionally elite defenders and so-so scorers, leading the team in points scored.
So there’s new names for positions coming out all the time, or old ones finding new definitions - big men and wings are just as accepted as any of the specific roles I’ve outlined in this piece. So don’t take it too seriously or get hot under the collar. It’s just a fun way of whiling away the offseason and looking at the Saints’ roster from a fresh perspective.
Historical example: Robert Meachem
Need someone to fire up the squad with some quick points? What about pull things out of a bad spot and generate some momentum? Then you’re leaning on your shooting guard, and Tre’Quan Smith looks the part. He’s got more size (6-foot-2, 205-pounds) than typical Saints third-receivers Brandin Cooks (5-foot-10, 190-pounds) and Willie Snead (5-foot-11, 200-pounds) to pair with a meaner mentality as a blocker. Smith enters the Saints offense with skills to develop as a route-runner and hands-catcher, but the ease with which he glides around the field and quickly puts up numbers (he scored 13 times last season) is enticing. Tommylee Lewis was this guy last year, but Smith’s presence appears to be phasing TLL out. Look for Smith’s role to be simplified in his rookie debut as he continues to polish his overall game, but the things he does so well - namely make electric plays deep downfield - are so important to the big picture that he’s a threat to lead the team in yards on any given Sunday.
Historical example: Jimmy Graham
Characterizing big men like Graham and Brandon Coleman as small forwards carries more than a little irony, which is why I like this fit so much. These are guys with a very weird fit comparative to their body type - they carry the responsibilities of a clutch third-down target who can compete physically with opponents while also having some breakaway speed in the open field. Because of that high degree of difficulty these guys often don’t work out, which can be painful to watch as fans. In the past, the Saints fielded an offense with an excellent “small forward” in Jimmy Graham. Since his departure that role has fallen to Coleman, who honestly wasn’t up to the task. Coleman is one of the better blocking receivers in the NFL but he’s never been able to play to his size (6-foot-6, 225-pounds) as a receiver, and doesn’t win enough contested catches. So while he isn’t the centerpiece he was first envisioned to be, Coleman does enough work as a blocker and plays with enough effort to help you win games..
Historical example: Marques Colston
In all honesty this position’s responsibilities best match Saints quarterback Drew Brees: keep the tempo up, facilitate scores for teammates, and handling and distributing the ball. But if we’re limiting this to the wide receivers on the roster then I like Cameron Meredith to fill in. Meredith is a former quarterback himself who understands intimately how to get open and make himself the best-possible target for his passer while setting up blocks to create room to run after the catch. Like other former Saints slot specialists (Marques Colston especially comes to mind), he blends high football-I.Q. with physicality and spatial awareness to set his opponents up to fail.
Historical example: Jeremy Shockey
This is a player with size and scoring ability who can make inroads into enemy territory and protect the ball. Michael Thomas (6-foot-3, 220-pounds) fits that bill perfectly. He’s the centerpiece of the Saints’ offense and can go up and compete with anyone, winning his share of battles against Minnesota Vikings star corner Xavier Rhodes in their infamous playoff game. The Saints have not had a body type at receiver to fit this role perfectly before Thomas, so they’ve relied on creative alignments to get guys like Shockey mismatched with unsuspecting defenses. Now the Saints move Thomas all around the formation to get him the best looks, even lining him up in the slot to add a new dimension to the offense. His ability to utilize a full route tree with nuance so that opponents never know which way he’s going to hit them is one of the Saints’ trump cards. And among those advantages in his toolbox nothing is stronger than Thomas on a slant route - he’s cooked defensive backs from coast to coast with a quick jab step and turn upfield to box them out, a move just as fiercely effective as Shockey’s goalline slant or a lob above the rim to Anthony Davis.
Historical example: Devery Henderson
Fielding a good center is a prerequisite for winning in basketball, and the same is true in football with a legit deep threat. That’s Ted Ginn Jr’s game - tasked with scoring points and making big plays to create a constant threat of downfield attack, opening things up for his teammates. Even if they don’t lead the team in targets, having someone here who can always create a big play or at least draw a big gain on pass interference penalties is crucial. While Ginn didn’t lead the team in touchdowns or gains of 20+ yards, he was markedly efficient on them despite a reputation of being very boom-or-bust. He scored once every 13.3 receptions (compared to once every 20.8 for Thomas) and gained 20+ yards on 28.3-percent of his receptions (Thomas did so on 21.2-percent of his catches). That efficiency and critical role to play as the designated target on speed outs matches a center’s job description perfectly.
I hope this was somewhat entertaining, or at least presented a different perspective on how the Saints have built their receiving corps. 2018 has the makings of another very fun season.