The New Orleans Saints selected wide receiver Michael Thomas with the first of their two 2nd round draft choices (47th overall) in 2016. Thomas quickly made his mark in the offense as a rookie with 1,137 yards receiving while leading the team with 92 catches and 9 receiving touchdowns. Last season he was even better, catching a team-record 104 passes on his way to 1,245 yards and five scores. He was voted to his first of what looks to be many Pro Bowl berths, and was one of the league's top offensive weapons. Despite Thomas' talents, along with one of the most explosive all-purpose threats in the league in running back Alvin Kamara, the Saints passing attack struggled at times a year ago. Quarterback Drew Brees, who is a master at spreading the ball around to various targets, just didn't have the options last year that he has had throughout his New Orleans career. The inability of the complimentary weapons within the Saints offense led to a 37.6% 3rd down conversion rate, ranking just 19th in the league and the lowest in the Sean Payton era. Today's training camp preview takes a look at a position that went through a bit of an offseason facelift.
Key Losses: Willie Snead (free agent, Ravens)
Key Additions: Cameron Meredith (free agent, Bears), Tre'quan Smith (draft, 3rd round)
Thomas has already established himself as one of the top wideouts in the NFL, and he looks to have just scratched the surface of his talents and accomplishments. He has excellent size (6'3, 212-lbs.), and a significant strength and reach advantage over most defenders. Thomas has a nearly unstoppable catch radius, terrific hands, good leaping ability, and underrated game speed with outstanding change of direction fluidity. He can run any route, and combines his athleticism with a physical style of play and a nasty competitive demeanor that makes him nearly unguardable. Ted Ginn Jr. surpassed the expectations of most in 2017 after coming over as a free agent from division rival Carolina. Excluding 2012, when he had 2 receptions on 2 targets with San Francisco, Ginn's 75.7% catch percentage last season was by far the highest of his 11-yr. professional career. His 787 yards receiving was 3rd best on the team, and second highest output of his career. Ginn still possesses his trademark gamebreaking speed to blow the top off an opposing defense, but he also proved to be a more efficient receiver than ever before on his 53 receptions, giving Brees another reliable option in the Saints offense. Brandon Coleman continued to be inconsistent in his 3rd season in the Saints offense. His 23 receptions was the lowest output of his tenure, but they did produce 364 yards for a team high 15.8 average per catch, the highest of his career. Coleman is an imposing target (6'6, 225-lbs.) who sometimes struggles to use his stature to his advantage. Although capable of running most routes, he hasn't consistently produced at the expectations of a number two or three wideout. He does seem to have Brees' trust on 3rd downs and near the goal line, and is one of the better blocking wideouts in the league. The team allowed Coleman to test the waters in free agency, ultimately signing him to another short term deal. For some that had hoped that Coleman would be the big-bodied replacement for retired Saints great Marques Colston, it seems that he is instead best suited for a complimentary role. Tommylee Lewis converted his second straight stellar preseason into another roster spot in 2017. The smallest player on the Saints roster at 5'7, 170-lbs., Lewis has a quick jitterbug style in the open field that the team tries to utilize on quick throws. After leading New Orleans in receptions last preseason however, Lewis saw just limited regular season success, catching just 10 passes for 116 yards and one touchdown. Worse yet, he has been able to provide little pop as a kick or punt returner, averaging less than 22 yards on kicks and well less than 10 yards per punt return, leaving a continued void in that area.
Probably the Saints most disappointing player in 2017 was Willie Snead. After two straight years of nearly 1,000 yards receiving, Snead produced a mere 8 catches for 92 yards and no touchdowns in eleven games last campaign, and signed as a free agent with the Baltimore Ravens. New Orleans responded by signing Chicago Bears restricted free agent Cameron Meredith, and drafting wideout Tre'quan Smith from Central Florida in the 3rd round with the 91st overall selection. Meredith is coming back from a serious knee injury that ended his 2017 season, but seems on track to be fully recovered by the start of preseason action. He led Chicago in all receiving categories in 2016, with 66 receptions for 888 yards and 4 touchdowns. He has good size (6'3, 207-lbs.) and physicality to match up against bigger defensive backs, along with effective shiftiness after the catch. Meredith can be a weapon from both the slot position and the outside, and if fully recovered looks to be the ideal number two compliment to Thomas. Tre'quan Smith will immediately add a home run threat to the Saints offense. He possesses decent size at 6'2, 203-lbs and excellent acceleration in space and deep speed. He led the Knights in receiving all three of his collegiate years, and nearly 78% of his 59 receptions in 2017 went for first downs. He has the potential of a playmaker, evidenced by his 22 collegiate touchdowns, including 13 scores last season. Smith will need to learn how to make plays in the middle of the field, but has good body control, and makes outstanding adjustments to the ball in mid-air.
New Orleans typically keeps 5-6 wideouts on their final roster, and the top four spots within the receiving corps seem set with Thomas, Meredith, Ginn, and Smith, so competition for the final spot or two should be fierce. Coleman will be difficult to supplant, but will need a strong camp to keep his spot, and Lewis' roster spot seems most in jeopardy. Coaches seem excited about the offseason progress of Travin Dural, an athletic project from L.S.U. who spent last year on the practice squad. Keith Kirkwood is a big and productive undrafted rookie from Temple, who flourished near the goal line in college and could be an intriguing intermediate weapon. Austin Carr, Josh Smith, Eldridge Massington, Josh Huff, and Dan Arnold figure to be in the mix as well, hoping to upgrade the depth on an otherwise talented New Orleans offense in 2018.
Which wideout seems the most likely to step up and grab one of the final receiving spots on the 2018 New Orleans Saints roster?
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