The New Orleans Saints had the league's 12th ranked passing attack in 2018, averaging just under 253 yards per game. The output was the lowest since Drew Brees became the starting quarterback of the team in 2006, but much of that was due to the offensive balance shown by the Saints. Brees showed, particularly over the first three months of the season, that he could still move the ball through the air when needed. Throughout his New Orleans career though, Brees was often able to spread the ball around to multiple talented receivers, which was not as much the case in 2018. Wide receiver Michael Thomas and running back Alvin Kamara are among the most talented pass catchers in the NFL, and each had outstanding seasons, but the team's other receivers made very little impact. Today, we take a look at how the position affected the team during the 2018 season.
In just his third professional season, Michael Thomas has taken over the franchise record book and established himself as one of the best wideouts in football. He led the league with a team record 125 receptions, totaling an all-time franchise best 1,405 yards and scoring 9 touchdowns. Thomas' receiving production over his first three years is among the best in NFL history. He is one of the sharpest route runners in the league, with both the physicality and athleticism to overwhelm most defensive backs. Thomas is nearly unguardable on short and intermediate patterns, and combats every pass with his strong hands and aggressiveness. Most mention Julio Jones, Antonio Brown, or Odell Beckham as the best receivers in the NFL, but anyone who doesn't include Thomas among those players as at least as good or better simply doesn't know football.
Thirty three year old veteran Ted Ginn Jr. provided a solid compliment to the Saints passing game in 2017, having one of the best seasons of his now twelve year career. 2018 wasn't as kind to Ginn. He struggled early in the year with route running, then suffered a knee injury that limited him to just 5 games. He does figure to be an important part of the receiving corps in 2019, but the Saints struggled with any downfield production without Ginn in the lineup. Ginn's presence in the New Orleans offense threatens defenses downfield, and opens up opportunities underneath for the offense's other weapons.
The Saints had signed 26-yr. old Cameron Meredith during free agency last spring, hoping that the big wideout could add another intermediate dimension to the offense. Unfortunately, Meredith was slow to recover from a devastating knee injury that forced him to sit out all of 2017 while with Chicago. He appeared in just six games for New Orleans in 2018, catching 9 passes for 114 yards and a score, before being placed on injured reserve at midseason. After losing Meredith, the Saints signed former Cowboys Pro Bowler Dez Bryant at midseason. Bryant never appeared in uniform however, rupturing his Achilles tendon in practice shortly after his free agent deal. New Orleans then signed another veteran Pro Bowler in Brandon Marshall, but released him after 3 weeks on the inactive list.
New Orleans used a 3rd round draft pick last spring, the 91st overall selection, to draft Tre'Quan Smith from Central Florida. Smith had two brilliant games: a 3 catch, 111 yard and 2 touchdown performance against the Washington Redskins and 10 receptions for 157 yards and a score against the Philadelphia Eagles. Outside of those two contests though, Smith had only 15 catches for 159 yards and 2 touchdowns in thirteen games of action. He has good size and open field ability, but struggled in traffic and must learn to refine his route running and use his athleticism to gain separation. Smith has the tools to be a successful wideout, but must take the next step in his development for this offense to flourish.
The Saints have always unearthed gems at wideout in the late rounds of the draft or even as undrafted free agents. Marques Colston, Lance Moore, and Willie Snead are just a few recent names of a handful of talented wideouts who weren't highly regarded coming out of college but had a high rate of success while with New Orleans. The next player that could be added to that list of successes could very well be Keith Kirkwood, undrafted out of Temple last spring. Kirkwood had 13 receptions for 209 yards and 2 touchdowns in eight regular season games, after being activated around midseason. At 6'3, 210-lbs., Kirkwood has nice size and underrated athleticism, and plays with a physical style. His quarterback, Brees, developed a rapid rapport with the young receiver, who looks like he could be a key contributor for years to come. Austin Carr and Tommylee Lewis are two more undrafted players who have made some plays in their short careers, but have not shown the ability to have a consistent role in the offense.
Michael Thomas is a bonafide superstar, and one of the best offensive players in the NFL. His abilities and production are unmatched, but the Saints need at least one more receiver to attract some of the defensive attention away from their all-star talent. Thomas was responsible for approximately 33% of the team's receiving production in terms of catches and yardage. Factoring in the receiving production of Kamara at running back, the two were responsible for nearly 54% of the Saints passing production in 2018. The lack of another receiving threat clearly handcuffed the New Orleans offense down the stretch of the year and into the playoffs. That role could possibly be filled by a healthy Ginn, a return to health of Meredith, the development of Smith and Kirkwood, or through the addition of a free agent or draft pick. Thomas has just scratched the surface of his vast potential, and deserves an A+ for his 2018 performance, but the rest of this unit performed at a D-level, and must play up to their potential for greater team success in 2019.
WIDE RECEIVER GRADE = C
How would you grade the Saints wide receivers in 2018?
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