By J.D. Redemann
This article is part of our 2013 Fantasy Team Preview series in which we are profiling every NFL team leading up to the season, click here for the complete list of published previews. Also, check out our staff rankings for see how we value each player.
Last season was a lost one for the Boys from the Bayou, the land of zydeco and gumbo. In the wake of bounty scandals, defamation trials against the commissioner, on-again-off-again suspensions, and of course the absence of head coach Sean Payton, the 2012 Saints fell to a three-way tie for second place in the NFC South. This occurred merely one season after a 13-3 record saw them return to the NFC Divisional round of the playoffs. One season after QB Drew Brees shattered Dan Marino‘s long-standing season passing yards record. What happened?
I don’t believe it was all due to the surrounding story-lines, though major distractions in the locker room and the non-presence of a team’s leader certainly can keep attention off the field. Clearly the team’s 31st and 32nd rankings in passing and rushing yards allowed caught up to their top-ranked passing attack and dragged it down with them. In reality, though, not much changed for the Saints in terms of fantasy production in 2012. Brees actually dethroned Packers’ QB Aaron Rodgers for the title of #1 fantasy QB, RB Darren Sproles finished just outside the top 20 for running backs, and TE Jimmy Graham was the clear-cut tight end champion for the season. Bizarre to think that two of the best fantasy players came from a sub-.500 team. So, what should we expect this fantasy season from the former ‘Aints? Will fans and fantasy owners be chanting “Who Dat?” or “Huh, What?” Let’s find out…
Added: QB Luke McCown, TE Ben Watson, CB Keenan Lewis, S Jim Leonhard, CB Chris Carr
Drafted: S Kenny Vaccaro, OT Terron Armstead, DT John Jenkins, WR Kenny Stills, DE Rufus Johnson
Lost: RB Chris Ivory, LT Jermon Bushrod, WR Devery Henderson, DT Sedrick Ellis, TE David Thomas
As I mentioned before, the Saints were the worst defensive team last year, so much so that I don’t know if half of the players even bothered running after wide receivers or tackling running backs. That in mind, their big focus this offseason was to shore up the biggest weakness on the team and that could be found in the secondary. By bringing in high-profile free agent CB Keenan Lewis, the team found a starter solution to then-rookie CB Patrick Robinson‘s inexperience. Veteran S Jimmy Leonhard (a favorite player of mine for his brilliant reads and field general abilities) should provide good competition for S’s Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper, as should first-round draft pick Kenny Vaccaro out of Texas. Vaccaro may not win a starting spot right away, but is versatile and will be a starter of the future for “N’Awlins”. The biggest losses of the offseason were the trade that sent RB Chris Ivory to the Jets and that of LT Jermon Bushrod to free agency. Ivory was part of a very full stable of Saints’ runners, but clearly had the best “lead back” potential after he was handed the starting gig thanks to injuries last season. Still, coach Sean Payton should find ways to keep his backfield versatile and creative. Bushrod’s departure is another matter entirely. Part of a near-elite offensive line that’s allowed only 25 sacks on average over the past four seasons, Bushrod’s blocking has protected Drew Brees for years. I think his loss will be taken for granted, especially because Brees likes to hold the ball and wait for plays to develop. We could see the Saints picking him up off the ground a few extra times because of this this season.
One Up: Joe Morgan, WR - This one is mostly based on talent, skills, and a lot of guesswork, but I think that WR Joe Morgan could be a late-round breakout this year. Take a random stab at where he ranked in yards per completion last season. I’ll answer that for you. An absurd 37.9 YPC put him first among qualified receivers last season, which indicates his biggest skill: pure speed. We all know Brees loves to show off his arm strength, and now that top deep threat Devery Henderson has left the team, Morgan’s skillset fits the role perfectly. With receptions of 80, 48, and 62 yards last season, he could develop into a similar player (albeit a lesser version) as Baltimore’s Torrey Smith. And while “boom-or-bust” type receivers like this often seem more fluky than predictable, Morgan’s underlying numbers suggest that his skills will reduce the amount of luck involved. Of receivers with fewer than 50 catches last season, Morgan’s per-play and total value ranked 1st according to Football Outsiders. The best. Period. The only knock on him right now is his catch rate, at a paltry 48% for 2012, but that should improve as he figures to have more playing time this year and therefore more opportunities to get in rhythm with his QB. I also like his potential with Sean Payton coming back, because the Payton-Brees tandem likes to throw hard and throw plenty, and deep targets should be relied on heavily. I have Morgan outside my top 50 right now, but if you’re looking for upside late in drafts, he could be a gamebreaker.
One Down: Mark Ingram, RB – Anyone still waiting for him to show up? I’d stop waiting. This season will mark the third for highly-touted ’Bama product Ingram in the NFL, and we have yet to see him do anything besides get exactly what is blocked for him and/or fall into the end zone for a cheap TD. In seven of sixteen games in 2012, Ingram failed to even reach 2.8 yards per carry in the game. That is, for nearly half of the season, he did absolutely nothing besides fall over the line of scrimmage and hope for the best. His skills are just not much more than a fullback, and it’s about time for the illusion of him becoming a bruising power runner to dissipate. If he could catch the football too, then he’d at least be versatile. But alas, he is simply a drop and drive runner. And he is this sort of “volume equals production” type player on a team that just doesn’t give the volume to its rushing game. In fact, in no game last year did he break 100 yards rushing, and in half of his games, he didn’t even receive ten rushing attempts. This is a team with three passable running backs in Ingram, Darren Sproles, and RB Pierre Thomas, but they are a pass-happy team that will look to pass even harder once Sean Payton returns for revenge on the league. I just don’t see Ingram getting enough play to make his Michael Turner-Lite shtick valuable enough for you as even a FLEX play. Maybe you take him in the lower tiers of the middle rounds, but that’s about all I could stomach for him. This, my friends, is what a real-life and fantasy draft bust looks like.
1. With Gronk looking likely to miss time at the beginning of the year, is there even more reason to grab Jimmy Graham early?
Two thoughts come to me here. The first is that, yes, with Patriots’ TE Rob Gronkowski likely to start the season on the PUP list (or at least banged up and ineffective), Jimmy Graham even more so becomes the undisputed TE1 in all fantasy formats. Gronk gains a lot of his value from TD’s, but Drew Brees looks to Graham as a checkdown option frequently and that’s where he finds his points. That will still be the case this year, and I think Graham has no chance to be anything lower than #1 at the position (barring injury). The second thought is, would Gronk’s injury force me to draft Graham higher if I want an elite TE? Based on simple economics, I think the answer is yes, you will have to draft him higher to get him. But based on the value at the position, the answer to me is no. I have Jimmy Graham in the late 2nd/ early 3rd round Overall, and while I may lean more toward late 2nd round with this Gronktastrophe (see what I did there?), I’m not pushing his value higher than that.
The fact remains that the TE is the third most unreliable spot in fantasy behind kickers and defenses. Why try to take Graham too high and then flop on the RB spot (when there is a dearth of great runners these days), when you can just wait another two rounds and take a Tony Gonzalez or Vernon Davis? The value at the position is far less than Graham, but if you nab two elite players at RB or RB/QB in the first two rounds, that puts you in a much better position on a weekly basis. I love Graham, no knock on him here. Draft him in the 2nd round if you want, but if you can wait until round 3 for him, I’m much more comfortable with that.
2. Can Brees possibly crack 5,000 YDS and 40 TD’s again?
The short answer is YES. I mentioned this above, and I deal with it in more detail below, but Drew Brees is going to be given the green light to throw and throw and throw. Coach Sean Payton and Brees are going to be incensed by last year’s results and will want to prove themselves to the league. These are two guys who, even after winning a Super Bowl and shattering one of the most legendary passing records ever, play with a chip on their shoulders; it’s the New Orleans way. I think they’ll both want to show up any doubters in the league and hit teams hard with a vertical aerial assault. Did anyone say to Brett Favre, “You shouldn’t sling it all over the field, let’s just tone that down a bit”? No. This team is going to throw early and often.
“But”, you say, “Drew Brees’ completion percentage was down to a horrendous 63% last year, and he threw 19 interceptions, his second highest total ever!” I say to you, “I don’t care.” Brees is not experiencing some sort of bizarre fall-off-the-cliff type arc in his career, he was pressing last year to run the high tempo offense that Payton used to run without Payton, and to make up for a defense that you could drive a semi truck through. Very often, Brees was having to win games with his arm last season and force throws, rather than be able to count on his defense to keep them in a comfortable spot. I think this year, with the steadying hand of his head coach returned (and an improved defense), Brees will regain his career completion rate. And those 19 picks? Actually, they fall right in line with his career numbers for interception rate (% of attempts that are intercepted). He threw more last year than he ever has in his career, and he threw more picks as a result. Math will do that to you. I have no fears about Brees; he’s still my #2 QB this season, but could easily be argued at QB1.
3. How will Sean Payton’s return impact the Saints offense?
Do you remember what I mentioned about vengeance on the commissioner and the league for derailing their annual domination of the NFC South? Yeah, I firmly believe that that will manifest in the form of Sean Payton giving the ball to his Super Bowl-winning former MVP, last year’s #1 fantasy QB, Drew Brees, and telling him to chuck it downfield as hard as he can. This is part of the reason that I am higher on WR Joe Morgan, and down on the Saints running backs in general. Before Payton’s suspension for the bounty scandals, he had given Brees the green light to throw enough to beat Marino’s record, regardless of winning the last game of the season, regardless of turnover risk. This is also related to the above question, but I predict big things for the Saints passing game again this year.
In addition, I think this offense will generate far more plays than it did last year. In 2011, the Saints offense got off 107 offensive plays more than their opponents. In 2012, they dropped to nearly 500 less than their opposition, likely a result of not having Payton’s foot on the accelerator even though Brees was pushing it as fast as he could. The return of that high-paced offense will likely keep the team on the field more and give more fantasy opportunity to all of the offensive players, though we could see Brees keep his interceptions high this year if he throws with wild abandon again. Still, I’ll take a few more picks for 500 extra plays any day.