Following a tumultuous period both on and off the field in 2012, the New Orleans Saints looked more like themselves in 2013, due in large part to Head Coach Sean Payton's return from his year-long suspension in the aftermath of the bounty scandal. Payton's reinstatement sparked a return to dominant offensive football which Saints fans have grown accustomed to. His decision to tab Rob Ryan as the team's new Defensive Coordinator paid dividends as New Orleans returned to the playoffs.
Rather than racking up yards and points via catch-up mode, Drew Brees and the Saints' offense looked like the same, dominant unit that reached the playoffs four times in six years, reaching two conference championship games and winning a Super Bowl along the way. The Saints continued to boast one of the league's most efficient and effective passing games, with a solid run game to boot.
Drew Brees has commanded one of the league's most powerful offenses since 2006.
Moving into 2014, the team has the majority of its offensive core in tact. Darren Sproles was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles and Lance Moore landed in Pittsburgh following his February release. However, the Saints gave Brees an explosive new toy to play with in the form of 2014 first round draft pick Brandin Cooks. The polarizing topic of Jimmy Graham's future will come to a head in the next three weeks, but all signs point to the dynamic playmaker suiting up in Black and Gold next season, one way or another.
Since Payton assumed his post as the head man in charge over eight years ago, the Saints have been a perennial fantasy goldmine. From Brees' gaudy passing numbers, to the yards and touchdowns racked up by Reggie Bush and Deuce Mcallister, Jimmy Graham's athletic grabs in the end zone, and Marques Colston's safe hands in between, the Saints figure to continue to offer a wide range of potential fantasy contributors.
As 2014 draws near, here are ten players who are likely to make an impact on both the Saints' offense and fantasy rosters across the globe...
10. Josh Hill - TE
Our first surprise on this list, Hill, a former undrafted free agent out of Idaho State, is an athletic pass-catcher who showed signs of being able to play a capable role in Payton's offense. The Saints do like to employ multiple Tight End sets, and Hill provides good cover and insurance for both Jimmy Graham and Benjamin Watson. He only caught 6 balls for 44 yards and one score as a rookie last year, but Hill could be groomed into a long-term number 2 Tight End for the Saints. While Graham's future remains unclear to a slight degree, Hill should absorb extra reps during the team's OTAs while the former Miami Hurricane waits for his grievance hearing and subsequent contract negotiations to play out. Hill possesses some necessary qualities of a "move" Tight End, and could be just an injury (or a holdout) away from being thrust into a huge role. Though a case could easily be made for receivers such as Nick Toon, Andy Tanner, Brandon Coleman or the electric Joe Morgan. We like Hill at this slot.
9. Travaris Cadet - RB
The Saints have a hole to fill following the departure of Darren Sproles. The former Charger was not at his best in 2013, but still gave the team great versatility within the scheme, and posed a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. Travaris Cadet has a chance to stake a claim to some of the workload vacated by Sproles. Cadet, another former undrafted free agent who made his way onto the roster, is bigger than Sproles at 6-1 210. However, like the diminutive Sproles, Cadet has shown he can be a reliable receiving threat out of the backfield, and possesses a versatile skill-set. Most of his work has come in preseason games, as Cadet has only accounted for a single carry and just 7 receptions in the regular season through his brief career. Another strong preseason will be necessary if the Saints are to count on him in 2014. If Cadet gets a chance to claim a role, he needs to grab it early. New Orleans usually has no trouble spreading around the touches at the Running Back spot. But with Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram, and Khiry Robinson all competing for carries, and undrafted back Tim Flanders expected to challenge for a spot during camp, Cadet will need to take the next step soon. If not, he could be the odd man out of the rotation.
8. Mark Ingram - RB
Ingram presents a curious case, and if things are to work out in his favor, could turn out to be much better than the 8th-best potential fantasy option in New Orleans. The Saints chose not to exercise Ingram's 5th year option for 2015, but that does not mean they are not high on the former Heisman winner, who they traded back into the first round to select three years ago. Ingram saved his best for last in 2013, and saw an increase in production and snaps over the last 4 games of the season, including the playoffs. Not picking up his option was more of a responsible financial decision than an indictment of how the team views Ingram, so he should still figure to be the team's lead back if something happens to Pierre Thomas, who has had some durability concerns in the past. Ingram knows he is playing for his market value, and will need to make every touch count. An angry, determined Ingram could turn out to be a great asset for the Saints.
7. Pierre Thomas - RB
Sticking with the Running Back theme, Thomas, the elder statesman of the Saints' stable of backs, and another former undrafted free agent, gives the team a sturdy, reliable rushing and receiving threat out of the backfield. His intimate knowledge of the screen game, pass protection, and overall comfort within the scheme see him enter 2014 as the likely starter. The Saints will always rotate backs, but Thomas, if healthy, should seemingly always be first in line for reps. He has had some injury issues, and missed the team's two playoff games with a chest injury, but restructured his contract in order to facilitate a return to the team while also helping provide some slight relief on the club's salary cap situation. In 2013, Thomas matched his career high for carries with 147, his most since the Super Bowl season in 2009, adding 549 yards and 2 touchdowns. He also hauled in a career-best 77 balls for 513 yards and 3 scores.
6. Khiry Robinson - RBKhiry Robinson should play a big part in 2014 for the Saints
Robinson emerged late in the 2013 season as a big back option for Payton and the team to rely upon in short yardage situations. He earned enough confidence from his teammates and coaches to total most of his work in the club's two postseason matchups, totaling 21 carries for 102 yards and a touchdown in those games. Robinson impressed enough in the team's wildcard win over the Philadelphia Eagles that Bill Parcells was prompted to compare him to Curtis Martin. The 6-0 220 Robinson, yet another former undrafted prospect, will have to battle Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram for reps, but he may have the most upside of the three as a runner. The fact that he projects as a short-yardage option sees him land just above Ingram on this list.
5. Kenny Stills - WR
Stills seems to be the logical choice to replace Lance Moore in Drew Brees's firing line of receivers. The former 5th rounder came on during the middle of his rookie season last year, and showed promise as a reliable vertical threat who can play both inside and outside. When Brees threw to Stills, the combination helped account for the league's best QBR (139.3) between Quarterback and receiver. Stills finished his rookie year strong, and totaled 641 yards and 5 touchdowns on 32 receptions, leading the league with 20 yards per catch. He was also used as a weapon, carrying the ball 3 times on end-arounds. Stills is another player that could find himself underrated on this list if certain things fall his way. The speedy ex-Oklahoma Sooner seems primed to make a big leap in his 2nd season as a pro.
4. Brandin Cooks - WR
Another surprise, and our boldest ranking yet, the team's 2014 first rounder figures to be an instant contributor as a rookie. The Saints have big plans for Cooks, and it is likely that he will also have a chance to absorb some of the plays that were once dictated to the likes of Sproles and Reggie Bush within Sean Payton's offense. Payton has identified Cooks as a receiver who can play across the formation, not just as a speedy slot threat, and his athleticism and dynamic playmaking ability after the catch give the Saints' coach even more incentive to find ways to get him the ball in space. Stills and Cooks could be flip-flopped on this list, but we like Cooks's chances of contributing in a more versatile, dynamic manner. If Cooks can deliver, the former Oregon State Beaver, who led the NCAA in receiving yards last season, could easily emerge as a legitimate rookie of the year candidate.
3. Marques Colston - WRMarques Colston is a reliable target for Drew Brees and the Saints.
Mr. Reliable, Colston returns for another year as Brees's top wideout, and the former 7th rounder hopes to bounce back from a 2013 campaign which saw him set four-year lows in receptions (75) and yards (943) since 2009. He scored 5 touchdowns, and continued to use his 6-4 225 size to frustrate smaller defenders. Colston has had some issues with his foot and other nagging injuries in recent years, and if cap constraints haunt the Saints yet again next offseason, there is a chance that this could be the former Hofstra player's swan song in New Orleans, at least at his current terms. Nevertheless, Colston, who is still a reliable blocker on the perimeter, will still be the team's go-to receiver. When your Quarterback is Drew Brees, and your playcaller Sean Payton, that is quite an attractive position to be in.
2. Drew Brees - QB
An easy lock for a top-three spot on this list, Brees hopes to pick up where he left off in 2013, when he threw for 5,162 yards and 39 touchdowns with a 68.6 completion percentage. Having recently revealed that he hopes to carry on playing into his 40s, Brees may see a slight dip in those numbers. as the team looks to put an increased emphasis on the run game in order to maximize their 35-year old Quarterback's arm, while simultaneously aiming to keep their markedly improved defense as fresh as possible during games. Brees is still among the creme of the crop in terms of NFL Quarterbacks, and if Moore and Sproles can be adequately replaced by the likes of Cooks, Stills and Robinson, the ex-Purdue Boilermaker and San Diego Charger will be poised to continue to produce at a highly successful rate. As long as his arm is functioning at these levels and Payton is in charge, Brees should continue to be considered a top-three fantasy Quarterback.
1. Jimmy Graham - TE
Barring something completely unforeseen, Graham will be in a Saints uniform regardless of the outcome of his grievance hearing next month. The dynamic playmaker is one of the game's truly elite weapons, and has garnered more targets than any other Tight End in the league over the last three seasons. He will continue to be a major focal point of one of the league's most potent offenses, and is coming off a year in which he reeled in 86 receptions for 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns. His 14.1 yards-per-catch were a career best, and his arrow continues to be pointed way, way up as a threat in the Saints' offense. Whether he is playing under the franchise tag, a one-year deal, or the multi-year deal that both parties eventually want to get done, expect more big things from Jimmy Graham in 2014.