Juggernaut Index, No. 8: The New Orleans Saints

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Juggernaut Index, No. 8: The New Orleans Saints
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Let's begin with a partial list of Drew Brees' accomplishments as an NFL quarterback:

two-time Offensive Player of the Year
Super Bowl MVP
eight-time Pro Bowler
ranks fifth all-time in career passing yards (51,081)
fourth all-time in passing TDs (363)
second all-time in completion percentage (65.9)
sixth all-time in net yards per pass attempt (6.95)
seventh all-time in game-winning drives (34)
produced the second, fourth, fifth and seventh highest all-time single-season passing totals

Not bad, right?

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Brees is 35 years old, entering his fourteenth pro season. He's three years younger than Peyton Manning and a year-and-a-half younger than Tom Brady, so he's not a bad bet to finish ahead of both in raw passing totals. He's basically settled in at a level of production that no other QB has ever maintained. Of the eight individual 5,000-yard passing seasons in NFL history, this guy is responsible for four.

We almost never include Brees in the best-ever-quarterback discussion, for reasons that aren't completely clear. His resume is absolutely ridiculous — inner-circle Hall of Fame-quality, no question.

Fantasy-wise, Brees is pretty much as good as it gets, at any position. He's finished as either the first or second highest-scoring fantasy QB in five of the past six seasons, and he hasn't ranked outside the top-10 since 2003. He also hasn't missed a game due to injury in forever, so durability isn't a concern.

As a general rule, I prefer the mid-draft quarterback approach in standard fantasy formats, but I'll only let Brees fall so far — rarely beyond Round 3. Over the past three seasons, he's averaged 5272 passing yards and 43 TDs. Those numbers — regardless of era — are obscene. When all the stats are in the books, the Drew Brees/Sean Payton collaboration will very likely be regarded as one of the two or three greatest QB/coach partnerships in history.

So, in summary, I have zero bad things to say about Brees. He's a high-volume passer (also deadly accurate) surrounded by dangerous receivers, he plays his home games in an ideal environment, he never sits, and he'll crush the scoring average at his position. Sure, there's an opportunity cost associated with the early-round QBs — particularly in larger, deeper leagues — but the bust-potential with Brees is negligible, almost non-existent. In fact, if you made me bet on any one NFL player to finish top-three at his position in fantasy scoring, Brees would probably be the guy. And if I didn't pick him, I'd instead choose his No. 1 receiving threat.

Jimmy Graham crossbar slam (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Jimmy Graham crossbar slam (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Jimmy Graham, verified tight end, has been the scoring leader at his roster spot in each of the last two seasons, and he ranked second in 2011. Last year, he delivered one of the all-time tight end receiving campaigns, catching 86 passes for 1215 yards and 16 touchdowns. Those numbers would have made him the No. 4 fantasy wide receiver in standard scoring formats, placing him ahead of A.J. Green and Dez Bryant. At 6-foot-6 and gifted with crazy leaping ability (pictured right, committing a fine-worthy act), Graham is virtually uncoverable, especially when paired with a strike-thrower like Brees. In a healthy season he'll see something like 135-150 targets, which should again lead his position.

If you're drafting in the back half of the first round, it's not unreasonable to target Graham. He occupies a tier of his own at tight end, the only player at his position who's likely to deliver WR1-level stats. (Apologies to Gronk. Hope he recovers fully, quickly. But there's clearly a degree of uncertainty associated with him.) As with Brees, if you're playing in a smallish league, let's say 8-10 teams, then you aren't likely to get burned by passing on RB or WR in Round 1.

The rest of the Saints receiving corps, as veteran fantasy players already know, is notoriously difficult to forecast on a week-to-week basis. Sean Payton's offense is not in the business of being predictable. Aside from Graham, we can't expect any route-runner on this team to see more than 105-115 targets, which typically means inconsistency — a trait that many of you can't abide, but isn't actually a killer. (I'm happy to carry a boom/bust player as a third receiver, as long as my top wideouts are target magnets.) Marques Colston is kind of a monolith at this stage, but he makes it work. He's a box-out specialist, a physical receiver who won't necessarily deliver many highlight plays, but he obviously has the complete trust of his quarterback. Colston is also as healthy now as he's been in any recent preseason...

...so, for once, we don't have to fret about his knees or feet or collarbone or anything else. If you can live with the occasional two-catch, 20-yard performance, you'll likely earn a small profit on Colston at his current Yahoo ADP (80.4).

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Rookie first-rounder Brandin Cooks has been among the buzziest skill players in any team's camp, and with good reason. He's a live-wire player with 4.33-speed, last year's Biletnikoff winner at Oregon State (128-1730-16), and he offers uncommon versatility. The expectation is that Cooks will see a significant share of the perimeter/short-range targets that had belonged to Darren Sproles in recent years. Before the Saints even arrived at camp, Brees himself was bringing the Cooks hype:

“Oh man, I’ve seen all the [Cooks] highlights, and that gets you excited,” Brees concluded. “I think he can do a lot of things. I think he can play outside receiver. I think he can play inside in the slot. You can hand him reverses. You can throw him screens. He can return punts. He’s a very versatile player, very explosive player that you just want to get the ball in his hands and get it to him in space and good things will happen.”

Brandin Cooks, burning teammates in camp (AP Photo/Chris Tilley)
Brandin Cooks, burning teammates in camp (AP Photo/Chris Tilley)

While it's fair to say that Cooks' draft day price-tag isn't ideal — he's now routinely selected in Rounds 5-6 — you can't argue with the team context or the physical skills. In dynasty rookie drafts, he's a top-five pick.

Second-year receiver Kenny Stills impressed last season, hauling in 32 balls for 641 yards and five scores, ranking first in the league in yards per reception (20.0). He's battled a quad malfunction throughout the summer, so that's a small concern, but his talent is evident. Stills is certainly worth a late flier (ADP 131.2), though he doesn't project as a fantasy starter, except in the largest leagues. Nick Toon is the presumptive No. 4 receiver on this roster, and thus not a serious draft target.

New Orleans' running game is the usual mess with the usual potential. Pierre Thomas is the safest play, particularly in PPR leagues, as his role is both well-established and secure. He's a rotational runner who should dominate snaps in the two-minute offense and obvious passing downs. Thomas led all backs in receptions last season (77), though it would be a stretch to call him a dynamic after-the-catch player. He gained just 6.7 yards per reception last year and picked up only 21 first-downs as a receiver. (For comparison's sake, Andre Ellington earned as many first-downs on just 39 catches.) Still, Thomas is likely to see 200-plus touches and gain 1000-plus scrimmage yards; he's the back to target on this roster, if you've decided you need to own one.

Mark Ingram is a good-not-great runner who was limited to 11 games last season, but he surged in the playoffs for New Orleans (28 carries, 146 yards, TD). He's caught just 24 passes over his 37 regular season games, so don't let anyone convince you that he'll have anything more than a cameo role in this team's passing attack. The Saints declined to pick up a fifth-year option on his deal, so they aren't committed to him beyond the current season. I don't view Ingram as anything more than a bench RB for fantasy purposes, which means I never land him. He's had a solid preseason, so anyone who overvalues exhibition play is all over him. To my eye, rotational back Khiry Robinson is nearly Ingram's equal. But I don't tend to land him in drafts, either, because I don't hoard committee members.

The Saints defense made an astonishing year-to-year turnaround, ranking fourth in the NFL in both points and yards-allowed last season (19.0, 305.7). The season before, this team was breathtakingly bad on defense — historically bad, in fact — yielding a whopping 440.1 total yards per game. But New Orleans finished near the top of the league in sacks in 2013 (49.0), and the D/ST features plenty of useful IDPs — notably Cameron Jordan (12.5 sacks), Curtis Lofton (125 tackles), plus safeties Kenny Vaccaro and Jairus Byrd. This team defense is worth targeting in nearly all formats, and it opens with a relatively friendly slate.

If the Saints manage to secure home-field in the NFC ... well, good luck keeping them out of Super Bowl XLIX. This team was Skynet at the Superdome last year, undefeated and unstoppable. They may not rank atop the Juggernaut Index, but I'll take 'em to win the conference.

2013 team stats: 25.9 PPG (NFL rank 10), 322.6 pass YPG (2), 39 pass TDs (2), 92.1 rush YPG (25), 24.4 rush attempts per game (26), 40.7 pass attempts per game (4)

Previous Juggernaut Index entries: 32. Oakland, 31. Miami, 30. Jacksonville, 29. NY Jets, 28. Tennessee, 27. Cleveland, 26. Baltimore, 25. Carolina, 24. Buffalo, 23. Tampa Bay, 22. St. Louis, 21. NY Giants, 20. Kansas City, 19. Houston, 18. Arizona, 17. Minnesota, 16. Pittsburgh, 15. San Diego, 14. San Francisco, 13. Atlanta, 12. Cincinnati, 11. Washington, 10. New England, 9. Indianapolis