Payton & Brees, together again (USAT Sports Images)
In the 93-year history of the National Football League, there have been exactly six individual seasons in which a quarterback has thrown for more than 5000 yards. Drew Brees owns three of those six.
Brees broke the league's single-season yardage record just two years ago (5476) while also establishing a new all-time mark for completion percentage (71.2). Last season, he posted the third-highest passing total in NFL history (5177), plus he reached the 40-touchdown plateau for a second straight year. Brees and Dan Marino are the only quarterbacks with multiple 40-TD seasons on their resumes.
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During Brees' seven years with the Saints, he's finished either first or second at his position in fantasy scoring five times, and he's never ranked outside the top-six. In a typical Brees season, he outscores the quarterbacks who finish in the 10-12 range by a wide margin. He's also never missed a game due to injury at any point in his New Orleans career.
So, naturally, all the whip-smart fantasy kids are avoiding him in the early rounds. Because they really want Romo or Wilson or Roethlisberger or whoever in Round 9.
Honestly, if the person who lands Adrian Peterson at the top of your draft is later allowed to take Brees, then you should probably just call for an immediate do-over. Things will have taken a bad turn for the rest of you.
Brees used to seem like the only rock-solid investment in the Saints' diverse attack, but that's no longer the case. Back in 2011, Jimmy Graham consolidated a receiving workload that was previously shared by multiple tight ends, and he's been a beast ever since. Over the past two seasons, he's caught 184 passes for 2292 yards, and he's crossed the goal line 20 times. The stats he put up two years ago (99-1310-11) would have made him our game's fifth highest-scoring wide receiver. He's the clear No. 1 at his position in 2013, a second-round fantasy pick in most leagues. Graham is healthy, he's 26 years old, and entering a contract year. No obvious red flags here.
Kenny Stills (84) joins the party (USAT Images)
Marques Colston, on the other hand, is probably more red flag than human at this stage. Colston's injury history is deep and complicated, full of knee surgeries and microfracturing. There was the thumb issue, an ankle problem, a collarbone, a bruised kidney, and most recently foot trouble. And through it all, he's been excellent — a consistent WR2 for fantasy purposes. When he dresses for a game, you start him. If the zombie apocalypse occurs in the next 2-3 years and the NFL decides to play on, we can probably still count on undead Colston for 80 catches and 1100 yards.
Lance Moore set a career-high in receiving yards last season (1041), hauling in 60-plus passes for the third time in the past five years. As is the case with most secondary receivers, Moore will give you a few 3-30-0 fantasy lines. But he's a better-than-capable wideout tied to a Nintendo offense, and he gets plenty of red-zone looks from Brees (15 targets in 2012, 16 in 2011). Despite being a smallish receiver (5-9), he gets plenty of end zone spikes. Moore's ADP is outside the top-100, so fantasy owners can turn an easy profit here.
Oklahoma rookie Kenny Stills had deep-sleeper status until he hauled in this 40-yard highlight grab over the weekend, then capped the drive with a 14-yard touchdown. He appears to have claimed the No. 3 receiver role in New Orleans, which puts him on the fantasy radar in deeper formats. Stills had three productive years with the Sooners, catching 82 balls for 959 yards and 11 scores in his final season. He offers decent size (6-1) and speed (4.38), and it's tough not to love the system. He's approved for moderate use. Nick Toon is fourth in this team's wide receiver hierarchy at the moment; Joseph Morgan was lost for the year after suffering an ACL tear early in camp.
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The Saints fielded the NFL's sixth-best rushing offense two seasons ago (132.9 YPG), but the team slipped to 25th last year (98.6), with head coach Sean Payton in exile. Of course it's no simple trick for any team to achieve run/pass balance when its defense is historically bad (see below). The expectation for 2013 is that Payton's offense will recommit to the ground game, but that's also a spring/summer talking point for every team in the league. We'll need to see how New Orleans proceeds the first time an opponent scores in back-to-back-to-back possessions.
Yup, still stuck in committee (USAT Images)
Yup, still stuck in committee (USAT Images)
There's an odd level of enthusiasm for running back Mark Ingram within the expert community this year, not based on anything he's actually accomplished in the NFL. To date, Ingram has averaged 3.9 yards-per-carry as a pro, only six of his 278 career attempts have gone for 20-plus yards (none more than 35), and he's caught just 17 passes over two seasons. I see no obvious reason why he should receive significantly more work than Pierre Thomas, a reliable vet with an all-situation skill set. Thomas has certainly been more productive on a per-touch basis (4.8 YPC career, 4.5 YPC in 2012). Darren Sproles returns to his usual role as a high-volume receiver and low-volume runner.
If you're assuming that Ingram will dominate backfield touches in goal-to-go situations, you need to understand that this would represent a big change in his usage. Here's a quick look at this team's inside-the-10 workload totals (carries + targets) over the past two seasons:
Sproles – 14
Thomas – 10
Ingram – 9
Thomas – 13
Ingram – 10
Sproles – 7
The Saints are definitely not in the business of being predictable. It's important you accept that as fact, because it ain't changing. Anyone drafting Ingram as more than a part-time flex is paying for a level of production that he hasn't yet reached. Wherever you've slotted him in your ranks, Thomas shouldn't be far away. Sproles should remain well ahead, particularly in PPR leagues. (Few players in our game are as format-dependent as Sproles. He's a reasonable second-round pick in full-PPR, because he's in line for 80-90 catches. But in standard scoring setups, he's far less appealing — we're looking at 900-1200 scrimmage yards with 6-9 scores.)
Last year, the New Orleans defense was ... well, wow. It was not good. Spectacularly not good. The Saints broke the NFL record for yards-allowed last season (7042), crushing a mark that had stood since 1981. There's little doubt that the D will improve this season, because it's almost unimaginable that this unit can get worse. Steve Spagnuolo is out as coordinator and Rob Ryan is in, if that moves the needle for you in any way. DB Roman Harper, LB Curtis Lofton and DE Cameron Jordan are roster-worthy IDPs, but this D/ST can be avoided.
Still, if we can assume at least some measurable improvement from the Saints defense, this team should return to the postseason — remember, they still managed to go 7-9 last year, while giving up 28.4 points per game. I'm thinking Coach Payton will take a scorched-earth approach this season, following his year of quiet scheming. Fantasy owners, plan accordingly.
2012 team stats: 28.8 points per game (3), 324.2 passing yards per game (1), 98.6 rushing yards per game (25)
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