Saying that the New Orleans Saints had a tumultuous offseason is an understatement. After an impressive 2011 season and record performance by Drew Brees, the Saints bounty scandal overshadowed their on-field accomplishments. The organization has four players, their assistant coach and general manager facing severe suspensions. But perhaps the greatest loss of all is their head coach Sean Payton, who will sit out for the entire year. The only bright spot coming out of this situation is that Brees signed a five-year, $100 million contract, which should keep him in New Orleans for the rest of his career. The Saints have an uphill battle to climb entering 2012, but as long as they have their star quarterback, you can never underestimate their capabilities.
Without their head coach and leader, the Saints are relying on Drew Brees more than ever. Under Payton, Brees has always put up eye-popping numbers. Over the past four seasons, Brees averaged nearly 5,000 passing yards and 36 touchdowns. The big question is how effective will he be without his play caller. This year, we will truly see how important Payton really is to the offense. The Saints also lost receiver Robert Meachem and All-Pro guard Carl Nicks to free agency. Those losses hurt, but they still have Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston and Darren Sproles. With all of the changes occurring, a dip in production is likely. Despite all of the turmoil surrounding Brees, he ranks just behind Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady.
The Saints will use a three-headed running back attack with Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas. Of the three, Sproles is the one worth targeting in the early-to-mid rounds. He's not a pure running back, but he does contribute heavily in the passing game, making him even more valuable in points-per-reception leagues. Sproles is explosive, so the Saints want to give him the ball as much as possible. He may not reach nine touchdowns like he did last season with Mark Ingram returning from injury, but there shouldn't be too much of a dropoff playing in the Saints offense. Sproles is an ideal No. 2 fantasy halfback even in a crowded backfield. Ingram was plagued by turf toe which caused him to miss the final four regular season games. He'll be New Orleans' feature back and should be the first option in goal-line situations. But in order to be effective, he must stay healthy and improve on his 3.9 yards-per-carry average. He's a low-end starter at best. Pierre Thomas is the team's No. 3 back but is a skilled runner and pass catcher. Having to compete with so many options for touches, he is limited to being a reserve fantasy running back. Unless Sproles or Ingram suffer an injury, Thomas has a low ceiling.
Wide Receivers and Tight End
You would think that playing in a high-powered offense like the Saints would push Marques Colston into being an elite NFL receiver. Unfortunately for him, the Saints offense is so diverse that it prevents him from putting up All-Star caliber numbers. But this year, he should have more targets headed his way with Meachem in San Diego and defenses paying more attention to Graham. Colston should have about 80 receptions and approach double-digit scores, so view him as a steady No. 2 fantasy wideout. Lance Moore ended 2011 on a positive note, scoring five touchdowns in his last five games. With so many big names on offense he often gets overshadowed. Now that there is one less veteran receiver on the roster, he should see an increased role. Expect to see a slight bump in his yardage and reception totals along with seven to eight scores. Devery Henderson is strictly a deep threat, which is why he consistently posts low reception and touchdown totals.
Graham is arguably the Saints' best all-around receiver. He put up remarkable numbers in his first full year at tight end and has yet to reach his potential. Graham is very capable of hauling in 95 receptions and 10 to 12 touchdowns. He will be Brees' first read on many occasions, especially in goal-line situations where he can use his size and leaping ability to out jump defenders. Feel free to take Graham in the second round of fantasy drafts.
Garrett Hartley missed the entire 2011 season with a hip injury, but is in line to win his job back from 42-year-old John Kasay. Kasay did an exceptional job of filling in for Hartley last year as he finished second among kickers in standard fantasy leagues. But looking ahead, Hartley has a more powerful leg and is 16 years younger. Whoever comes out on top can be viewed as a top-five kicker.
The quarterback of the defense, Jonathan Vilma has been suspended for the 2012 season because of his role in the bounty scandal. His leadership and savviness will be missed, but they weren't a great fantasy unit with him. Defensive end Will Smith is also suspended for the first four games. He was second in sacks last year for New Orleans, so his absence negatively affects this defense. To help counter the losses, the Saints signed linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne in the offseason. Still, the Saints defense is just a matchup play in fantasy.
Travis Chan is a fantasy sports enthusiast and contributor for the Yahoo! Contributor Network. You can follow him on Twitter @Travischan1.
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