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Juggernaut Index, 4-6: Big Easy still a big fantasy puzzle

The Juggernaut Index is our annual preseason ranking of NFL teams for fantasy purposes. Repeat: For FANTASY purposes. We're not interested in real-life winning percentages here. This is simply about yards, points, and draft position.

6. New Orleans Saints

When you look at the image above, it's easy to imagine that a fantasy owner has just asked the Saints receiving corps which member of the group should be drafted first in 2011. And then they all just look away, or stare at their feet, or get down in a crouch and try to hide behind Adrian Arrington(notes).

The fact is, no one knows who the most productive New Orleans receiver is going to be in the year ahead. It might be a guy who isn't even pictured up above — maybe Lance Moore(notes), or tight end Jimmy Graham(notes).

This is how the Saints like it, and it's a trademark of the Sean Payton era. Confusion. Misdirection. Deception. This is what New Orleans is all about, on both sides of the ball. Endless formations and pre-snap motion. This team works as hard as any in the NFL at being unpredictable. Thus, it's no surprise that the Saints aggravate the fantasy community to no end.

Get used to it, friend. If an analyst tells you that one specific wideout is the clear top dog, or that any specific running back is the designated red zone guy, then you know that person has not been paying attention to this team. The brilliance of the Saints is that they cannot be read. It's a vexing squad for fantasy owners, sure. But if you understand what you're getting when you draft Moore or Marques Colston or Robert Meachem, then it can still be an entertaining experience. Profitable, too. Whatever else you think of the Saints, you have to admit that they pile up points and yards like few other teams.

Let's hit the most obvious piece of advice before we go any further: If you want a safe investment in this team, go get Drew Brees. He'll put the ball in the air 600-plus times in a typical year, he's averaged 4,584 yards per season while in New Orleans, and he's thrown at least 33 TD passes in three straight campaigns. Those are ridiculous numbers. In pro football history, there are only 35 individual seasons in which a quarterback has thrown for as many as 33 touchdowns, and Brees has three of 'em: 2008, 2009, 2010.

Oh, and he doesn't miss games. He is reliably fantastic. Again: If you want a Saints investment that always pays out, Drew Brees is your guy. But that's it. Even the [expletive] kicker is a question mark.

Juggernaut Index, 4-6: Big Easy still a big fantasy puzzleThe healthiest Saints receiver right now might very well be Meachem, which is hysterical because it seems like he's never healthy in the off-season or preseason. Colston is returning from microfracture knee surgery (not his first), but he's practicing and playing. Moore has received arguably the most hype within the fantasy industry, despite the fact that he's recently been sidelined by a groin injury. (Seriously, if you want to see a draft room burst with excitement, take this dude in an experts league. "GREAT pick." "Stole him from my queue!" "No, you stole him from MY queue!!" Shut up, experts). And Devery Henderson is ... well, he's Devery. He's the guy who has the three-catch, 88-yard, two-TD game when you thought about adding him, but didn't.

I've been a Colston loyalist throughout draft season, and I'm happy to remain in his camp, taking the injury discount. He's a modern surgical miracle, I'll admit, but in four of the past five years he's delivered 70 receptions and 1,000 yards. And I'll remind you that he's practicing right now, while you're fretting about his knees. The 28-year-old Moore is just two years removed from a 79-928-10 stat line, so we know he's capable of a significant fantasy contribution. Meachem was terrific in '09, catching 45 balls for 722 yards and nine scores. (Plus there was that fumble recovery TD that I probably shouldn't bring up, but just did. Ah, memories). These receivers are great, and Brees will use 'em all.

Graham is set up for a huge year, and, contrary to popular belief, he won't need to poach targets from the wideouts in order to be an elite fantasy commodity. The Saints actually throw a ton of passes to tight ends; Graham, David Thomas and Jeremy Shockey combined for 102 receptions, 983 yards and 10 TDs last season. This year, there's no Shockey. Graham is a clear breakout candidate, a top-seven player at his position in fantasy. (Useless trivia: He's a former college basketball player, just like all the cool modern TEs).

The New Orleans backfield committee was basically a nightmare last season. Pierre Thomas couldn't get healthy following a September ankle injury. Reggie Bush played only eight games, missing Weeks 3-11. Julius Jones and Ladell Betts were mostly miserable — in fact, Betts lost the Arizona game single-handedly. Undrafted rookie Christopher Ivory led New Orleans in rushing last season with 716 yards, but he also fumbled four times in 137 carries and he'll open the 2011 season on the PUP list (foot), missing at least six weeks.

In the Saints' Super Bowl season, they ranked sixth in the league in rushing (131.6 YPG), so it's not like they're indifferent to the ground game. New Orleans used a first-round pick on Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, and you can expect the team to put the ball in his hands. He certainly won't get all the backfield work, but he'll get a decent share. Ingram figures to be a weapon near the goal line, but, as we mentioned at the top, the Saints aren't going to simply roll with one guy in the red zone at all times. They're in the business of being unpredictable. Own Ingram because he's a great talent in a great offense; don't get mad when Darren Sproles unexpectedly takes the field, with the ball at the opponent's 9-yard line. New Orleans will mess with your head if you let 'em.

Thomas seems like a fantasy steal this year. He's often selected mid-draft, yet he's in line for a substantial percentage of the rushing workload. PT is an established back, useful in the passing game, and he's been extremely effective on a limited workload. Seems like easy profit. Sproles is a member of every PPR roster that I've assembled thus far; he's a live-wire quick back, in line for a serious share of Bush's old workload (but not Bush's old injuries). He should top last season's 59 catches. Another win, depending on your format.

The Saints defense would be a bit more exciting to me if they didn't face Green Bay in Week 1 and Houston in Week 3. You're not starting this group early in the year, which, for now, makes it a tough unit to own.

2010 team stats with NFL rank: 24.0 (11) points per game, 277.6 pass YPG (3), 94.9 rush YPG (28), 41.3 pass attempts (2), 23.8 rush attempts (30)

Juggernaut Index, 4-6: Big Easy still a big fantasy puzzle5. Dallas Cowboys

OK, gamers, I used up most of my word-count on the Saints, so we're going to have to be quick here. Luckily, the Cowboys are a much easier team for fantasy owners to deal with.

Tony Romo has a new bionic clavicle, so he's obviously fine. He averaged 313.2 passing yards and two TDs per game over the first five weeks in 2010, prior to the injury. If you're drafting him alongside the top-tier QBs, that's totally understandable. He has a pair of 4,000-yard seasons on the resume, plus a 36-touchdown campaign ('07). Go get him.

Dallas' receiving corps is exactly the sort of group that we like to see in our game. The two names at the top of the depth chart, Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, are early-round fantasy assets. Austin had three 100-yard games with Romo last season, but just two the rest of the way. He's only a year removed from a top-three scoring season (81-1320-11 in '09). Bryant clearly has a skill set that could make him a top-tier receiver over multiple seasons, particularly in this offense. It sounds like he's maybe unwound some messy off-the-field situations, too. He recently declared, "I'm headed on the straight and narrow path." Dez then added, "I don't need to get into details." Fine with me. Just give us 1,300 yards and a dozen scores; I'll ask no questions.

It's nice to have Roy Williams out of the picture here, although Chicago fans might disagree. Beyond Austin and Bryant, the Cowboys receivers aren't of immediate interest to fantasy owners. Kevin Ogletree is still around (and he needs to pay his traffic tickets). East Carolina rookie Dwayne Harris has had a nice preseason, with at least one highlight-quality play.

Jason Witten led all NFL tight ends in targets (128), catches (94), yards (1,002) and fantasy points last year. He's topped 90 catches and 1,000 yards in three of the past four seasons. Despite his reliably elite numbers, Witten is routinely drafted after Gates, Finley and Clark in fantasy leagues. He's played the full 16 games in seven straight seasons, so there are no medical red flags with this guy. And Romo loves him like a kitten. A great fantasy option, no doubt.

Felix Jones is the unchallenged feature back in Dallas, and it's not difficult to imagine him breaking out in a massive way. Of course it's also not difficult to imagine him missing eight or nine weeks with a quad injury, so the draft day price tag is usually friendly (unless you're drafting with this guy). Jones gained 1,250 scrimmage yards last season on 185 carries and 48 catches. If he can remain healthy (no small if), then he's clearly in line for more carries this season. We shouldn't need to remind you of his explosiveness. Dallas was an excellent screen team last season, with Jones as the primary receiver. He'll be a terrific PPR option; it would hardly be a shock if he topped 1,600 total yards in 2011. Rookie back DeMarco Murray should be on the PPR radar, too. He caught a ridiculous 71 passes for OU last season. Here's a preseason clip of Murray taking a simple screen and gaining 48 yards. Send blitzers at your own peril, opposing coordinators. This team is loaded with yards-after-catch weapons. Tashard Choice is still in the picture, though he's been sidelined by calf and knee injuries recently. Undrafted rookie RB Phillip Tanner has been a buzz player throughout the preseason, forcing his way into the final roster discussion.

Rob Ryan has taken over as Dallas' defensive coordinator, and he's watched his first-unit struggle throughout the preseason. But still, it's just preseason. No time to make firm judgments. The Cowboys' D ranked No. 31 in points-allowed last season (27.3 PPG) and No. 23 in total yards (351.8), so they can't get much worse. DeMarcus Ware is the IDP to target.

2010 team stats: 24.6 (8) points per game, 252.6 pass YPG (6), 92.7 rush YPG (29), 36.0 pass attempts (9), 26.8 rush attempts (16)

4. Green Bay Packers

The Packers made it to the Super Bowl last season despite having 15 players on IR, then they lost both Charles Woodson and Donald Driver to first-half injuries ... and still, it didn't matter. Green Bay won a title with depth players, a fact that should terrify the rest of the league.

Aaron Rodgers is exceptional, the top quarterback in our preseason ranks, coming off another brilliant year. Rodgers has averaged 263.7 yards per game over the past three seasons, throwing no fewer than 28 TD passes per year. He's also rushed for at least four scores each season since '08, and he topped 300 yards on the ground in 2009 and 2010. So yeah, he's an elite fantasy option, a first-rounder in many leagues.

Green Bay's receiving corps is absolutely stacked with talent. Hell, Jordy Nelson opened the 2010 season as the No. 4/5 option in the passing game, and he had nine receptions for 140 yards and a score in the Super Bowl. Jermichael Finley is healthy at the moment, and he was an almost impossible cover before the knee injury last year. He led the Packers in receiving yards through four weeks, but his season ended on the team's second offensive snap in Week 5. If Jermichael gives us a full season, or anything close to it, he'll challenge for top fantasy scoring honors among the tight ends. We're paying full price for that projection at the draft table, too, as he's invariably one of the first 2-3 names off the board at his position.

While Finley was healthy last year, Greg Jennings clearly was not at the top of the receiving hierarchy. These were his catch totals over the opening five weeks: 5, 3, 2, 2, 2. He found the end zone three times during that stretch, which saved his fantasy value. These are Jennings' reception numbers in the five weeks following Finley's injury: 6, 6, 6, 7, 7. All five of his 100-yard games occurred after Jermichael checked out.

Juggernaut Index, 4-6: Big Easy still a big fantasy puzzleJennings has of course been a legit fantasy asset over multiple seasons; he's topped 1,100 yards in every year of the Rodgers era. No one's saying he'll be a bum. Just don't assume he'll be the No. 1 option in Green Bay with everyone at full strength. If you're not forecasting another 1,265 yards and 12 scores, then you probably won't be disappointed. This offense will obviously support more than one useful receiver.

Donald Driver is still in the mix, though he's now 36 and his fantasy value took a nosedive last season. His receptions fell from 70 to 51, and his yardage dropped from 1,061 to 565. It's unusual to see him drafted this year in leagues of any size, with any settings. He seems like a PPR spot-starter, and that's if things go well. Nelson's role should expand as Driver's is diminished. Jordy wasn't simply a one-hit wonder who happened to have a nice Super Bowl. No, he closed the season strong (124 yards, TD in Week 16), he hauled in 21 passes during the playoffs, and he generally outplayed every Packers receiver other than Jennings.

For fantasy purposes, it's kind of a pain that James Jones re-upped, although the Pack can't complain. They certainly know the value of depth. Jones actually finished second on the team in receiving yards and TDs last season (679, 5), but all we really remember are the drops. He leaves points on the field, no doubt, but he's also a talented player. Still, most of us prefer Nelson at the draft table. Rookie second-round slot weapon Randall Cobb was making plenty of noise in the preseason, until knee issues sent him to the sideline. He's iffy for the opener against the Saints, though he's definitely a player you'll want to monitor.

OK, I've delayed the discussion of this backfield as long as possible. Here's what we think we know: Both Ryan Grant and James Starks are going to play, though neither back has an obvious edge. The camp reports have favored Starks, but it's not like anyone is saying that Grant, at 28, is washed up. The fact is, neither player is an elite NFL back. We're not talking about a Jones-vs.-Charles situation here. We mostly care about this battle because these guys are tied to a high-yield offense. Green Bay has reportedly considered Starks for a third-down role, which had previously been considered the domain of John Kuhn and rookie Alex Green.

When asked via tweet on Friday which running back was likely to get the most snaps in the opener, the Journal-Sentinel's Tom Silverstein replied, "Probably Starks, but not by much." You'll note that he said nothing about touches, yards, or fantasy points.

At this point, I'd prefer Starks in the later rounds to Grant in Round 5 or 6, where he tends to go. This pair is typically separated by a few dozen picks in drafts, but no one should be surprised if Starks outproduces the veteran. In all likelihood, Starks and Green are the future of the position in Green Bay. Grant is a free agent in 2012. We could be in for a rotation arrangement this year, unless someone suffers a significant injury.

Before we drop the curtain, we should probably note that Dom Capers' defense is great, with top-shelf talent at every level. This team DEF should be one of the first three selected in standard drafts, no doubt. Clay Matthews, Desmond Bishop, AJ Hawk and Woodson are the best of the IDPs.

If you're a Packers fan who happens to be irritated by your team's small drop in an utterly meaningless preseason fantasy index, here's some free cheese to lift your mood...

Juggernaut Index, 4-6: Big Easy still a big fantasy puzzle

2010 team stats: 24.3 (10) points per game, 257.8 pass YPG (5), 100.4 rush YPG (24), 33.8 pass attempts (16), 26.3 rush attempts (20)

Previous Juggernaut entries: Washington, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Carolina, San Francisco, Buffalo, Miami, Seattle, Oakland, Jacksonville, Denver, Tennessee, Minnesota, Chicago, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Arizona, New York Jets, Baltimore, Kansas City Chiefs, New York Giants, Detroit, New England, Indianapolis, San Diego, Pittsburgh.


Photos via US Presswire

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