Team Previews: New Orleans Saints
Team Previews: New Orleans Saints

This article is part of our Team Previews series.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

THE SKINNY

The Saints' mediocre 2015 record (7-9) is easily explained by two stats: the team finished eighth in the NFL in scoring and last in points allowed. New Orleans attempted to address the latter issue this offseason but will still primarily need to rely on its offense if it hopes to compete for a playoff spot.

THREE KEY STORY LINES

WHAT'S COOKIN'?

When the Saints drafted Brandin Cooks 20th overall in the 2014 NFL Draft, it signaled a changing of the guard at wideout in New Orleans. Veteran Marques Colston finally showed signs of slowing down, and longtime Saints Lance Moore and Devery Henderson had recently departed. Along with stud TE Jimmy Graham and young WRs Kenny Stills and Nick Toon, Cooks was expected to usher in the next generation of productive pass catchers in the Big Easy. Two years later, Cooks is the lone holdover from that group. After flashing brilliance during his injury-shortened rookie campaign, he struggled to begin 2015, his first full season as a starter. However, he broke out in a big way in the final nine contests, hauling in eight scores and averaging nearly 80 yards per game. At 5-10, 189 pounds, Cooks doesn't have prototypical No. 1 WR measurements, but what he lacks in size, he makes up for in speed, elusiveness and polished route running. Entering his third season, he's already shown he can handle the burdens of being a go-to weapon and appears poised to become the Saints' next great fantasy receiver.

SONIC YOUTH

While Brandin Cooks is unchallenged as the Saints' top wide receiver, a trio of inexperienced wideouts are expected to vie for snaps as secondary targets in the team's pass-happy offense. The presumptive favorite to start opposite Cooks is Willie Snead. The unheralded third-year pro found a home in New Orleans after impressing in training camp last offseason, and by October, Snead was the Saints' de-facto No. 2 receiver. Although not particularly big or fast, his crisp routes and steady hands made him one of Drew Brees' preferred targets and a solid option in PPR leagues. Still, Snead will have competition for playing time. At 6-6, 225 pounds, Brandon Coleman could be a red-zone nightmare for opponents. Though he struggled with consistency for much of 2015, he put together several solid performances late in the season. The Saints also invested a 2016 second-round pick in Michael Thomas. Rookie receivers typically take some time to adapt to the NFL game, but he's a big target (6-3, 212 pounds) with strong fundamentals and sufficient polish to push for a potential starting position.

RUNNING BACK REVUE

RB Mark Ingram rushed for a respectable 769 yards and six touchdowns in the first 12 games of 2015, putting him on pace to set career-high numbers across the board. His contributions also unexpectedly extended into the passing game, where he shattered previous bests with 50 catches for 405 receiving yards. Unfortunately, a shoulder injury ended his season prematurely. The 2009 Heisman Trophy winner has never reached 1,000 rushing yards in a season, and his "injury-prone" label is well deserved, but he should again see the majority of backfield touches. Yet Ingram is not the only intriguing option in New Orleans. Khiry Robinson is gone, but Tim Hightower, the hero of the 2015 fantasy playoffs, is back and should serve as Ingram's primary backup. Furthermore, don't sleep on C.J. Spiller. Spiller signed with the Saints last offseason but rode the bench for much of the year. If he can find his way into the good graces of the coaching staff, Spiller could be a draft day steal in PPR leagues, filling the pass-catching role Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles once occupied in coach Sean Payton's offense.

KEY JOB BATTLE

With Mark Ingram once again getting bitten by the injury bug – he has missed at least three games in all but one of his five NFL seasons – it's fair to assume that the Saints will look to limit his workload. After filling in admirably for Ingram at the end of last season, Tim Hightower is the most likely candidate to see carries when Ingram rests. Hightower was hardly prolific as a featured ball carrier (3.9 YPC), but he proved to be tough between the tackles and an able receiver. Yet Hightower is 30 years old and has suffered through multiple ACL surgeries, so expect the Saints to keep another running back in the mix, particularly in the passing game. C.J. Spiller was a huge bust last season, as he reportedly struggled to learn the playbook and with his fitness. Still, Spiller has a track record as a receiver and could be a playmaker out of the backfield, assuming injuries haven't sapped him of his elite athleticism. If Spiller is not up to the task, don't be surprised if third-down specialist Travaris Cadet, in his second stint in New Orleans, or NFL Combine standout Daniel Lasco make some noise this season in the Saints' pass-happy attack.

PIVOTAL PLAYER

Drew Brees

The faces around him continue to change, but Brees has been the one constant in New Orleans over the last decade. In 2015, his 4,870 passing yards again led the league, and his 32 touchdowns were tied for seventh-most. Inexperience at receiver and along the offensive line could be problems, but Brees should remain an elite fantasy quarterback.

BAROMETER

RISING: Brandin Cooks
With 84 catches, 1,138 yards and nine touchdowns in 2015, Cooks solidified his status as a top-flight fantasy WR. His strong finish – three 100-yard outings in the last five games – indicates the encore could be even better.

FALLING: Willie Snead
Cut by two organizations in 2014, Snead was a revelation last season, emerging as a favorite of Drew Brees. However, the additions of Michael Thomas and Coby Fleener could mean fewer targets for Snead.

SLEEPER: Coby Fleener
He's never been considered one of the league's top tight ends but Fleener has Pro Bowl-level talent. Now in a Saints offense that consistently features TEs, he could post elite numbers. Sometimes it's that simple.

THE INJURY FRONT

Drew Brees, QB – The future Hall of Fame quarterback finished 2015 on a high note, despite playing through a Grade 2 tear of the plantar fascia on his right foot. Rest, not surgery, was the recommended treatment this offseason, and after participating fully in June OTAs, Brees should once again captain one of the league's best offenses.

Mark Ingram, RB – The former Heisman Trophy winner was amidst a banner year, but a torn left rotator cuff ended his season after only 12 games. There have been no reported setbacks following shoulder surgery in December, and the Saints' bell cow running back is expected to be a full participant in training camp.

Cameron Jordan, DE – The two-time Pro Bowler, who underwent back surgery in February, was not expected to join the team until training camp, but after practicing without limitations in OTAs, it appears he's much farther ahead of schedule in his recovery than expected.

IDP FOCUS

Stephone Anthony, LB – The addition of James Laurinaitis likely pushes the former Clemson Tiger to outside linebacker, but last year's first-round pick, who racked up 112 tackles in his rookie campaign, should be a valuable source of tackles.

Kenny Vaccaro, S – A natural strong safety, the aggressive defensive back played closer to the line of scrimmage in 2015, which resulted in a career-high 104 tackles and three sacks.

Cameron Jordan, DE – With the Saints adding help along the defensive line to take some pressure off Jordan, the sixth-year pro is a good bet to reach double-digit sacks for the third time in four seasons, assuming the health of his healed back.

OFFSEASON MOVES

KEY ACQUISITIONS:

Coby Fleener – TE (from Colts)
Could thrive in Saints' TE-centric offense.

Michael Thomas – WR (Rd. 2, No. 47 – Ohio State)
Possible early contributor with wideout depth chart largely unsettled.

James Laurinaitis – LB (from Rams)
Expected to start at middle linebacker in Saints' 4-3 defense.

SHELDON RANKINS – DT (Rd. 1, No. 12 – Louisville)
Disruptive force could immediately supplement interior pass rush.

KEY LOSSES:

BENJAMIN WATSON – TE (to Ravens)
13-year vet had unexpected 74 catches and six touchdowns in 2015.

Khiry Robinson – RB (to Jets)
Struggled to stay healthy, but productive when given opportunity.

Marques Colston – WR (FA)
Lost step over the years, but franchise record-holder will be missed.

JAHRI EVANS – G (FA)
Consistent blocker was offseason cap casualty.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Justin Fielkow
Justin Fielkow is an attorney at the Franklin Law Group in Northfield, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. A proud Wisconsin Badger, he also attended Tulane University Law School, where he obtained a Certificate in Sports Law. Justin has been writing for Rotowire since 2008, covering the New Orleans Saints, and as a columnist analyzing legal issues and their impact on fantasy sports.
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