Fantasy football impact: Are the Saints' second-tier pass-catchers worthwhile?

Jeff Gross

The Saints are legendary for their vaunted offense, but that hasn't translated to as much varied fantasy success as you might expect. We break down the fantasy implications.

High-powered offenses create all sorts of high-powered fantasy players. The studs are the studs, sure, but when a team is scoring that many points, even the second-, third- and fourth-string options are still viable, obviously. It's a logical thought process, dictated by common sense and the like.

Only problem is, it might not be totally accurate.

The New Orleans Saints drafted Brandin Cooks in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft. He joins second-year wide receiver Kenny Stills as the latest in a line of pass-catchers who ought to be fun, helpful fantasy players in the New Orleans offense.

Since quarterback Drew Brees joined the Saints in 2006, the team is No. 2 in the NFL in points scored, with 3,571, behind only the Patriots' 3,843. Receivers like Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem and Lance Moore have been around in that time, and I will bet good money that, if you've played fantasy regularly in the last few years, you've started each guy at some point, probably multiple times.

It makes sense to do so. The Saints have topped 400 points in a season six times in that span, 500 points twice. Brees has never put up fewer than 240 fantasy points in a season, firmly sitting in the top tier of quarterbacks. It's why we like Stills coming out of a fine-if-unspectacular rookie season, and why Cooks, a good-looking rookie out of Oregon State, seems like a nice prospect as well.

Someone, though, needs to tell Brees about this thought.

Let's create a threshold. Last year, to be a starting wide receiver in a standard league, or in the top 25 (20 wide receivers plus five-ish as a flex, which is a rough estimate, but we're not trying to be exact exact here), a wide receiver needed 118 fantasy points. To be a starting tight end (top 10), that number was 96. Play it quick and dirty then, and say 100 points at either wide receiver or tight end is enough to be a solid "starter" at the position.

In that case, the Saints have had, in the years Brees has been with the team, 17 "starting" fantasy pass-catchers, or just over two per season. Picking three other teams at random, the Arizona Cardinals have put up 13 such seasons, the Baltimore Ravens 13 and the Chicago Bears eight.

So that works then, right? The Saints have had a powerful offense. The Cardinals and Ravens have had their moments (and Arizona has, of course, had Larry Fitzgerald), while the Bears haven't had a competent offense until last year, basically. The numbers match up with what logic dictates.

Except eight of those 17 player-seasons for the Saints have belonged to Marques Colston, with tight end Jimmy Graham accounting for three more. That's 11. Moore had four in his time in New Orleans, and Henderson and Meachem each had one.

Brees has reached the 100-point threshold on three different pass-catchers only twice in his eight years in New Orleans -- 2011 and 2012. In other words, yeah, it sounds great to say that such a high-powered offense will produce a lot of high-caliber pass-catching options, but by and large, Brees hasn't had a specific third option he's gone to often enough to make a fantasy go of it. And when he does, it's usually been a running back, meaning a non-Colston wide receiver is just one more tiny mouth to feed.

Stills and Cooks both look nice. You could do way worse as a lottery ticket, late-round flyer option in your drafts. And if that's why you take them, go for it. But if you're drafting them as your starter, or anything close to that, you might be expecting more out of that vaunted New Orleans offense than you're likely to get.

Wide receivers

Start here, since that's already what I'm discussing. Colston, as mentioned earlier, has put up at least 100 fantasy points every season of his career, peaking with his 2012 production of 1,154 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns. He's had at least 943 yards in every season of more than 11 games and has never scored fewer than five touchdowns in a year.

It's not always predictable -- he had 15, 11 and 18 yards in three straight games last year, then put up 107 and a score the next week -- but one way or another, Colston has always gotten it done. He likely lacks the upside of the highest tier of receivers, but he's basically a Vincent Jackson clone: You put him in the lineup as long as he's healthy, and you do your level best to never pay attention to him. Because the minute you get fed up with his two-, three-point outings is the minute he puts up 23 fantasy points and wins you your week. Pair him with a reliable, consistent receiver -- a Jordy Nelson or a Kendall Wright type, depending on when you draft him -- and Colston will be fine. I'd take him in the early 20s at the position, around 50 overall. He's a high-end flex play who can totally pass as a starting WR2 if you crush the other positions.

I mentioned Stills and Cooks above, but to reiterate, I wouldn't be starting either one in Week 1, and frankly, neither would be very close to starting. Cooks, who totaled 1,730 receiving yards at Oregon State last year, was the No. 20 overall draft pick. He's more likely than Stills to explode and prove me super-wrong, with the versatility to catch short passes and run, and the speed to go crazy downfield.

Stills, meanwhile, has more than a little Colston in him. He scored five touchdowns a year ago, with none of the five coming from inside of 34 yards. He had 641 yards on the season, with 273 of them coming on those five scores. Some receivers accumulate yardage and add scores as (significant) gravy; Stills needed his deep plays to even justify his playing time. And those deep scores are hideously unreliable.

I'd take Cooks ahead of Stills, in the 150 range. Stills would be more around 200. If forced to start one, again, Cooks is the way to go, as guessing when Stills has his big moments is the definite road to madness.

(Meachem is still around, as well, but he's even further down the usability list.)

Tight end

I'll put this here so I can get it over with; it's the single easiest call of any individual player in the game. Jimmy Graham, in his three seasons as the Saints' starter, has put up 1,169 yards and 12 touchdowns per year. He's a machine who should produce at a high level as long as he's healthy. He should obviously be the first tight end off the board in any draft, and he's going to be a first-rounder in most of them.

There is one caveat, which I've written about before. Sometime in the next few days, we should hear a decision as to Graham's positional status -- whether he's a tight end or a wide receiver. For him and the Saints, that will determine a lot of salary questions. For fantasy owners, though, it shouldn't change much.

For one thing, even if he's declared a wide receiver, there's not a fantasy site in the world that will strip him of tight end status, and almost everyone who owns him in fantasy will use him, and get more value out of him, at that position. For another, as I mentioned in that story linked above, even if Graham does play as a wide receiver for you, his production is high enough as to return that draft value as a receiver anyway. Basically, the announcement that will come in the next few days shouldn't change much of anything about Graham for fantasy.

Quarterback

Here's another easy one. There is a top tier of quarterback that is Peyton Manning, all by himself, which should be agreeable to everyone, unless you have a compelling reason to think he'll suddenly age. There's a third tier of quarterbacks that starts at Cam Newton and extends an indeterminate distance down the quarterback list.

That second tier, then, is where Brees very, very obviously lies. He's hanging out there with Aaron Rodgers, and if you want to put either one ahead of the other, I won't argue too strenuously. Personally, I'd take Brees just a bit below Manning, just a bit ahead of Rodgers, in the early teens overall, but I think the majority would actually opt for Rodgers. Regardless, he'll be off the board early.

Running back

And now, the position I only mentioned in passing once in this entire piece. The Saints have gotten dominant fantasy seasons out of running backs in the past few years. Reggie Bush put up 161 fantasy points in a season. Deuce McAllister had 171. Pierre Thomas had 148 in 2008 and 2009. And Darren Sproles put up 170 in 2011, and that's before you even start to consider PPR leagues.

But the last two years, between injury, decreased effectiveness and more sharing of the load, New Orleans running backs haven't been nearly as dominant as they had been in the past; Sproles led the team in scoring in 2012 with 129 points, with Thomas topping the list at 118.

Heading into 2014, Sproles is gone to Philadelphia, leaving the team with Thomas, Mark Ingram, Khiry Robinson and Travaris Cadet, in some order. Just like the issues with the team's secondary receivers, though, there's every chance Brees and the Saints divvy the touches enough among the group that no single guy is anything close to a sure thing.

The Saints, of course, have been as pass-happy to running backs as any team in the league for years now. Thomas has more than 2,000 career receiving yards, with 513 last season alone, and in his two seasons, Cadet has gone for 49 receiving yards against only one rush for 5 yards. Ingram is the team's most traditional running back, with more than 90 percent of his career yards -- and all 11 of his touchdowns -- coming on the ground.

Even entering his eighth season, Thomas is still the team's No. 1 option at running back, though he barely projects to be a fantasy starter. I'd take him as a low-end flex at best, maybe 30, 32 among running backs, in the mid-to-late 70s overall. In a point-per-reception league, that bumps up a few notches, making Thomas as high as a high-end flex play.

Ingram, who has been a disappointment so far in his three-year pro career after being a first-round draft pick in 2011, will be the team's hammer, the ground guy who moves the chains. His upside is low, even in the Saints' offense, meaning anyone taking him is doing so largely for depth, because he's unlikely to make the leap necessary to be a week-to-week fantasy starter.

If I had to, I'd take Ingram in the mid-50s among running backs, and in the 14th round or later in standard leagues. But I'm unlikely to even bother; I prefer upside.

Robinson's value is about the same as Ingram's, though in a different way; a younger guy and more of a wild card, Robinson is a higher-ceiling, lower-floor option than Ingram. With a clear job in front of him, Ingram will almost certainly offer a minimum of two or three fantasy points a game. Robinson will put up total goose eggs in some weeks, but he has the chance to score in the teens if things go right. Still, the highs and lows balance out to about the same value as Ingram.

Cadet, the fourth running back, will need some injuries or other change to do a lot for fantasy. He's just not likely to get the necessary touches.

Miss out on any of the team pieces so far? Catch up here:
AFC EAST NFC EAST
Buffalo Bills Dallas Cowboys
Miami Dolphins New York Giants
New England Patriots Philadelphia Eagles
New York Jets Washington
AFC NORTH NFC NORTH
Baltimore Ravens Chicago Bears
Cincinnati Bengals Detroit Lions
Cleveland Browns Green Bay Packers
Pittsburgh Steelers Minnesota Vikings
AFC SOUTH NFC SOUTH
Houston Texans Atlanta Falcons
Indianapolis Colts Carolina Panthers
Jacksonville Jaguars New Orleans Saints (Hola)
Tennessee Titans Tampa Bay Buccaneers
AFC WEST NFC WEST
Denver Broncos Arizona Cardinals
Kansas City Chiefs San Francisco 49ers
Oakland Raiders Seattle Seahawks
San Diego Chargers St. Louis Rams

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