All Sean Payton did in his first season as head coach was lead the Saints to the NFC championship game and lift a city that needed a diversion from a tough rebuilding effort following Hurricane Katrina. What will he and his players do for an encore? That's the burning question as the Saints march into Year 2 under Payton.
The Saints were No. 1 in total offense last season thanks in large part to Drew Brees and a passing game that could have made Colts fans jealous. Wide receiver Marques Colston became a fantasy factor despite being a rookie. And Payton managed to find the perfect blend between Reggie Bush's explosiveness and Deuce McAllister's power to keep both backs high in the fantasy rankings.
After a performance like that, it's difficult to believe everything will go as smoothly this time around, especially for Saints fans who've grown accustomed to disappointment. But when Bush is involved it seems as though anything is possible. Just look at the highlights from one of his leaping touchdowns for proof of that.
Projected draft round Player Round Drew Brees, QB 3-4 Reggie Bush, RB 1-2 Deuce McAllister, RB 3-4 Marques Colston, WR 4-5 Devery Henderson, WR 11 Eric Johnson, TE DND Olindo Mare, K 17 Defense/special teams DND Draft position based on a standard 12-team combined scoring and yardage league with a 17-round draft. DND: Do not draft.
Key additions: TE Eric Johnson, K Olindo Mare, WR David Patten. Key losses: K John Carney, TE Ernie Conwell, WR Joe Horn.
Drew Brees, QB. Brees enjoyed a career season in 2006 as he topped 4,000 passing yards for the first time and kept his fantasy owners in the race until the end -- when he threw just one touchdown pass in the final three weeks. Brees has top-notch weapons in Colston and Bush, and Payton will do his best to put Brees in situations where he can succeed. But I can't help but think Brees is a tad overvalued. He'll be drafted in the third or fourth round in most leagues, which is where he should go, but carefully consider what running backs and wide receivers are available before you take the plunge.
Reggie Bush, RB. Bush is a mercurial fantasy performer because of his lack of carries. Only twice last season did he get 15 or more in a game. Therefore, Bush relies on big plays in the passing game to get his fantasy points, and those can come in spurts. Plus, three of his six rushing touchdowns last season came in one game against the 49ers. But the potential is there for great things based on Bush's talent and the expectation that Payton will give him more carries now that Bush has some NFL experience. He's a borderline No. 1 fantasy back -- unless, of course, you're in a points-per-reception league, where he's gold.
Deuce McAllister, RB. A lot of experts thought McAllister would simply fade into the background once Bush arrived on the scene. What happened instead was the perfect scenario for McAllister to enjoy fantasy success. By sharing carries with Bush, McAllister was able to stay relatively healthy en route to his fourth 1,000-yard season. But there's a strong possibility Payton will give Bush more carries this year, so McAllister's value doesn't have much upside. Continue to view him as a low-end No. 2 fantasy back.
Marques Colston, WR. If you're scouring your rankings and trying to find the next Colston, good luck. He was the exception to every rule when he came out of the seventh round of the NFL draft and provided immediate results for fantasy leaguers. This year he faces a challenge; without veteran Joe Horn around, Colston will be the marked man in the Saints' passing game. Expect him to face his share of double-teams, but once Bush goes out into a pattern, Colston will find some open space. Colston is a borderline No. 1 fantasy wide receiver -- and we emphasize wide receiver (he also was listed as a tight end in some game systems last year).
Olindo Mare, K. Mare ranked 32nd in the NFL last season with a 72.2 percent accuracy rate on his field-goal attempts. He's 34 years old and made just one kick from beyond 50 yards for Miami in 2006. So why in the heck is he rated this high? Two reasons: He'll kick in domes for 10 of his team's 16 games -- including the entire fantasy playoffs -- and will have the Saints' explosive offense supporting him. Still, it would be dumb to use anything but a final-round pick on him -- or any other kicker for that matter.
Will Smith, DE. Smith had a career-high 10.5 sacks last season, and he has averaged 8.8 sacks in his first three years. Combined with the fact he was among the top 35 linemen in tackles last year, and you can see why he is among the top 10 linemen in IDP leagues.
Devery Henderson, WR. Henderson was leading the race to become the Saints' No. 2 wide receiver until a hamstring injury put him on the shelf for two weeks. Rookie Robert Meachem and Terrance Copper now get another chance to show Payton they belong in the starting lineup instead. But chances are that when Henderson is healthy he'll be starting because he is the team's best deep threat. As such, his fantasy production can be hit-or-miss, so he's not worth more than a late bench pick.
Charles Grant, DE. Like his teammate Smith, Grant provides a good balance between tackles and sacks for his IDP owners. But while Smith's production leans more heavily on sacks, Grant's is more closely tied to tackles, where he ranked in the top 10 among linemen last year.
Robert Meachem, WR. As we discussed with Colston, it's rare when a rookie wide receiver comes in and makes an immediate impact. But Meachem has the opportunity to make some noise, especially if Henderson's hamstring injury lingers. With Payton's pass-heavy ways, Meachem would get a decent amount of work even if he earns just a No. 3 wide receiver role in this offense.
Defense/special teams. During the Saints-Bills exhibition game this weekend, one of the announcers was hailing the improvements in the Saints' defense. Well, could that be because there's plenty of room for improvement for a team that ranked 23rd against the run and was second to last in takeaways? We doubt they brought in enough talent -- sorry, but safety Kevin Kaesviharn doesn't thrill us -- to be a fantasy-worthy unit right out of the gate.
Terrance Copper, WR. Copper was a nice waiver-wire pickup in Weeks 10-12 last season when he scored a touchdown in three straight games. So if Henderson is out for an extended period of time, Copper is worth picking up off the waiver wire or even a late draft pick. But don't count on long-term production from him, because he simply doesn't have the physical talent to be more than a fringe NFL receiver.
Eric Johnson, TE. Johnson had 82 receptions for the 49ers in 2004, but a torn foot tendon kept him out in '05. Then the team drafted Vernon Davis, phasing him out of Frisco altogether. The Saints grabbed him as a replacement for Ernie Conwell, but you should take a wait-and-see approach here. Johnson can be an effective receiver -- and Brees has worked with another good tight end that you've probably heard of while he was in San Diego -- but the injuries make him too risky for a draft pick.
Ultimate Fantasy Football Tip: Deuce McAllister was 14th in SN points last season, yet he is ranked just 37th in price -- ahead of backs like the Broncos' Mike Bell. In the first three weeks, the Saints get to face the Colts and Titans, who had two of the league's worst run defenses last season. We could be looking at an early-season bargain here.
TO KNOW LIST
Coaching: Payton leans heavily on the passing game to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers (Colston and Bush), but the short passes to Bush are almost an extension of the running game. Expect Payton to continue to find creative ways to get Bush involved in the offense, leading to what should be a slight increase in his fantasy value. Meanwhile, a premium will be put on Brees to continue to get rid of the ball quickly and avoid sacks. This is one of the most exciting offenses in the league.
Offensive line: The team got a big scare in training camp when left tackle Jammal Brown went down with a bone bruise in his right knee. He is not expected to need surgery, but any absence would prove difficult to deal with at the line's most important position. The unit's pass blocking was a strength last season, helped by Brees' quick decision making. The Saints averaged only 3.7 yards per rush, though, suggesting this is a unit that needs a little more oomph in run blocking.
Schedule analysis: This is a beautiful schedule for fantasy purposes. Not only do the Saints get to face the weak defenses in the NFC West, they also face the AFC South, with soft run Ds in Indy, Tennessee and Houston. Plus, the fantasy playoff schedule includes the Falcons and Cardinals -- and a home game against the Eagles, who can be had for big gains if you handle their blitzes. Fantasy Strength of Schedule: T-25th toughest (or T-6th easiest).