How A Colston Injury Impacts The Saints Offense
The Saints offense is built on versatile personnel that can Drew Brees and Sean Payton can move around a formation to create mismatches. During the Brees-Payton era, opposing defenses have seen New Orleans use its tight end at the line of scrimmage, in the slot, and split wide; it's running back in the backfield, in the slot, and split wide; and switch receivers from the slot to the perimeter. Marques Colston has been a lynch pin for the offense's versatility since the beginning of the Saints' run as a true contender.
If Colston misses significant time, the Saints lose a player with the expertise to read zones in the middle of the field. This is a big deal for New Orleans because Colston, Graham, and Pierre Thomas often create a double or triple bind on the defense over the middle. A less experienced receiver in Colston's role will be more prone to mistakes that accidentally crowd an area meant for his teammates and force Brees to throw the ball away or take a few more sacks that he has in the past due to pressure compounding the route confusion.
With the exception of Robert Meachem and Ben Watson, the skill players beyond Colston and Jimmy Graham on this receiving corps depth chart are an inexperienced group. Brees and Payton have enough skill and experience to help these young players deliver, but the consistency of production could be a concern.
WR Kenny Stills - The second-year receiver displayed excellent skill in the vertical game as well as reliable hands on difficult targets. This was a bit surprising to some people last year who watched Oklahoma's offense and pegged Stills as more of a slot/underneath type. If Colston gets hurt, Stills could earn more of that role for the Saints and become the second option after Graham in the pecking order of the passing game.
WR Brandin Cooks - I don't think Cooks is Steve Smith incarnate. He was not a physical receiver against tight single coverage and he had issues making plays in these situations on a consistent basis. I do think he can get better at it, but Steve Smith demonstrated far more skill with the ball in the air than I've ever seen from Cooks. Still, Cooks is a talented player in a great situation and if Colston gets hurt, you'll see a lot more targets planned for Cooks in the middle of the field where New Orleans can exploit his speed after the catch. I expect Cooks to be the replacement for Darren Sproles in the same way that the Patriots have been trying to replace Aaron Hernandez with Shane Vereen -- the positions are technically different and they don't necessarily do the same things as well as their predecessors, but Cooks and Vereen offer a multidimensionality that can force mismatches that favor them and teammates.
QB Drew Brees - Brees made Lance Moore a 16 ypc receiver two years ago when Colston was ailing. Lance Moore. If this is not a clear indication that Brees will be just fine without Colston. But I should note that if Graham and Colston get hurt, Brees could face a similar scenario with inexperienced weapons as Tom Brady did in 2013. Contrary to some fantasy TPS reports that indicate Brady is a declining player, the Patriots offensive line allowed pressure into the pocket faster than any team in the league last year. This fact and the young, callow receiving corps were big factors. If Brees has to deal with injuries to both members of this 1-2 punch, selling becomes a consideration.
TE Jimmy Graham - Tony Gonzalez was still a fine TE1 without Roddy White (figuratively), Julio Jones (literally), and Steven Jackson (most of the time) last year. The same will apply to Graham's fantasy production if Colston goes down. The Saints love to use a RB/TE bind against defenses in the red zone, so nothing will change significantly on that front without Colston unless New Orleans also loses Kenny Stills and Nick Toon. If so, we could see opposing defenses use the punt return technique on Graham the way defenses did with Gonzalez.
Saints Running Backs - New Orleans flashed a strong ground attack in the playoffs and it would not surprise me if they use a little more of it this year even if Colston remains healthy. Pierre Thomas' projections are split among those who think he'll build on last year's production and those who believe it was a career-year due to Mark Ingram II's dings and the team's caution with introducing Khiry Robinson into the mix. I believe Ingram, Robinson, and Thomas are essentially three of one and a trio of the other. Hold who you took based on your belief of which one has the most potential. In PPR, my pick is Thomas, but Khiry Robinson might be the best overall value of the trio.
WR Robert Meachem - There is still a cadre of fantasy owners (and writers) who will tout Meachem or draft him as a late round option. These owners appreciate Meachem's fine athleticism and remember the one decent season earlier in his career where he made big plays. That season even produced a nice effort on data sheets when it came to holding onto the ball. In this case fantasy TPS reports weren't helpful and the season was an anomaly. Meachem has longstanding issues holding onto targets and running consistent routes. He may have a few quality games, but whether he's a player you added or drafted late, I'd sell high on Meachem after his first big week.
WR Nick Toon - A fourth-round pick in 2012, the 6-2, 215-pound Toon is very much a receiver in the Colston-Michael Crabtree physical template. He's not a speedster, but he's fast enough to stretch the field up the seams on play-action passes. He's also big and strong enough to win position on a defender with the ball in the air -- and back-shoulder fades are a staple of the Saints' passing game. Toon also brings a possession receiver's hands and knack as a route runner. Toon has performed well early in camp and there's even talk that he might earn the No.4 spot on the depth chart. If Colston gets hurt, Toon is physically and technically the best match for big slot receiver role.
TE Josh Hill - I would not sleep on Hill. I liked what I saw from him against Atlanta in Week 12 last year and the fact that the team incorporated him into the passing game during the playoffs is testament to his potential. Monitor his progress in training camp, because it's possible that the tall, athletic Hill could sneak into red zone duty even if a player like Colston went down -- think the Lions with Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler/Joseph Fauria.