STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
After a one-year hiatus, the Saints returned to the playoffs in 2013. They stormed to an 8-2 record to start the season before eventually finishing 11-5, a mere game behind the Panthers for the NFC South crown. Though the season would end in disappointing fashion – stifled by the Seahawks defense for the second time in just over a month's time in the NFC Divisional Round – the Saints returned to their high-flying offensive ways after the reinstatement of coach Sean Payton following a year-long suspension in 2012.
Leading the charge once again in 2014 will be star quarterback Drew Brees. Though Brees loses a couple of his favorite offensive toys in Darren Sproles (traded to the Eagles) and Lance Moore (signed as free agent by the Steelers), superstar pass-catcher Jimmy Graham (86 receptions, 1,215 yards, 16 touchdowns) and veteran wideout Marques Colston (75 receptions, 943 yards, five touchdowns) anchor the offense, along with a group of young receivers led by budding speedster Kenny Stills and last year's Biletnikoff Award winner Brandin Cooks, the team's first-round pick in May's NFL Draft.
In the backfield, Pierre Thomas is back, as are Mark Ingram and former undrafted free agents Khiry Robinson and Travaris Cadet. Good luck relying on any of the bunch on a weekly basis from a fantasy standpoint, however, given the Saints' "hot hand" approach. That said, Thomas, who is coming off a 77-catch season, should again have success in the passing game, picking up the pieces in Sproles' absence.
On the other side of the ball, after a historically bad 2012 campaign, the Saints showed rapid improvement under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan last season. Deploying exotic and aggressive schemes in a hybrid 3-4 defense, Ryan's squad allowed only 19 points per game – good for fourth in the league. Cameron Jordan proved to be the breakout star, making his first Pro Bowl after pulling down 12.5 sacks in only his third NFL season, but the Saints also received solid contributions from the ever-consistent Curtis Lofton (125 tackles), tenacious edge rusher Junior Galette (12 sacks) and lockdown cover corner Keenan Lewis (47 tackles, four interceptions). Though the secondary endured departures from longtime contributors Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins this offseason, the Saints added one of the league's top free agents in safety Jairus Byrd, and last year's rookie sensation, safety Kenny Vaccaro, appears more than ready for an even larger role. In Vaccaro and Byrd, the Saints could have one of the NFL's top safety duos for years to come.
With an offense that has been consistently near the top of the league since Payton's arrival in 2006, fantasy goodness abounds in New Orleans' spread-the-wealth attack. Having coupled that feared unit with a much-improved defense, the Saints are once again on most pundits' short lists of Super Bowl contenders in 2014.
Brandin Cooks – WR, Oregon State (Round 1, 20th Overall)
Undersized, but an excellent route runner. The speedster should see plenty of targets with the departures of Lance Moore and Darren Sproles.
Jairus Byrd – S, Bills
The ball-hawk could be an IDP stalwart, after snaring 22 picks in five seasons with Bills.
Champ Bailey – CB, Broncos
The 15-year vet suffered an injury-plagued 2013, but the Saints hope he can bolster a shaky cornerback position.
Stanley Jean-Baptiste – CB, Nebraska (Round 2, 58th Overall)
The rookie brings ideal size but will need to prove he has the wheels to handle NFL burners.
Darren Sproles – RB, Eagles
Looked to have lost a step last season but 71 catches is nothing to sneeze at.
Lance Moore – WR, Steelers
A Brees favorite, but struggled with injuries/production in 2013.
Roman Harper – S, Panthers
Averaged 98 tackles per season between 2007 and 2012.
Malcolm Jenkins – S, Eagles
Solid in run support but only six career interceptions in five seasons.
They say "30 is the new 20," but in NFL years, 30 might as well be the new 40. Since entering the league as an undrafted free agent out of Hofstra in 2006, Colston has been metronomic in his consistency, surpassing the 1,000-yard receiving mark and snaring at least seven touchdowns in each of his first seven seasons with the Saints, with the exception of an injury-plagued campaign in 2008. Last year, however, Colston saw that streak come to an end, finishing with 943 yards and a mere five touchdowns in 15 games. While he still hauled in 75 receptions on a healthy 110 targets, Colston's numbers overall were underwhelming given the high standards fantasy owners have set for him. Though it's unquestionable that nagging injuries to his knee and back contributed to his lesser production, it was clear that Colston, who has been described as "one cheeseburger short of being a tight end," struggled to gain separation from cornerbacks throughout the year. While it would be unwise to count him out in 2014 – particularly with Drew Brees still at the helm – it's possible that Colston's best years are behind him as he turned 31 in June.
The Saints threw the ball 651 times last year, with 143 targets going to the departed Darren Sproles and Lance Moore, so there's room for some current members of the offense to pick up some extra production. Yet outside of Marques Colston, the receivers most likely to occupy spots 2-4 on the Saints depth chart – Kenny Stills, Brandin Cooks and Nick Toon – average only 22 years old, but each brings a very distinct set of skills to the table. Stills, a fifth-round pick in last year's draft, made an immediate impact in 2013, scoring five touchdowns and averaging 20 yards per catch on 32 receptions, eventually earning a starting position opposite Colston. His greatest asset is his speed, and in addition to naturally assuming more responsibility in his second season (read: more catches), the Saints will rely on Stills as a game-changing deep threat on the outside. Toon, meanwhile, is a big-bodied wideout in the Colston mold. After missing the entire 2012 season with a foot injury, 2013 was essentially his rookie campaign. Though he disappointed in limited action, the Saints are high on the former third-round draft pick and believe that at 6-4, 218, he could be an eventual successor to fellow big man Colston and a dangerous red-zone threat. Finally, Cooks may be the most intriguing fantasy option of the bunch. Though consistency is likely to be an issue with the typical huge learning curve for rookie WRs, Cooks is an extremely polished route runner out of a pro-style offense. With his elite speed and offensive guru Sean Payton calling the shots, Cooks could emerge as a relevant fantasy threat out of the slot.
Rising: With a year of seasoning under his belt and Lance Moore in Pittsburgh, expect Kenny Stills to garner significantly more than last year's 50 targets.
Declining: Last season marked the first time since 2008 that Marques Colston failed to crack 1,000 yards receiving, as his struggles to separate from coverage were particularly evident.
Sleeper: It's always hard to trust rookie wideouts, but coach Sean Payton will find ways to get the ball in the hands of Brandin Cooks.
Supersleeper: Another one of the team's undrafted free agent gems, Khiry Robinson showed flashes of brilliance down the stretch. With Darren Sproles' departure, his role could expand, particularly as a pass-catcher.
Cameron Jordan - DE
Led the Saints with 12.5 sacks in his first Pro Bowl season.
Curtis Lofton - LB
Extended his streak of 100-plus tackle seasons to five last year.
Kenny Vaccaro - S
Finished third on the team in tackles even with Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper starting in front of him.
RotoWire Rank: 16