2016 fantasy football depth charts: New Orleans Saints
With an offense that has ranked in the top five in yards per game in each of the last five years, the Saints have been a mainstay of fantasy production. Last year, New Orleans was one of just two teams to average more than 400 yards per game, and a lot of that success can be linked to their quarterback.
Drew Brees’ picture isn’t in the dictionary next to the definition of consistency, but it probably should be. The Saints signal caller has topped 30 touchdown passes in each of the last eight seasons with four 5,000-plus yard efforts and only one season below 4,500 yards. Brees led all quarterbacks in fantasy scoring three times over that span, and his worst finish was sixth. Passing volume is typically favorable in Sean Payton’s offense. Last season, Brees was second to Philip Rivers in attempts (627) and completions (428). He was also extremely accurate, ranking second in completion percentage (68.3), and only Ben Roethlisberger was more accurate on balls traveling at least 20 yards in the air. Entering his age-37 season, Brees is no spring chicken, but he remains a top-end fantasy option.
Impressively, Brees put up these numbers with a young receiver corps and without Jimmy Graham. One of those young players was the ascending Brandin Cooks. A popular breakout pick in last year’s drafts, Cooks got off to a very slow start with just 20 catches for 215 yards and zero scores through the first four weeks of the season. Over that span, he ranked 49th in fantasy scoring. For the rest of the season, he was fantasy’s No. 8 receiver, outscoring the likes of Eric Decker, A.J. Green, and Calvin Johnson over the final 13 weeks of the season. The field stretcher in the Saints’ offense, Cooks was one of just 10 wide receivers with 30-or-more deep targets, scoring six times on deep passes. His big-play ability in the Saints offense gives Cooks borderline WR1 appeal.
At this time last year, we would have been hard pressed to find anyone who had Willie Snead on their fantasy radar. However, the former un-drafted free agent out of Ball State flashed in the preseason and worked his way into a prominent role in the Saints offense. Improbably, Snead finished as a top-36 fantasy receiver, and he did so thanks in part to catching a position-high 64.3 percent of deep targets. While his production was certainly impressive, the Saints bolstered their offense with the additions of TE Coby Fleener and rookie WR Michael Thomas. As such, Snead’s target share should take a hit.
Thomas is an intriguing rookie out of Ohio State. He has prototype No. 1 receiver size (6-3, 212) and displayed big-play ability with 705 yards coming on receptions traveling at least 20 yards in the air. Thomas lined up mainly on the outside in college, but there’s a chance he’s used in the “big slot” role we saw Marques Colston occupy for a number of years. While Thomas isn’t a burner (4.57 40 time), he proved to be strong after the catch with a forced missed tackle on 23.2 percent of his catches in 2015.
The Saints upgraded at tight end, signing free agent Coby Fleener in the offseason. The move takes Fleener from a middling, at best, TE2 to a potential top-end TE1. It’s no secret that the Saints heavily target their tight ends. Jimmy Graham was a perennial top fantasy option, leading the position in scoring in 2012 and 2013. Last season, the pedestrian Ben Watson finished seventh in fantasy scoring. While he may not be Graham, Fleener is a significant upgrade on Watson. He ranked fourth among tight ends in yards on deep-ball targets with 138 in 2015. That ability to get downfield bodes extremely well in the Saints’ pass-happy system. Fleener is poised for a career year.
At running back, Mark Ingram is solidified as the Saints workhorse. Once labelled as a fantasy bust, Ingram emerged as one of the better options at the position over the last two seasons. In 2014, he finished as fantasy’s No. 15 running back despite missing three games. The injury bug also cost Ingram time last season. He was fourth in fantasy scoring among running backs when he landed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury in Week 13. Despite the injury concerns, Ingram has a lot of appeal, especially when you factor in his ability as a receiver. His 50 catches ranked eighth in the league last season. With little competition on the depth chart Ingram is poised for a significant role on what appears to be an improved offense.
In addition to Ingram, the Saints also have C.J. Spiller and Tim Hightower on the roster. Last season, Spiller had just 70 touches in 13 games played and finished an abysmal 61st in fantasy scoring. While his explosive ability still has some appeal, the luster has certainly faded. Ingram’s increased usage in the passing game doesn’t help the cause. Spiller is going to be a part of the Saints offense this season, but with so many mouths to feed, his role will remain limited. Despite being out of the league since 2011, Hightower emerged as a surprise fantasy asset following Ingram’s injury at the end of last season. Hightower is the favorite to open the season as Ingram’s backup.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Saints have fantasy assets at all three levels. Cameron Jordan is a true three-down defensive linemen who offers DL2-plus fantasy value. At linebacker, New Orleans signed veteran James Laurinaitis to join second-year man Stephone Anthony. Laurinaitis figures to play in the middle with Anthony sliding to the strong side. Both are likely with play all three downs, but Anthony offers a higher ceiling and is the more appealing fantasy option. Kenny Vaccaro is coming off a strong 2015 campaign where he finished 5th among defensive backs in balanced fantasy scoring. He’s locked in as a strong DB1 option.