Photo courtesy of: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
The Saints began the 2018 season strong through the first 12 weeks where they went 10-1 and were riding a 10-game win streak. During that time, the team was first in the league in completion percentage and passer rating, tied for the league’s fewest interceptions thrown and sacks allowed, landed third in passing touchdowns thrown and eighth in passing yardage. Conversely over the last five games of the season, New Orleans struggled to maintain their offensive production. The Saints dropped across all of the areas above. Seventh in completion percentage and 24th in passer rating, tied for the fourth-most interceptions thrown and 13th-most sacks allowed, and threw for the 10th-fewest passing yards and 4th-fewest touchdowns in the NFL. Many feel that drop-off came down to both offensive line injuries that began to pile up as the season went on and the lack of a second receiving option opposite Michael Thomas.
The Saints addressed the offensive line over the offseason by signing who I believe will become their swing Guard, Nick Easton and drafting their new starting Center Erik McCoy who will replace the recently retired Max Unger. These moves most help to sure up that offensive line depth and prepare the position group for what are seemingly inevitable injuries at this point. While the offensive line has been addressed, many questions surround the wide receiver group and who will step up outside of Michael Thomas.
The free agency addition of Tight End Jared Cook was a major move for the Saints and he will more than certainly factor into the prolonged success of the passing offense over next season. Despite the fact that the Saints haven’t made a big splash move at the Wide Receiver position specifically, it looks like they are still in a good position to improve the play around big number 13. Let’s take a look at the crowded WR room in New Orleans and how, even without a big fish free agent or top draft prospect, the team stands to benefit from their potential.
2018 Stats: 125 Catches, 1,405 Yards, and 9 Receiving Touchdowns | 85% Catch Percentage
Can’t Guard Mike has lived up to his nickname over his first three years in the league. He’s solidified himself, in many minds, as one of the league’s top-three Wide Receivers. He has, in my mind, one of two locked down placement among the wideout depth chart. Clearly WR1 in New Orleans. the big question marks surrounding Thomas come down to his future in New Orleans and when that contract extension will get settled. The rest of the roster behind him bear much larger questions. Remember, at the beginning of last season Coach Payton talked about how the Wide Receiver depth chart was written in chalk during training camp meaning that any player could assume any role. Aside from Michael Thomas, you have to imagine the coaching staff is coming in to 2019’s season with much the same mentality.
Ted Ginn, Jr.
2018 Stats: 17 Catches, 209 Yards, and 2 Touchdowns | Missed 11 games with injury
I truly believe that Ginn has a locked down spot at WR2 at least to start the season. However, he’ll have to work to fend off second-year receiver Tre’Quan Smith who we’ll talk about shortly. Ginn didn’t get a ton of reps in 2018 after missing weeks 5 – 14 and taking weeks 16 and 17 off. He added six catches for 102 yards in the playoffs and served as a pivotal piece in the Saints’ Week 15 win against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Ginn came to New Orleans in 2017 and immediately became the deep threat that could take the top off of defenses throughout that season where he also set a career high in completion percentage. He showed flashes of that same productivity, though not as great a catch rate, in 2018 and should be able to start this season with a chance to get back to that career form he showed in his first season with Drew Brees.
2018 Stats: 28 Catches, 427 Yards, and 5 Touchdowns | 121.9 Passer Rating When Targeted
Smith came into his rookie year thrust into the mix after Ted Ginn Jr.’s knee injury. Despite being the Saints’ second-leading wide receiver in yardage with 427 and bringing in the team’s second-most receiving touchdowns regardless of position with five. Smith also lead all rookies at his position with 25 or more targets in passer rating when targeted and secured the fifth-highest PFF overall grade among the same eligible pool. Despite those accomplishments many will remember his season as being inconsistent. 268 of Smith’s receiving yards came in two contests. Outside of those two games, Smith only compiled more than 30 receiving yards one time. He’ll need to be able to find ways to more consistently impact games in order to fight his way to a share of those WR2 snaps.
After these three, there are currently nine receivers on the roster fighting for probably three more spots at most. So far, the Saints have only invested 7.61% of their total salary to the Wide Receiver position group. That’s the third-least in the league. That will likely soon shift as soon as the Saints will need to decide whether or not they’re going to invest top-dollar in Michael Thomas, which I believe they will. But with that lack of investment in the position otherwise, New Orleans remains patient with players returning from injury and a host of young draft picks and undrafted free agents.
Cameron Meredith is the most experienced receiver on the roster after Thomas and Ginn. His 2016 season as the #2 option in Chicago showed a lot of promise as he racked up 66 catches for 888 yards and 4 touchdowns. He suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2017 and was signed away from Chicago by the Saints on an RFA tender. 2018 started off promising, catching his first pass since 2016 in Week 3 against the Falcons for a touchdown. Unfortunately for Meredith outside of his 5 catch, 74 yard game against Washington after the bye week, his production fell off recording no stats in his next three games before heading to injured reserve for the same knee injury that kept him out in 2017. Meredith has a big chance after taking a pay cut this offseason to come into 2019 revitalized and ready to go. The former Bear caught 76 of his 114 yards and 7 of his 9 receptions from the slot; a position that will be hotly contested this year.
Keith Kirkwood flew onto the scene in the Saints’ Week 10 tilt against the Cincinnati Bengals where he caught 2 passes for 45 yards and ran some nice routes against the much maligned Bengals secondary. He was called up from the practice squad earlier than expected after the Saints tried to bring WR Dez Bryant into the fold who ended up with his season-ending achilles injury the day after signing his contract. Kirkwood played well throughout the season grabbing 13 catches for 209 yards and 2 touchdowns. He’ll be Meredith’s top competition for the big slot position after bringing in 11 catches, 193 yards, and both of his touchdowns from the slot.
Austin Carr is an often forgotten piece in the Saints offense. He saw the starting slot position before Cameron Meredith cam into the mix a couple of weeks into the season. While his 2018 wasn’t wildly successful, he does have the advantage of his extensive experience in the Saints offense spending time with the Saints from 2017 on after also holding a spot on the Patriots’ practice squad. his familiarity with the system has garnered compliments from his coaches and earned him a starting role in the offense to open the season.
Travin Dural returns for another shot at the roster in training camp. He impressed during last season’s workout and training programs before breaking his arm and missing out on his chance to compete through the exhibition games. He spent all of 2018 on IR and will be another body in the mix to earn a potential backup role as a perimeter receiver. However, his path to the roster is very crowded. He could, more likely, fight his way to a practice squad opportunity however. A spot he’ll be glad to take as a former LSU Tiger and Breaux Bridge native.
This year’s UDFA roster has been named Rotoworld.com’s best class this season. A large portion of that roster is taken up by wide receivers that will also find their way into this positional battle throughout the offseason. Texas WR Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Northern Arizona’s Emmanuel Butler are two names to watch in that big slot battle. Humphrey in particular was an extremely valuable asset in the slot for the Longhorns. He lead the SEC in slot receptions with 77 and yards from the slot with 1,031 over his three season in Austin. He also brought in 7 of his 10 receiving touchdowns from the slot as well. Butler may also measure in as an ideal option for the Saints in the slot at 6’4″ and 220 lbs. but he has experience lining up on the outside as well. He’ll have to show that he’s recovered reliably from his college injuries in order to get a serious look. Though he was signed from Washington’s practice squad in December of last year and saw no action in a Saints uniform, you could add Simmie Cobb Jr. to this list as well. Not only as a potential slot option but as a red zone threat as well. After Dez Bryant was lost to injury the Saints went on a bit of a signing spree trying to find a solid option within the 20’s in first signing TE Erick Swoope who failed his physical and reverted back to Indianapolis’ IR. That’s when the Saints went after Cobb.
The rest of the group rounds out with the new faces of Assumption College’s Deonte Harris and newly signed LSU track star Cyril Grayson. Harris and Grayson might not be household names, but they might have a bit of a clearer path to the 53-man roster come September. Both players come in with incredible speed; Grayson ran a 4.33 at LSU’s Pro Day while Harris put up a 4.39. Their in to the roster could be in competing as the primary return specialist, taking up a sixth wide receiver slot. Harris holds many records at Assumption Colleges including all-purpose yardage and touchdowns, but he also holds the NCAA all-division record for most return touchdowns in a career with a whopping 14 with an eye-popping kick return yardage average of 32.6. In addition to that he also produced three 8+ touchdown years through his four seasons at Assumption. Grayson may not hold such a record, but he comes in with some preseason NFL experience including 25.1 yards per kick return and a couple of deep pass receptions. The retention of either of these guys could signal a short-lived stint in New Orleans for Marcus Sherels if they also prove to be effective punt returners.
The Saints over the last three years have kept a maximum of six receivers on the roster after the 53 cut. For fun, here’s a way-too-early prediction of what keeping six receivers might look like for New Orleans. This, to me, would also include the surprise cut of Marcus Sherels from the roster, whose $1.02M salary only had a $90K signing bonus guaranteed.
1. Michael Thomas
2. Ted Ginn, Jr.
3. Cameron Meredith (Slot)
4. Tre’Quan Smith
5. Keith Kirkwood
6. Deonte Harris (KR/PR)
If asked to take a risk, I’d put Kirkwood starting in the slot and Lil’Jordan Humphrey as his backup with Cameron Meredith being cut. However, I can see Humphrey taking the Kirkwood route from last year and finding his way on to the practice squad with emergency potential if injuries take a toll.
The big plus for New Orleans and the advantage they have coming into 2019 is that they have options. A great benefit across the roster and on both side of the ball. But for New Orleans, who have continued to add talent around QB Drew Brees, having this many options at pass-catcher going into minicamps offers a leg up as they’ll have a full offseason for Brees and Payton to weigh their options as opposed to, hopefully, rushing to account for injuries. Putting them in the best position to help find that legitimate second option at wideout opposite Michael Thomas.
Follow Ross on Twitter @RossJacksonASC