Did the Saints make the right offseason calls to give reinforcements to their star wide receiver?
The New Orleans Saints used the 47th overall pick of the 2016 NFL draft (2nd round) to select wide receiver Michael Thomas out of "THE" Ohio State University. Thomas had an immediate impact, catching 92 passes for 1,137 yards and 9 touchdowns as a rookie. His sophomore campaign was even better, as he hauled in 104 receptions for 1,245 yards and five scores, earning an invite to his first Pro Bowl. Thomas firmly established himself as one of the best receivers in the National Football League with his performance in 2018. His league leading 125 receptions established a new franchise record, as did his 1,405 receiving yards on the way to not only All-Pro honors, but also setting numerous league records for production in a wideout's first three seasons. While Thomas gave quarterback Drew Brees one of the finest targets in the league in 2018, the same cannot be said for the rest of the Saints crew of pass catchers. Veteran Ted Ginn Jr. missed a good portion of the year with a knee injury, free agent addition Cameron Meredith was not recovered from his own knee surgery, and a pair of promising rookie wideouts were not able to produce consistently. Coach Sean Payton felt confident enough in his current group of receivers though, that his team did not address the position in either the draft or as a free agent priority. Today's training camp preview has a look at a position that will draw the most attention from observers of the New Orleans Saints this summer.
Newcomers to watch:
Rishard Matthews, Lil'Jordan Humphrey
As unstoppable as Thomas sometimes was, when defenses did manage to contain the third year wideout, the Saints often struggled in their passing game. He accounted for over 33% of the New Orleans receiving production by himself. Factor in star versatile running back Alvin Kamara, and the two were responsible for 54% of the team's passing game. The 6'3 212-lb. Thomas has underrated athleticism to beat defenses deep, but is absolutely dominant on short and intermediate routes, regardless of the type of coverage against him. With a contract that expires at the conclusion of 2019 season, the 26-yr. old Thomas will soon be the league's highest paid receiver, an extension that the team and player's representatives are reportedly working to complete.
Ted Ginn Jr. missed all but five games in 2018 with a knee injury suffered early on in the year. His return down the stretch and into the playoffs gave the offense a dimension it was missing for much of the year; a feared consistent deep threat. The 34-yr. old Ginn still is one of the most respected down the field receivers in the game, even as he heads into his 13th season. He showed that he can be more than just a deep threat in this offense in 2017, when he caught 53 passes for a career high 787 yards for four touchdowns and a career best 75.7 catch percentage. Now fully healthy, Ginn is expected to again become a complimentary threat in the Saints offense, and clear out space underneath for the team's other weapons.
The Saints spent a 3rd round draft choice (91st overall) last season on wideout Tre'Quan Smith from Central Florida. Smith's overall numbers on the year were average, finishing with 28 receptions for 427 yards and 5 touchdowns, but even those figures were skewed by two games. Smith had 3 catches for 111 yards and two touchdowns, including a 62-yd. score from Brees that vaulted the quarterback past Peyton Manning as the NFL's all-time passing yardage leader, during a week five demolition of the Washington Redskins. Smith also starred in a nationally televised week eleven pummeling of the defending champion Eagles, catching 10 passes for 157 yards and a score. The 6'2 210-lb. Smith is just 23-yrs. old, and has the size, speed, and after catch skills to be a potential star, but often struggled to gain separation or make a tough grab in traffic. Outside of games against the Redskins and Eagles, he had only 15 receptions for just 159 yards and two scores on the year, and was a complete non-factor much of the time. Smith must sharpen his routes and show better concentration in traffic to be a consistently effective weapon, something that the team is counting on for a more diverse attack.
Another rookie wideout last season, Keith Kirkwood, actually developed into a more trusted receiver for Brees than Smith despite going undrafted. Kirkwood is a big target at 6'3 210-lbs. who uses his physicality well against defenders and has good leaping ability. Inactive for the first half of the year, the 25-yr. old Kirkwood caught 13 passes for 209 yards and two touchdowns over the last eight games. He lacks gamebreaking ability, but is able to work well through the defense's intermediate zones and operate well in traffic. While the roster spots of obviously Thomas, and most likely Ginn, Smith, and Kirkwood seem secure, a fierce battle is expected to take place for the last spot or two at the position.
The Saints hope that Cameron Meredith, a free agent signee last year, is finally recovered from a devastating 2017 knee injury that's cost him nearly two years. A promising and physical receiver in 2016 with the Chicago Bears, Meredith suffered the injury that offseason. Clearly not recovered last year with the Saints, he had just nine catches for 114 yards and a score in six outings before being placed on injured reserve. Meredith's struggles opened up an opportunity for second year pro Austin Carr, who caught 9 balls for 97 yards and two touchdowns in fourteen games. Meredith and Carr both operate best out of the slot, but the team will have a slew of other receiver candidates who may be able to contribute outside as well.
The team poached Simmie Cobbs off the Redskins' practice squad late last season. Cobbs is another big wideout at 6'3 220-lbs., with good down field speed. Twenty five year old Cyril Grayson also enters his first training camp with the Saints after being signed away from the Seattle Seahawks. A former All-American sprinter at L.S.U. and native of New Orleans, Grayson turned heads in the team's O.T.A. workouts despite his football inexperience. A trio of undrafted rookies this year, always a successful venture for this franchise, may also have a major say in how this roster takes shape. Emmanuel Butler (6'3, 217) produced impressive tape his first two seasons at Northern Arizona, before a shoulder injury that cost him 2017 and was slow to recover from last season. Deonte Harris stands just 5'6, and played at an equally tiny college at Assumption, but holds the N.C.A.A. record with 14 career kick return touchdowns, and is an explosive athlete in the open field. Lil'Jordan Humphrey is anything but, at 6'4 210-lbs. Undrafted after a poor performance at the NFL Scouting Combine, Humphrey had 86 receptions for 1,186 yards and 9 touchdowns his final season at Texas. He uses his physical frame well, and is an elusive runner despite his lack of straight line speed.
The Saints signed 29-yr. old veteran Rishard Matthews in mid-June, hoping he can recapture the form that saw him catch 118 passes for 1,740 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2016-17 with the Tennessee Titans. Entering his eighth season after originally being drafted by the Miami Dolphins in 2012, the 6'0 217-lb. Matthews has put produced four seasons of at least 40 catches and three years of at least 660 yards despite inconsistent quarterback play.
The Saints will most likely carry five receivers on their active roster, although a sixth could be possible if someone like Harris can stand out as a return specialist. Michael Thomas is one of the NFL's most dominant weapons, and one of the players that this Saints offense revolves around. Most eyes will be on the players that will be competing for the final roster spots at receiver, but there could be alot of movement throughout the depth chart based off preseason performance. Sean Payton had enough faith in his current receiving corps to not address the position as a free agent or draft priority. Now it's on the shoulders of young players like Smith, Kirkwood, a rebounding veteran like Meredith or Matthews, or one of the young newcomers to prove their coach right.