Saints = Fantasy Gold


If an NFL team could fit the description "boom or bust," suffice to say your 2008 New Orleans Saints were it.

The boom: The Saints led the league in both total yards (410.7) and points (28.9) per game, the first number being the fifth-best by any team in the past 10 seasons (only the 2000 and 2001 Rams, 2004 Chiefs and 2008 Patriots had more). Drew Brees managed 5,069 passing yards, the second-best single-season total in NFL history. As a team, New Orleans won eight times, scoring 30 or more points in six of those.

The bust: The Saints' defense was a sieve, ranking 23rd in the league with 339.5 total yards allowed per game and 26th with 24.6 points allowed per game. Thus, New Orleans also lost eight times, in five of those surrendering 30 or more points.

Brees' individual performance was the Saints' story of the season; in addition to his passing yardage, he set a personal best with 34 passing touchdowns. Most impressively, he did that despite injuries costing four key offensive helpers a combined 18 games (Reggie Bush missed six, Marques Colston five, Jeremy Shockey four and Deuce McAllister three). Given their success, it's no surprise the Saints made few changes to the overall shape of the offense, allowing just the aging, brittle McAllister and disappointing David Patten go during the offseason.

The team did, however, attempt to address the faulty defense, signing cornerback Jabari Greer and safety Darren Sharper and using three of its four 2009 draft picks on defenders. The Saints also lost cornerback Mike McKenzie to free agency, but the veteran battled knee issues for much of last season and wasn't especially effective when he was healthy enough to play, making it a probable net gain. Still, with starting defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith facing possible suspensions, New Orleans' defense can hardly be described as "fixed."

What to look for in camp

Key position battles: With McAllister gone, third-year running back Pierre Thomas has a (somewhat) clear path to the starting role, with only the brittle Reggie Bush standing in his way. But considering how often the Saints line up Bush in the slot or out wide, using him almost as a No. 2 wide receiver, chances are Thomas will get almost two-thirds of the team's rushing workload. How the team defines the two backs' roles will be important for fantasy owners, as a determination on who will get the goal-line work, or whether the two split the rushing chores and Bush doesn't get as involved in the passing game, will have an impact on their value. What is clear: Thomas averaged 112.8 yards from scrimmage per game in 2008, with nine total touchdowns in his final six games. Most of those yards and touchdowns came while he was the team's primary back, and if he's used similarly this season -- as he probably will be -- he might rank among 2009's biggest breakouts. Two things that fantasy owners dread: if someone like Mike Bell or Lynell Hamilton swipes a chunk of the goal-line work during the preseason, though the prospect of that at the onset appears unlikely; or if the team signs a veteran back such as Edgerrin James to further cut into Thomas' touches.

No. 2 receiver -- the literal No. 2 wide receiver role, that is -- might come under some controversy during the preseason. It somewhat depends on the health of Lance Moore, who had shoulder surgery in mid-April. He likely will be limited at the onset of training camp, but all indications are he'll be ready in time for the regular season. Any setback, however, might open up things for the inconsistent Devery Henderson to step up and claim the spot. Robert Meachem also might get a few more looks, with a chance at stepping into the No. 3 role.

Tight end could come into question, as well, as Shockey hasn't adapted well to life in New Orleans, averaging 40.3 receiving yards per game and being held without a touchdown in his first year with the team. Billy Miller, by comparison, averaged 38.6 receiving yards per game with one score, and midsummer reports indicated he was getting more of the work with the first team. As in 2008, the two might end up splitting the targets, diminishing their fantasy appeal. But it's also not unthinkable that Miller might step up and snatch the gig if the team sours on Shockey.

Fitting in: Greer, Sharper and, to an extent, cornerback Malcolm Jenkins, the team's first-round draft pick, are the most integral new additions to the roster. They help boost a pass defense that ranked 23rd in the league, one that had to make do with players such as Jason David, Aaron Glenn and Usama Young playing significant roles, especially after McKenzie was ruled out for the season in early November. David might be a familiar name to fantasy owners; the New Orleans cornerback was routinely beaten deep by opponents throughout the 2007 season. The two new adds to the secondary should boost its play, which is important from two aspects: One, accounting for the strength of the Saints' offense, opponents often tested the secondary by being forced into passing situations while playing catch-up; and two, any improvement on the defensive side of the ball will put less pressure on Brees to throw, throw and throw again, which might not be what fantasy owners like to hear but actually could enhance his numbers in terms of his accuracy.

On the line: This is a unit very much on the rise. New Orleans allowed only 13 sacks last season, third-fewest in the NFL, after a 2007 season in which the team was best in the category with only 16. Pass protection is apparently not at all an issue with Brees, though as much of that success should be attributed to his performance as that of the offensive line. And while the Saints ranked only 21st in yards per carry (4.0) as a team, to put that number into perspective, it was the team's best in the category since 2003 (4.5). Pro Bowl tackle Jammal Brown leads the way and is a strength in both running and passing the ball, annually grading out among the game's elite left tackles statistically. Guard Jahri Evans, now in his fourth NFL season, also stands a chance at a future Pro Bowl appearance. There's no reason to think the New Orleans O-line can't keep its running backs productive.

The bottom line

For all the subtle changes in New Orleans, we might come to learn that very little changed at all. The defense still has work to do, and while it might be improved enough that Brees and Co. don't need to tally 30-plus points a week to be contenders, chances are they'll need to air it out more often than not. Besides, even if the Saints see fewer offensive snaps, given their talent, they might be just as productive with the ones they have. Bounce-back years from Bush and Colston, who battled injuries last season (Colston heads into the preseason coming off microfracture knee surgery), will ultimately determine to what extent this team challenges its lofty 2008 numbers. Think of it like this, though: If Brees did what he did despite those two missing time, could he be a record-setter this year if both skilled pass catchers stay completely healthy?

Maybe not; that's a tall task. But even slightly better health from those two, combined with the continued emergence of Thomas, should keep this team one of the most attractive ones from a fantasy perspective.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is an FSWA award-winning fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.