At first glance, the New Orleans Saints offense functioned without issue in 2017. The unit finished top five in points scored and total yardage, and sent five players to the Pro Bowl. However, these accomplishments overshadow a lack of consistent production from the Saints wide receiver group, aside from primary target Michael Thomas.
In 2017, wide receivers accounted for 2,604 of the Saints receiving yards; a significant drop from the 3,562 yards produced by the group in 2016. Admittedly New Orleans didn’t pass as much last season thanks to a thriving run game, but the percentages tell a similar story. Wide receivers made up 62.1 percent of the Saints receiving yards in 2017 compared to 70.2 percent in 2016.
One could consider this decline a contributing factor towards the Saints 19th-ranked 37.6 percent conversion rate on third downs in 2017 (their worst figure since 2004), as well as their 23 passing touchdowns, which was the team’s lowest total since Drew Brees became a Saint in 2006.
Fortunately, the Saints brought in some new and exciting wide receivers in the off-season while retaining their top producers from 2017.
New Orleans Saints 2018 Wide Receiver Breakdown
Thomas, Ted Ginn, Brandon Coleman, and Tommylee Lewis; the team’s top receivers from last season, are all returning for 2018. Willie Snead, however, chose not to sign a low-level RFA tender offered by the Saints following a disappointing 2017 plagued by a DWI arrest and injury. Snead will look to start fresh with the Baltimore Ravens after catching only eight passes for 92 yards in seven games last season.
Thomas returns as the Saints primary receiver after reaching new heights in 2017. In his second NFL season, Thomas broke a single-season Saints franchise record with 104 receptions and set a new NFL record by catching a combined 196 passes in his first two seasons. In anticipation of his third season, Thomas is focused on getting even better and cementing himself as one of NFL’s elite receivers.
Pairing Ginn with Brees produced fantastic results last season. Ginn gained 787 receiving yards, his highest total since 2008, and showed the ability to be more than just a deep threat. Ginn caught 75.7 percent of his targets in 2017, which easily surpasses his previous best of 60.2 percent in 2008. Despite these unexpected feats, the Saints number two receiver often disappeared in third down and red zone situations, which put enormous pressure on Thomas.
The Saints gave Coleman another chance to prove his worth by signing him to a low-level tender in the off-season. Coleman has become an outstanding run blocker, but he’s struggled to emerge as a difference maker in the passing game after four years on the team.
Lewis barely cracked the final roster last season, even after an impressive preseason, and he faces even more competition and pressure in 2018 as he enters a contract year.
New Orleans clearly recognized the need to add another receiving threat in the off-season as they pursued two of the biggest names in free agency. They were among the top destinations for both Jordy Nelson and one-time Saint Jimmy Graham, but they took a financially conservative approach in both cases and were outbid by other teams. With both players eventually receiving over $7 million per year, it was probably wise for the Saints to back down.
Instead, New Orleans found a younger, thriftier receiver in Cameron Meredith. Meredith missed all of 2017 due to a torn ACL, which is likely why the Chicago Bears declined to match the Saints offer sheet worth $9.6 million over two years. Before his injury, Meredith seemed poised for a breakout season after catching 66 passes for 888 yards and four touchdowns in 2016. With 6’3″ height and a 4.42 40-time in 2015, Meredith brings both size and speed to the group.
The Saints added Tre’quan Smith in the third round of the NFL Draft, who offers similar size and athleticism with a 6’2″ frame and 4.49 speed. Smith’s college tape displays a versatile receiver that’s capable of boxing out defenders in tight coverage as well as making plays downfield. He may not break out in his first season as he transitions to the pro level, although Brees tends to establish chemistry with his receivers quickly.
As is the case with most NFL teams at this time of year, the Saints have several unproven receivers fighting for a spot on the roster or practice squad. The front-runners among these mostly obscure players won’t become clear until training camp is underway, but Josh Huff, Travin Dural, and Austin Carr likely have the best chances at this point.
Huff is a three-year veteran with 51 catches, 523 receiving yards, and four touchdowns to his name, accumulated mostly with the Philadelphia Eagles. If Huff is unable to show enough potential on offense in preseason, he could still fill a need at kick returner. Huff averages 25.8 yards per return on his career and has returned two kicks for touchdowns. Unfortunately, Huff is set to serve a two-game suspension related to a 2016 arrest, which will certainly hurt his chances of making the cut.
Dural spent last season on the Saints practice squad as a rookie after an impressive showing in training camp. Dural had a big sophomore season at LSU in which he averaged 20.5 yards per catch on 37 receptions, but his production suffered largely due to poor quarterback play in his later years. With a year of experience in the Saints offense under his belt, Dural carries an advantage over newcomers who will have to quickly absorb a rather complex offensive system.
Last preseason, Carr performed well with the Patriots, but it wasn’t enough to crack their final roster. The Saints claimed him off waivers before the season, and he ended up seeing action on special teams in two games. Carr went undrafted in 2017 despite showing great potential at Northwestern. In his senior year, Carr was a First Team All-Big Ten selection after leading the conference in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns.
The big takeaway here is how much better this group looks with the additions of Meredith and Smith. They join a receiver group that was still above average compared to other teams, despite a lack of consistent production outside of Thomas. Since Meredith and Smith offer skill sets and size similar to Thomas, their presence could take a lot of pressure off the Saints top target if they can adjust to the offense.
These upgrades should further solidify an offense that already carries a future Hall of Fame quarterback, the NFL’s best running back duo, and a top-ten offensive line.