Offseason Position Battle: Wide Receivers

[dropcap]N[/dropcap]ow that we’re back, I wanted to use a few summer columns to look at some of the position groups on the Saints and see how the roster might shake out. Some of these groups are more stable than others, but the team has made a lot of changes at certain positions, trying to find the missing pieces for a team that went 11-5 last year and rated the best in the league by at least one metric. I’m pretty much going to go in order of the position battles I find most interesting. That’s why I’m starting with wide receiver: The team made two significant moves in the offseason, which I wasn’t expecting, and which suggest the roster might be even stronger at the position than they were last year. Currently on the 90-man roster:¬†Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn, Cameron Meredith, Tre’Quan Smith, Brandon Coleman, Austin Carr, Tommylee Lewis, Travin Dural, Josh Huff, Keith Kirkwood, Josh Smith, Eldridge Massington The top two receivers from last year return. Michael Thomas, of course, is continuing his ascent into the echelon of the NFL’s best receivers. Ted Ginn should still have enough speed at age 33 to continue his post-30 career renaissance, after breaking 700 yards for the third straight year (after only doing it once before, in 2008). The two new additions are both intriguing. Cameron Meredith showed #1 receiver potential in Chicago before going down last preseason with a torn ACL. That may have precipitated the Bears’ decision not to match the Saints’ offer in restricted free agency, one also foreshadowed when Chicago went out and signed Allen Robinson on the first day of free agency. Meredith is actually pretty similar to Thomas in terms of size and athleticism, though not quite the same receiver. Still, if Meredith recovers well, he could be an outstanding performer, someone who could allow for a wider variety of offensive personnel and be a difficult matchup for defenses, considering how many threats opposing defenses already have to account for (Thomas, Ginn, and Alvin Kamara especially). I think he’s got the talent to be a top-notch running mate for Thomas, if he– say it with me now– recovers from his knee injury. Third round pick Tre’Quan Smith may not make an immediate impact if Meredith works out, but I’d expect his rookie year to see him in four-receiver sets at least as a deep threat. He’s not the kind of burner Ginn is, but he’s got better hands and is a more physical receiver. Smith showed strength against press coverage and on contested catches, in particular displaying strong hands when it came to holding onto the ball through contact,and is a good blocker for a receiver prospect; that in part is probably why the Saints drafted him, as the team asks its receivers to block on plays more than most offenses. (Robert Meachem spent seven total years with the Saints almost entirely on his ability to block and run “go” routes. Smith should be able to do more than that.) Brandon Coleman was a restricted free agent, and the Saints brought him back on a one-year deal. He’s not a vital piece of the puzzle, but his size allows him to serve as a credible red-zone threat, and also makes him a good blocker for a receiver as well. I don’t think they would have brought him back if they didn’t intend to keep him on the 53-man, but strange things can happen in training camp. The team will almost certainly keep at least five receivers, and I’d guess six. My prediction: Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn, Cameron Meredith, Tre’Quan Smith, Brandon Coleman, Austin Carr I think the top four are certain to make the roster, between Thomas and Ginn’s role and talent, and what the team has invested in Meredith and Smith (also their talent.) I had a tough call between Carr and Lewis for the last spot, and it’s not even a lock that the Saints keep six receivers. Two big factors led me to project Carr over Lewis. First, Lewis’ value is diminished with the addition of more players who could potentially serve as return men, like Natrell Jamerson and Boston Scott. Second, the team claimed Carr at the 53-man cutdown last year, which made it mandatory they carried him on the 53-man roster all season. I have to think they see some value and upside in him, or they wouldn’t have dedicated a valuable roster spot to him. Carr was a touchdown machine as a senior at Northwestern, so he may be able to replicate that for New Orleans, as a red zone slot receiver. I thought after last season ended that he might be in position to get some playing time in 2018, but the additions of Meredith and Smith complicate that; admittedly, I’m not entirely sure how he will fit in on game day, and there’s a decent chance he’ll be inactive most weeks. If Lewis has practice-squad eligibility, I imagine they’ll try to retain him there. Dural is the most likely candidate for a surprise appearance on the 53-man roster of everyone else remaining; they’ll probably try to hold him on the practice squad as well. Huff was a third-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2014 but has never lived up to that investment; there’s always an outside chance he could put it together and make the roster, but he hasn’t yet, and it’s year five for him. Everyone else is essentially a camp body. Next time: The running backs. In particular, how will Mark Ingram’s suspension and the arrival of Boston Scott affect the depth chart?