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Saints can replace Marques Colston, but he might never be matched

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Saints take big hit in offensive production losing Colston (1:03)

Jerome Bettis and Brian Dawkins react to the fact that the Saints will likely release WR Marques Colston, their all-time leading receiver and touchdown-scorer, in the coming days. (1:03)

NEW ORLEANS – The news that Marques Colston will likely be released by the New Orleans Saints isn’t that surprising. But it’s still a shock to the system.

Colston is the greatest receiver in franchise history. He is New Orleans' all-time leading touchdown scorer. And he would be the third face chiseled alongside Sean Payton and Drew Brees if someone ever created a monument to recognize one of the greatest passing offenses in NFL history.

Colston caught Brees’ first touchdown pass as a Saint in 2006. He went on to catch 72 of them, which ranks Brees and Colston fifth in NFL history among QB/pass-catcher duos.

The fact that Colston arrived as a seventh-round draft pick out of Hofstra in 2006 makes his career all the more remarkable.

I understand, though, why Colston appears to be on the way out after he posted career-lows of 45 catches, 520 yards and four touchdowns last season. He essentially became New Orleans’ No. 3 receiver behind Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead, two guys who were still in middle school when Colston’s career started.

This move is as much about Father Time as it is about the salary cap – the same thing I said when the Saints released another one of their all-time greats, guard Jahri Evans, earlier this month.

The moves are understandable, maybe even inevitable. But that won't make them easier to swallow.

Here are three more takeaways following Tuesday’s news:

Brandon Coleman the ‘heir apparent?" Comparing anyone to Colston is unfair. But his departure would certainly provide an opportunity for third-year receiver Brandon Coleman to have a breakout season.

Coleman has been compared to Colston ever since he arrived as an undrafted receiver out of Rutgers in 2014 – both because of their humble beginnings and their impressive size (Colston is 6-foot-4, 225 pounds; Coleman is 6-6, 225). Coleman stands tall as the best big-bodied red-zone option for an offense that also parted ways with go-to tight end Jimmy Graham last year.

That doesn’t guarantee anything for Coleman. Big things were also expected from him last year and he got passed over in the pecking order by the unheralded, 5-foot-11 Snead. Coleman finished with 30 catches, 454 yards and two touchdowns.

Still, the Saints remain high on Coleman’s potential. General manager Mickey Loomis recently told SiriusXM Radio that Coleman “has done some good things and I think in many ways is the heir apparent to Marques.”

Colston’s release shouldn't force the Saints to spend big on a free-agent receiver or draft one early. It's possible that they will, but the Saints proved again last year that they can produce the NFL’s No. 1 passing offense without elite talent. Defense and the guard position should rank higher on the priority list.

Not just a cap casualty: I really wouldn’t even describe this as a “salary-cap casualty,” as the Saints are already at least $5 million under the rising NFL cap. And they could carve out millions more by working out an extension with Brees.

That’s not to exonerate the Saints for their ugly cap situation – which will include more than $25 million in “dead money” for the second straight year. It’s just to point out that they aren’t being forced to release Colston for that reason alone.

Colston was due to make $3.2 million in salary and bonuses this year after agreeing to a significant pay cut last year. He will still count $2.7 million against the cap in dead money from previous bonuses.

Sure, the Saints are in more of a penny-pinching mode than most NFL teams. And they have to closely evaluate every dollar they’re spending. So that makes guys like Colston and Evans more vulnerable than they would be in most environments. But it’s entirely possible the Saints would make both moves even if they weren’t slammed so tight against the cap.

Greatest Pro Bowl snub ever? I have often referred to Colston as one of the NFL’s best players who never made a Pro Bowl. I’m not sure exactly how you quantify that, but Colston has to appear on the list somewhere – especially during his era.

Colston ranks fifth in touchdown catches over the past 10 years, behind only Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Brandon Marshall and Antonio Gates. He ranks 10th in receptions and ninth in receiving yards.

It made sense in each individual year that Colston was left out of the Pro Bowl because there were always three or four other NFC receivers who put up slightly gaudier numbers. But many of those receivers came and went while Colston remained steady year after year.

In six of his first seven seasons, Colston had at least 70 catches, 1,023 yards and seven touchdowns. An injury in 2008 kept him from going 7-for-7.

I also wondered often if Colston might post even bigger numbers in another offense where they didn’t spread the ball around as much. With his big frame and his remarkable catching radius (high balls, low balls, back-shoulder throws), Colston would have been a go-to guy for any quarterback.

Maybe he still will be now, assuming he decides to pass the 10,000-yard threshold with another team – as hard as that is to imagine.