- Mike Triplett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Now that the NFL draft has passed, ESPN's fantasy crew will go all-in on their own pre-draft prep for 2014. The first mock draft is being compiled today, followed by the annual rankings summit.
So I reached out to ESPN fantasy analyst Matthew Berry to get his thoughts on how much buzz he expects around rookie New Orleans Saints receiver Brandin Cooks -- a big-play threat who should make an instant impact in New Orleans' explosive offense.
And Berry fired back with his most burning Saints fantasy question in this special edition of Double Coverage:
Triplett: What's your early assessment of Cooks' fantasy value? Does he have a chance to rank among the top rookies overall this year?
Berry: Here are the positives on Cooks fantasy value: He has crazy speed and lands on a team that needs it. It's also a team that threw the ball 651 times last year and just saw 143 targets walk out the door in the form of Darren Sproles and Lance Moore. Some of those will go to Kenny Stills in an increased role, but not all of them. So he should have a solid target number from a future Hall of Fame quarterback on a team that scores in bunches. All positives.
But part of the reason Drew Brees is so great is that he spreads it around. Other than Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston, no Saints pass catcher had more than four double digit fantasy points games last year. Sproles, who Cooks get compared to despite their different positions, had just three double-digit fantasy games last year. Three. On 89 targets. Obviously, many of those were dump-off passes when Sproles was in the backfield, but still. Sproles also knew the offense -- Cooks is a rookie.
Graham and Colston will take the lion's share of targets. Stills will get quite a bit more than last year's 51 targets. Pierre Thomas out of the backfield will get his. And the random work of players like Robert Meachem, Joe Morgan, Nick Toon, etc. will also eat away at potential work. Because of Cooks' speed, he will have some plays designed specifically for him, and three or four times this year he is going to have a monster game. Good luck predicting when that is, however.
I like Cooks a lot as a dynasty target. And given the recent health issues of both Graham and Colston, he's an interesting flyer this year in re-draft leagues. But, barring injury or more information on how they plan to use Cooks, he's probably not someone you're gonna feel comfortable starting week to week in ESPN standard 10- or even 12-team leagues on a weekly basis. Better move for the Saints than for his consistent fantasy purposes, at least initially.
Berry: Another big question when it comes to the Saints this year: With Sproles gone, how do you see the running back work distributed? Seems pretty clear Thomas will have a similar role, but between Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson, who gets the most work?
Triplett: I'm afraid the answer won't be any less frustrating than the shared workload you just described among the receiving group.
The guy who will get the most buzz is Robinson. He came out of nowhere as a rookie last year and turned into a monster during the playoffs (when Thomas was hurt). And Sean Payton revealed that his mentor Bill Parcells compared Robinson to Curtis Martin and insisted he needs to use him more. So Robinson will obviously be more heavily involved on a consistent basis this year. But I don't expect him to leapfrog Ingram. I think it should be a pretty even split among those two when it comes to both touches and touchdowns. Maybe 600-700 yards and 6-7 touchdowns each, depending on injury?
I'm sure fantasy folks are tired of Ingram's potential by now. But once again, he finished last season very strong when a lot of fantasy players probably weren't paying attention to him anymore. And he was the guy the Saints were riding most during the playoffs, ahead of Robinson. Ingram had a 97-yard game in the playoff win at Philadelphia.
Another subtle thing that helped both Ingram and Robinson in the playoffs was that they were used in more versatile packages with Thomas out of the lineup -- some three-receiver formations, etc. One of the biggest hurdles for Ingram early in his career was that the Saints stuck him in the jumbo package. He performed much better when they got him in open space, even throwing some screens his way. With Sproles gone, he could see more of that.
As for Thomas, he's the most reliable one of the bunch, so he'll continue to get his usual amount of touches. But I could see him getting more catches and less carries as he shifts into more of Sproles' old role on third downs (he's also a reliable pass protector). Thomas caught a career-high 77 passes for 513 yards last year. That could be closer to the norm -- maybe 500 receiving yards and 500 rushing yards?
So to make a long answer short, they will probably all bring value in deeper leagues. But it's doubtful that any of them will emerge as a No. 1 or No. 2 fantasy back.