New Orleans Saints: golden tate

METAIRIE, La. – New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton said he’s very guarded with the term “elite” and doesn’t use it often to describe a player. But Payton said it applies to both Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson and Saints tight end Jimmy Graham.

So yes, Payton said, significant adjustments would need to be made by both teams if either player is held out of Sunday’s game between the Saints and the Lions.

Graham (shoulder) and Johnson (ankle) are both highly questionable for Sunday’s game at Detroit. But neither has been ruled out yet.

[+] EnlargeCalvin Johnson
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneThe Saints will prepare as if the Lions' Calvin Johnson will play Sunday, and will adjust if he isn't playing.
“Any time you take an elite player -- and I use that term very guarded or not often – obviously that changes things. And it would be the same thing with regards to Jimmy,” Payton said. “And yet I think we know when you play in this league long enough that each week you’re going to have to make those adjustments. And we’ve had to do that as well, take a guy like [Jairus] Byrd, who we consider to be an elite-level safety. You make those changes.

"We’ve gotta prepare for [Johnson] and make sure we’re ready in the event he plays and go into the game expecting that.”

Believe it or not, Johnson hasn’t been the go-to guy in the Lions’ offense this season as he has battled the lingering ankle injury.

Although Johnson has a respectable 22 catches for 348 yards and two touchdowns, it’s newcomer Golden Tate that leads Detroit with 38 catches for 495 yards and a touchdown. Running back Reggie Bush also has 20 catches for 142 yards.

The Lions will look to get both of those dynamic playmakers in open space and stretch the field as wide as they do deep – much like the Saints’ offense. That's no coincidence, as the Lions’ first-year offensive coordinator is former Saints quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi.

And that will put the Saints' defense to the test, since they’ve struggled throughout the year to make tackles in the open field and stay disciplined in their assignments.

“They’re definitely gonna space you out. They’re gonna shift. If they’re anything like our offense, it’s gonna require a lot of discipline,” Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “Some teams that just stand around make it easier on you. But this team is gonna have a complex scheme, and it’s gonna be kind of like training camp with Coach Payton.”

The Lions will likely try to feature some short, quick throws to keep quarterback Matthew Stafford out of trouble. Stafford has been sacked 21 times this year, which ranks as the third-most in the NFL.

The Saints would love to get him in some third-and-long situations by stopping the run (something they did great two weeks ago against Tampa Bay, but horrible three weeks ago at Dallas). The Lions’ rushing offense hasn’t done much this year, led by former Saints runners Bush and Joique Bell and former Saints fullback Jed Collins. Detroit ranks 29th in the NFL with 86.3 rushing yards per game.
The wide receiver position has become an even greater priority for the New Orleans Saints now that they are parting ways with both receiver Lance Moore and pass-catching running back Darren Sproles.

The draft is probably the Saints’ best bet for finding a dynamic young athlete who could develop into a future starter -- and ideally help stretch the field in the short term as part of the rotation. This is a deep class for wide receiver talent, so the Saints could have ample options in Round 1 or the middle rounds of the draft.

But the Saints always prefer to fill their pressing needs in free agency. So I could see them adding a No. 3-type receiver with speed or shiftiness. And an ability to return kicks would be a major plus.

[+] EnlargeMcCluster
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelVersatile Dexter McCluster could fit with the Saints as a replacement for Darren Sproles.
I picked ESPN Scouting Insider Matt Williamson's brain for a few suggestions that could fit that mold. And I particularly loved his suggestion of Kansas City Chiefs receiver/runner/returner Dexter McCluster -- a guy who could help fill both voids by himself.

McCluster has taken turns as a running back, receiver, kick returner and punt returner at different times in his first four NFL seasons. Last season he made the Pro Bowl as a punt returner. And he could be a dangerous weapon in the hands of Saints coach Sean Payton.

“I think he would be a good fit,” Williamson said. “Most teams, he might turn into nothing. But I think Payton and (Drew) Brees would use him properly.”

Williamson also thinks Carolina Panthers receiver/return man Ted Ginn Jr. could be an interesting fit in New Orleans, especially after Ginn had a bounceback season last year after underachieving for most of his seven-year career.

“He was a bust for a ninth pick in the draft (for the Miami Dolphins in 2007). But he played pretty well for Carolina. And he can fly,” Williamson said.

If the Saints want to spend a little more money on a receiver/punt returner, they might be interested in the Seattle Seahawks’ Golden Tate, a yards-after-the-catch threat who could be a lot more dangerous in New Orleans’ passing offense.

Maybe they would consider slot receiver/punt returner Julian Edelman from the New England Patriots or the Pittsburgh Steelers’ big-play threat Emmanuel Sanders, who has some kick-returning experience. And New Orleans native Jacoby Jones is a speedster who has been better so far as a kick returner than a receiver with the Baltimore Ravens -- but he could certainly provide that deep threat as a No. 3 or No. 4 receiver.

The Minnesota Vikings’ Jerome Simpson is another deep threat who could fill that No. 3 role. And Williamson mentioned a deep wild-card possibility in another former first-round underachiever -- the Indianapolis Colts' Darrius Heyward-Bey.

“Everybody hates the guy, and he isn’t a great player. But Darrius Heyward-Bey can still run,” Williamson said. “He wasn’t that big of a bust. And you could get him streaking down the sideline. And you can get him for nothing.”

There aren’t many big-name receivers available in free agency this year. The Denver Broncos' Eric Decker could command the biggest deal, and he might be too costly for the Saints. The New York Giants' Hakeem Nicks could also be costly, though he’s been plagued by injury issues.

Other receivers in the next tier or two include the Green Bay Packers' James Jones, the Arizona Cardinals' Andre Roberts, the Seahawks' Sidney Rice and the Panthers' Brandon LaFell -- plus Lance Moore, of course.