- Mike Triplett, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
Third-year running back Travaris Cadet has shown some ability as a kickoff returner over the past two years, and the Saints may try him out in the punt-return job, as well. Or they might make a kick returner a priority in the draft.
New Orleans could certainly use some more juice in their return game after being middle-of-the-road in that area in recent years, even when Sproles was around.
The Saints could go one of two routes in the draft. They could target a top wide receiver that is capable of playing a dual role, or they could snag one of the top pure returners in the middle or later rounds.
If they choose the first route, three receivers could potentially fit the bill in Round 1: LSU's Odell Beckham Jr., USC's Marqise Lee and Oregon State's Brandin Cooks. All three of those prospects would be worthy of the Saints' pick at No. 27 based on their receiving ability alone, since a big-play receiver ranks among New Orleans' top needs.
Of those three, only Beckham was a standout punt returner in college, averaging more than nine yards per return over his final two seasons, with two touchdown returns in 2012. Cooks was a part-time punt returner last year, while Lee was more of a kickoff return specialist with two career kickoff returns for touchdowns.
Later in the draft, ESPN NFL draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. said there are two players that stand out above all others as the best return men in this year's class -- Kent State's Dri Archer and Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas.
"Those are the two guys who jump out. Tremendous versatility," Kiper said. "I also think John Brown is an underrated guy, a sleeper type out of Pittsburgh State. Returned punts, kicks, did a great job, also caught the ball very well, was explosive."
All three of those dual runner/receiver types could also serve as some fun new toys for Saints coach Sean Payton to work with on offense now that Sproles is gone.
Thomas (5-foot-9, 174 pounds) is the most well-known of the bunch, having starred as an all-purpose threat for the Ducks for three years. Thomas scored 18 touchdowns in both 2011 and 2012 (including at least one rushing TD, receiving TD, kickoff return TD and punt return TD during his sophomore year). He battled an ankle injury last year and finished with only 11 total touchdowns.
Thomas ran a surprisingly "slow" 40-yard dash time of 4.50 seconds at the NFL scouting combine but bounced back with a reported time of 4.39 at Oregon's pro day.
Archer, meanwhile, dropped jaws with his time of 4.26 seconds at the combine -- one of the fastest in history. The 5-foot-8, 173-pounder was mostly a kickoff returner in college but could potentially do both in the pros. Like Thomas, he had his best year in 2012 with 23 total touchdowns before an ankle injury limited him to 11 total touchdowns as a senior.
Brown (5-foot-10, 179) had three punt return touchdowns and two kickoff return touchdowns in his career, while also serving as one of Division II's top wide receivers. He caught 61 passes for 1,198 yards and 14 touchdowns last year. He ran the 40 in 4.34 seconds at the combine.