With the NFL draft now behind us, the ESPN fantasy team recently revealed its first set of rankings for the 2015 season. And the first thing that jumped out at me was how far I had to scroll down to find New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees at No. 44 overall -- fifth among quarterbacks.
That's 27 spots lower than last May, when Brees debuted at No. 17 overall.
I have to imagine this is the lowest Brees has been ranked in the preseason since his first year in New Orleans in 2006 (when he was still coming off of major shoulder surgery). According to ESPN's fantasy data, his average draft position has never been lower than 25th overall since that first season -- and it's never been lower than 13th overall since 2008 (though QBs all tend to be drafted higher than they're ranked by fantasy experts).
I understand the reasons. Brees had a down year by his standards in 2014 with 20 turnovers and finished sixth among quarterbacks in ESPN's fantasy rankings. Then he lost go-to guy Jimmy Graham in a trade with the Seattle Seahawks, and the Saints appear to building a more run-heavy offense led by Mark Ingram and C.J. Spiller.
However, I still don't expect a dramatic change in Brees' typical numbers. He still tied for the NFL lead with 4,952 passing yards last year and had 33 touchdowns. And the turnovers were mostly a result of playing from behind and playing under pressure -- two areas the Saints have tried to improve this year by boosting the defense and the offensive line. I don't think we were witnessing the start of a significant decline in Brees' skill set.
The lack of offensive weapons is a legitimate concern in both fantasy and real life. But I agree with the Saints' philosophy that they'll still be able to manufacture a top offense without Graham and receiver Kenny Stills. They've had a top-four passing offense every year since Brees and coach Sean Payton arrived in 2006 -- and Graham was only around for five of those seasons. They know how to spread it around and find the open man.
Look at 2008, when Brees threw for 5,069 yards. Graham was still in college, and Brees' top receiver Marques Colston was injured for much of the year. The Saints' leading receiver that year was Lance Moore, with 79 catches for 928 yards. No one else had more than 52 catches or 793 receiving yards.
Here are the rest of the Saints' fantasy rankings, with some of my thoughts:
Running back: Ingram 12th among running backs (25th overall); Spiller 28 (56); Khiry Robinson 63 (147).
I think Spiller is the most underrated Saints player on this entire list. Payton has talked excitedly about working him into the offense throughout this offseason. I expect him to be a big part of the passing game like former backs Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush always were. When I used the Saints' historical data to project touches for all the RBs recently, I projected 150 touches for Spiller with close to 1,000 yards from scrimmage.
No complaints with this list. I'm also expecting Cooks to emerge as the Saints' biggest receiving weapon, while Colston remains a solid, steady producer. And I like that neither Toon nor Coleman slipped under the fantasy radar. Second-year pro Seantavius Jones is also in the mix. Whoever looks like New Orleans' No. 3 receiver at the end of the summer could be a big fantasy bargain.
I think the fantasy crew showed good restraint here by not overrating Hill too much. He's an enticing young player with a lot of upside and opportunity now that Graham's gone. But I also wouldn't read too much into his five TDs last season. It's not like Hill was a red-zone monster; he was just wide open a lot while defenses ignore him. He won't have that luxury as much this year. ...Watson is underrated by comparison. He doesn't have the upside, but he'll likely play even more snaps than Hill as a blocker/receiver, and his receiving totals should also get a boost with Graham gone.
Hard to argue. The Saints should be better than last season, when they ranked 31st in fantasy points. But they'll only be a matchups play until they show more consistency. They do play Arizona, Tampa Bay and Carolina in the first three weeks, though, so they might start stronger than expected.