The New Orleans Saints enter the 2012 season facing an unprecedented set of circumstances, a unique mess that the organization brought upon itself, via the Gregg Williams bounty program. The team's head coach, Sean Payton, has been suspended for the entire year and interim head coach Joe Vitt will miss the first six weeks. General manager Mickey Loomis is suspended for eight weeks. Defensive end Will Smith and linebacker Jonathan Vilma are facing suspensions, too. The team was fined, and multiple draft picks have been taken away.
These are not small inconveniences.
Still, Payton's high-yield offensive system remains in place, directed by virtuoso quarterback Drew Brees. This year, play-calling duties fall to offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr., a coach who's been attached to Payton since 2006 and to Brees since '02. Carmichael actually absorbed a greater share of the game-planning responsibilities for New Orleans last season, after Payton suffered a broken leg in a sideline collision in October. He's not unprepared for the challenges of the year ahead.
As Carmichael recently said, "We have a great coaching staff and a great group of players that have been in this system for the last couple of years. Like we've been saying, we're obviously going to miss Sean. We're going to miss him significantly, but we feel comfortable with where we're at."
Any coach would be comfortable with where the Saints are at, because last year's offense was the most prolific we've seen in the NFL since ... well, ever.
New Orleans established a new league record for total yards from scrimmage last season (7,474) as well as passing yardage (5,505). Brees set the individual single-season mark for passing yards (5,476) and Darren Sproles broke the all-purpose yardage record (2,696). The Saints averaged an absurd 42.44 yards per drive last season, according to Football Outsiders, and they scored 34.2 points per game. They ranked first in the NFL in passing (344.1 YPG), while also placed sixth in rushing (132.9). In the 10 games in which Carmichael served as the primary play-caller, New Orleans averaged 476.1 total yards.
This is a terrifying, record-shattering offense that returns almost every key skill player. The Saints won't have to match last year's Nintendo-style output in order to finish at or near the top of the league in yards and points. In a nutshell, this group is one of the all-time fantasy juggernauts, an easy choice for the No. 1 spot in the 2012 index.
For years, we've characterized the Saints' offense as a spread-the-wealth system, a weekly guessing game, a fantasy owner's worst nightmare. This team relies on confusion and deception. They shred your defense with limitless weapons, using endless formations and personnel packages. It's been said many times that the only safe investment in the New Orleans offense is Brees, the man who initiates every play.
But today, that's clearly no longer the case. Jimmy Graham has taken over the full tight end workload for the Saints, which for years has been significant. Two seasons ago, he combined with Jeremy Shockey and David Thomas to catch 102 balls on 149 targets. In 2011, Graham alone hauled in 99 passes on the exact same number of chances. He's an unnaturally gifted athlete, a former college basketball player (like all the trendy tight ends), and he'll surely see another 140-150 targets this year as long as he remains healthy. He was a perfectly reasonable first-round fantasy selection in standard leagues, the rare tight end who scores like an elite wide receiver.
Sproles also has a secure and substantial role in the New Orleans' backfield, even if he's not an every-down player. He's an impossible match-up, no matter where he lines up, and you can pencil him in for 80-95 receptions over a full season. Sproles led all players at his position in targets and catches last season (111, 86) and he saw at least five targets in 17 of 18 games, playoffs included. In point-per-reception formats, he was a monster. (For Rick Porcello's sake, let's hope the Tigers' fantasy league is full-point PPR). Sproles also beasted in return-yardage leagues, for obvious reasons. And his 1,313 scrimmage yards and 10 TDs made him the No. 10 fantasy running back in standard formats. Simply put, Sproles returned a huge profit last year, in any fantasy set-up. We can't guarantee another double-digit touchdown effort, but his workload is secure.
If Mark Ingram gives us something close to a full season — he's coming off an injury-plagued rookie campaign, so that's no sure thing — then he'll have a shot at a substantial TD total. He's not exactly the flashiest back in the game, but he's a strong enough interior runner, a player who should see a few inside-the-5 carries. Both Ingram and Pierre Thomas figure to deliver a few terrific garbage-time fantasy lines, piling up fourth quarter yards in blowout wins. Both backs were mid-to-late picks in drafts, so the price was right. There's little risk attached. Thomas quietly delivered 987 scrimmage yards and six scores last season on 160 touches, ranking No. 12 at his position in targets. We've learned in prior years (2008 and '09, for example) that he's capable of huge fantasy production when he sees 14-20 touches per game.
Marques Colston is the only every-week wide receiver on this team, at least for standard-league fantasy players, and I'm well aware that many of you don't trust him. There's a history of knee repair here (he's a microfracture miracle), and he's been slowed by a foot injury in recent days. But in five of the last six seasons, including the past three, Colston has delivered 70 receptions or more with 1,000 yards and at least seven TDs. He's been a top-20 fantasy receiver in three straight years, ranking No. 11 in 2011. Colston is a box-out specialist, a terrific weapon over the middle. There's no reason to think he won't produce yet another starting-quality fantasy campaign. If you're at all interested in owning players with high floors, then this is your guy.
Beyond Colston, we find familiar faces Lance Moore and Devery Henderson in this receiving corps. Moore has delivered eight touchdowns in back-to-back seasons, and he posted a career-high 10 in 2008. As a dynamic piece within an elite offense, he's clearly ownable, even if he's not always a recommended fantasy starter. Henderson is a home-run hitter, a guy who will typically post a 2-40-0 fantasy line, but occasionally hits for 3-120-2. He's a bye-week lottery ticket, basically. Depth chart receivers Adrian Arrington and Joseph Morgan are only likely to get interesting if injuries clear a path. Neither player has forced their way into the fantasy conversation just yet, although Morgan had his moments throughout the preseason. (This one was perhaps the best. That looked like the classic Brees-to-Devery connection).
We shouldn't need to give you a hard-sell on Brees as a first-round fantasy option. He's the only passer in league history with multiple 5,000-yard seasons on his resume, plus he's led the NFL in touchdown passes in three of the past four years (46 in 2011). The man attempts 600-plus throws per season, he rarely misses a game, and he's a stunningly accurate passer. Brees set the single-season completion percentage record last year (71.2), breaking the mark he'd set two seasons prior (70.6 in '09). He's unreal. His command of the Saints' offense is the primary reason that you shouldn't worry about a suspension-related dip in production. Brees topped the 300-yard mark in 13 of 16 regular season games last year, then twice more in the playoffs (466 against Detroit, then 462 at San Francisco in a postseason classic). If anyone in the game deserves a nine-figure deal, it's Brees.
The defense enters a transitional year under new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, shifting from Williams' man-coverage, blitz-heavy, cash-for-injuries system. Curtis Lofton joins the mix at linebacker, and he's probably the most interesting IDP in this bunch, with safety Roman Harper in the conversation as well. Given the schematic changes and personnel limitations, it's tough to imagine the defense as a fantasy-relevant unit in the year ahead. They ranked 30th against the pass last season and next-to-last in interceptions. But the soft defense only adds to this team's fantasy charm. Every game has shootout potential, every game is a must-watch fantasy showcase.
If somehow this D can exceed expectations, the offense performs as it always has, and this team hosts Super Bowl XLVII in the Superdome ... well, that would certainly make for an interesting day in the life of Commissioner Goodell, and for the league itself.
2011 team stats: 34.2 PPG (NFL rank 2), 132.9 rush YPG (6), 344.1 pass YPG (1), 42.44 yards/drive (1), 0.109 turnovers/drive (7)
Previous Juggernaut posts: 32. Miami, 31. St. Louis, 30. Indianapolis, 29. Jacksonville, 28. Cleveland, 27. Arizona, 26. Seattle, 25. Minnesota, 24. Tampa Bay, 23. Buffalo, 22. New York Jets, 21. Washington, 20. Oakland, 19. San Francisco, 18. Kansas City, 17. Cincinnati, 16. Denver, 15. Tennessee, 14. San Diego, 13. Pittsburgh, 12. Baltimore, 11. Dallas, 10. Carolina, 9. Chicago, 8. Houston, 7. Detroit, 6. Atlanta, 5. New York Giants, 4. New England, 3. Green Bay, 2. Philadelphia