- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees had a magnificent 2011 season, throwing for 5,476 yards and 46 touchdowns, with each of those statistics leading the NFL. He finished with a career-best 380 fantasy points in ESPN standard leagues, a mere five behind Aaron Rodgers for the top spot, and of course, everyone loves both of them again for the upcoming 2012 campaign.
Or do they? As you might have noticed the past few months, there's a bit of a mess going on regarding the Saints, as the offseason talk has been about bounties, lawsuits and suspensions, and Brees himself is still working on his contract. All of this has led some fantasy owners to wonder if Brees and his teammates could suffer statistically once the games count. ESPN Fantasy staffers don't seem too concerned; Brees was the third quarterback chosen in a pair of summer mock drafts, as he was selected ninth and 11th overall. I've seen other drafts in which he was not the third quarterback, though, and the reasoning has been that outside distractions could affect him and the offense.
Of course, whether the Saints collectively as a team are affected in terms of wins and losses is not as important to fantasy owners as the statistical goodness that emanates from their games, and Brees is at the top of that list. Lesser baseball teams like the New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers have appeared to struggle in recent seasons perhaps due to the specter of management/ownership debacles, and often the individuals suffered statistically. The Saints will be coached and the offensive plays will be called by someone other than suspended Sean Payton, and key linebacker Jonathan Vilma won't be playing defense ... so perhaps Brees and his pals on the offense could take a step backward.
Well, I kind of expect that anyway. It's unreasonable to presume Brees will again throw for 5,000 yards or top 40 touchdowns, and I certainly don't believe off-field issues are the reason for likely statistical regression. This is a guy who just produced the most passing yards ever. Can't he just regress more to his norm for the standard reasons, like general regression? I have Brees marked as my No. 3 quarterback and 11th overall, and while chances aren't great I'll end up with him -- silly me, I still build heavy on running backs/wide receivers and will be fine with Philip Rivers/Tony Romo types later and a second-tier tight end -- it's not because I see major statistical decline pending.
Brees averaged 34 touchdown passes and 4,692 passing yards from 2008 to 2010, and I see something similar coming this season. ESPN Fantasy projects 41 touchdown passes and 4,921 passing yards, and I guess my expectations are a bit lower. Yes, it's a step backward, but I don't assume anyone throws for 5,000 yards. It had been accomplished merely twice (Dan Marino in 1984, Brees in 2008) before 2011. I have confidence in Brees' ability and the offensive system the Saints run, and with the exception of one wide receiver who caught 40 passes, the cast of characters is back and suspension-free.
Tight end Jimmy Graham remains one of the top two tight ends in drafts and arguably a top-20 overall pick. I have New England Patriots touchdown king Rob Gronkowski slightly ahead of him, but I've considered switching them. Marques Colston annually seems to end up on a few of my teams, and while he does tend to miss games, he has averaged 78 catches, 1,080 yards and eight touchdowns over the past three seasons. That's easily a top-20 wide receiver to me. Robert Meachem is gone now, vying for attention with Rivers in San Diego, but Lance Moore -- assuming health -- should see more targets and make more plays. He's already a nice touchdown option. Devery Henderson will again tease fantasy owners from week to week, with rookie Nick Toon having been drafted to make a potential impact in 2013.
At running back, points-per-reception monster Darren Sproles easily made my top 20 at the position -- he finished eighth among running backs last season -- and I'm expecting some regression, but I'm confident he's a weekly play. Mark Ingram was a rookie bust but should improve some. He's just in the wrong offense to be a fantasy starter. I'd take Ingram over Pierre Thomas, though.
Ultimately, I just don't buy the theory that outside forces of discord will cause a troubled Saints team to struggle this season. Perhaps it's worth noting that when Tom Brady and the Patriots dealt with "Spygate" in 2007, the quarterback tossed a record 50 touchdown passes and the team didn't lose a regular-season game. The Saints are well aware the next Super Bowl is scheduled to be played in their stadium, and there's plenty of motivation. The schedule is a tad different. Last year the Saints didn't play a regular-season cold-weather game at all; this year there's the potential for at least one. But that's nitpicking. The Saints have an elite offense and I don't see reason for concern. This is one case in which fantasy owners don't need to overthink things.
Eric Karabell lays out his 2012 fantasy expectations for the New Orleans Saints offense, including Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham.