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Pre-Game Recon (Texans vs Saints): Is Brandin Cooks The Real Deal?

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Canal Street Chronicles sits down with us to talk some New Orleans football, including their expectations for several of their brightest young stars on offense, in advance of Sunday's preseason game between the Texans and Saints.

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JR Ella of our sister site, Canal Street Chronicles, was kind enough to answer a few of my questions on our traditional NFC "cousins" on the other side of the Gulf. See what he had to say about his hometown Saints and their expectations for this coming season.

1. I’m seriously considering drafting Brandin Cooks in the second round of my fantasy draft this year. He is destroying everyone so far in the preseason, and I get the feeling that the Saints are content to just throw it to him at every possible opportunity simply because they can. Am I wrong? What are your expectations for Cooks’ sophomore season?

You are absolutely right! Cooks was very good last year, when he caught 53 passes for 550 yards and 3 touchdowns. He amassed these stats in only 10 games, missing the last six regular season games with a hand injury. The numbers look even better considering that he was also fourth in targets (69) from quarterback Drew Brees, behind Jimmy Graham (124), Marques Colston (99) and Kenny Stills (84). With Graham and Stills now gone, a fully healthy Cooks is figuring big in the Saints’ 2015 passing plans. He’s one of those versatile smallish wide receivers in the mold of an Antonio Brown, who can do it all from go routes and reverse hand-offs to short slants that he can take to the house. Knowing how much Sean Payton likes to throw the ball, I expect Brandin Cooks to at least double his offensive production this year from what he had in 2014.

2. Is C.J. Spiller basically Darren Sproles Part Deux, or will his role be a bit bigger than just a pass catching back? Also, now that Pierre Thomas is gone too will Mark Ingram be more involved in the pass game as well?

When Sean Payton took over in New Orleans in 2006, the Saints already had power running back Deuce McAllister, and Payton drafted Reggie Bush. Payton completely fell in love with how complementary Bush and McAllister were in the Saints' backfield. Since then, there has always been that versatile scatback in New Orleans’ system, a guy that is almost a "running receiver" and besides him, one or two more rugged, power bruisers. Darren Sproles was that perfect scatback for Payton once Reggie Bush was traded to the Miami Dolphins in 2011. Without Sproles last year, Pierre Thomas, despite his great catching ability, lacked the speed and elusiveness to replace him. This upcoming season, C.J. Spiller should be able to bring back that additional threat in the Saints multifaceted offense.

Mark Ingram is going to be New Orleans’ featured back. He'll be the guy who gets the ball 20 times a game, and catches a pass or two out of the backfield. For the first time in Ingram’s career, that role will fully be his even before the start of the season. But C.J. Spiller, once healthy, is probably going to be the most exciting player out of the Saints’ backfield in 2015.

3. How has Andrus Peat looked so far in the preseason? I had him ranked 6th overall on my big board prior to the draft and thought that he was a total steal where the Saints ended up taking him. Is he your right tackle of the future?

Yes, Peat absolutely is the right tackle of the future for the Saints. He arrived in training camp with a few unwanted additional pounds, which promptly had a few pundits and fans alike wondering whether the Saints had drafted a guy at 13th that didn’t have the work ethic to stay in shape before showing up for his rookie training camp. But Peat proceeded to get to work and he has quickly become the "sixth man" on the Saints' offensive line. What’s even better for Peat is that with the stability New Orleans has at right tackle with Zach Strief, he has been able to take backup reps not only at right tackle, but also at left guard. Should anything happen to incumbent left guard Tim Lelito, Peat could slide in and not only contribute proficiently, but also gain even more experience until taking over full time at right tackle when Strief (31) eventually decides to retire.

4. What is the Saints’ biggest weakness on defense? What about biggest strength?

How much time we got?

New Orleans’ defense was terrible last year in pretty much every facet of the game (31st in total defense). More puzzling was the fact that just two years ago in 2013, Football Outsiders had the Saints ranked 10th in total defense. With pretty much the same roster and the same defensive coordinator, the team just failed to put enough pressure on the quarterback in 2014 the way it did the year before, which led in large part to their abysmal ranking.

So the biggest weakness is definitely the pass rush, and not simply the sack numbers but also the quarterback pressures. In 2013, both Junior Galette and Cam Jordan had breakout years and wreaked havoc in opponent’s backfields. In 2014, both of them flopped miserably and the Saints’ secondary was too often exposed by quarterbacks with way too much time in the pocket.

The biggest strength (on paper) is the Saints’ secondary. When healthy and playing up to their potential, safeties Kenny Vaccaro and Jairus Byrd have proven that they can be elite. Similarly, cornerbacks Keenan Lewis and Brandon Browner have pretty good NFL resumes. The problem last year was injuries: Byrd was lost for the year after five games, Vaccaro and Lewis both had injury-riddled seasons, and well, Browner was playing for the Pats. This year, if these four players play up to their abilities, the Saints should be pretty stout in the secondary.

5. Same question, but now for the offense. What is your biggest offensive weakness and strength?

Offensively for New Orleans, when you’re speaking of strength, it always starts with Drew Brees. In 2014, Brees turned the ball over at an alarming rate last year, yet he was still rated by Pro Football Focus as the second quarterback in the NFL with a +32.6 score behind only Aaron Rodgers (+40.4). The other major strength is Sean Payton’s offensive system, in which there is rarely a "featured receiver" but a myriad of formations all designed to get the ball to the "open guy." That has enabled the Saints to be one of the top 10 or top 5 offenses in the NFL every year since Payton took over as Saints head coach in 2006.

The biggest weakness remains the running game. Not always because New Orleans can’t run the ball, but often because Payton simply isn’t that fond of doing so. In the past five years, the Saints’ ranks in passing attempts are: 2nd, 2nd, 2nd, 4th and 2nd. In contrast, here are their rushing attempts as ranked by the NFL in the same time span: 30th, 20th, 29th, 26th and 19th. Because of that excessively aggressive and pass-happy mindset, the Saints have often exposed themselves to more turnover risks and have lost several winnable games. In the end, their biggest strength has also at times been their undoing.

A big thank you from all of us to JR for stopping by. Make sure to check out all of his excellent work over at Canal Street Chronicles, and of course please remember to play nice while you’re over there. You can check out my answers to JR's questions about the Texans here.

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