Saints’ Brees unfazed by personnel changes in passing game
METAIRIE, La. (AP) Willie Snead’s recent suspension, combined with the offseason trade of Brandin Cooks, means Saints quarterback Drew Brees is currently without two of his top three receiving targets from last season.
The first look at Brees’ and coach Sean Payton’s adjustment to changing personnel in New Orleans’ passing game comes Monday night in Minnesota.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer worked with Payton when both were assistants in Dallas and is familiar enough with Brees’ work to conclude that a New Orleans passing game that ranked first in the NFL last season remains a concern for his defense, even with different personnel.
”Snead is a good player and made a lot of catches for Drew, but Drew has a lot of weapons. That offense hasn’t been number one in the league for the last three years because of one guy, so they are always tough to defend,” Zimmer said this week. ”Whether they have Willie Snead or anybody else.”
Zimmer said New Orleans’ top returning pass-catcher, Michael Thomas, newly acquired veteran receiver Ted Ginn Jr. and tight end Coby Fleener give the Vikings plenty to worry about, for starters.
”They have all kinds of weapons, so (Drew) may be disappointed he has one less, but he’s still got a lot of bullets in that gun,” Zimmer said.
Cooks led New Orleans in yards receiving last season with 1,173 and his eight touchdown catches were second on the club behind only Thomas’ nine. Snead’s 72 catches and 895 yards receiving both ranked third on the club last season. However, he was suspended the first three games this season for driving under the influence, a violation of the NFL’s personal conduct policy.
Brees noted that while Cooks is an excellent receiver, the club traded him back in March and began planning for life without him then.
”We have been moving along with the guys that we have and feel very good about that,” Brees said.
Losing Snead, Brees said, ”was tough and he’s a big part of what we do offensively.” But Brees added, ”The guys that will step into that role will do a good job.”
Thomas, who had 1,137 yards and nine TDs as a rookie, has only looked better in camp, and the Vikings expect him to be a difficult cover.
”Him and Drew have great, great communication. It’s awesome,” Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes said, complimenting the way Brees and Thomas connect on back-shoulder throws. ”Drew Brees is going to make tough throws for us to get to, and Michael Thomas, he’s good at adjusting to the ball.”
Two players who could see more action are fourth-year pro Brandon Coleman and second-year player Tommylee Lewis. At 6-foot-6, Coleman gives Brees a big target, while the 5-7 Lewis is a speedier, more agile option.
”Brandon Coleman has been in it and seen quite a bit of action and then of course Tommylee is going into his second year hadn’t had quite the exposure or the amount of snaps, but both of those guys are going to play and play a lot,” Payton predicted. ”They are different in their skill sets and we’ve got to have the right role in place for them to have success.”
Coleman, a former undrafted free agent out of Rutgers in 2014, has said this summer that he figures he’s running short on chances to prove he belongs long-term.
”Obviously, I’m growing and that’s a part of it,” Coleman said. ”They kept me here because they see potential in me, so it’s time.”
In designing offensive schemes, Payton has been recognized for his ability to find matchups maximizing the strengths of whichever players are available to him.
This week, there could be more passes for running backs Mark Ingram, Alvin Kamara or even Adrian Peterson. New Orleans also comes into the game with three healthy veteran tight ends in Fleener, Josh Hill and Michael Hoomanawanui.
Hill wasn’t about to divulge whether Payton might emphasize the Saints’ full complement of tight ends in this week’s passing game plan, but didn’t rule it out.
”That’s one of his strong points is he moves guys in position to be successful. He’s obviously one of the best at doing so,” Hill said of Payton. ”He’ll do his thing with the game plan and we’ll make the plays when they come to us. You can expect anything with this offense.”
AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, contributed to this report.
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