When the New Orleans Saints traded 4th year veteran Brandin Cooks to the New England Patriots 2 months ago, it presumably left a "void" in the New Orleans Saints offense at the wide receiver position.
Cooks, the Saints' top pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, had ascended to the #1 WR spot following the retirement of former Saints living legend Marques Colston; and in 2016 caught 78 passes (on 117 targets) for a pro career-high 1,173 yards and 8 TD's, with many of those yards coming as the Saints' primary "deep ball" threat.
New Orleans will definitely miss Cooks’ upside, given his blazing speed and relatively young age (he turns 24 in September); but to say that the Saints offense will 'suffer' because of his departure, isn't necessarily an accurate depiction of what the team plans to do about it in his absence.
That's because the Saints arguably already had one of the most young and talented WR corps in the entire NFL, and the two players that were #2 and #3 in the "pecking order" behind Cooks, are as good as any in the League.
The Saints may have been reduced from "The Terrific Trio" down to "The Dynamic Duo", but those two players -- 2nd year veteran and emerging NFL "superstar" Michael Thomas, along with 3rd year veteran Willie Snead -- are more than capable of stepping up and leading the way forward for New Orleans in 2017.
Now of course as has been the case for the past decade, Saints QB Drew Brees notably throughout the years has always loved to spread the ball around to a variety of different receivers; and essentially whoever is the "open man" on a given pass play can usually expect a ball from Brees to be thrown his way.
But Thomas as a rookie last year and Snead for the past 2 seasons have both shown that they've each developed a rapport with Brees, which presumably should make their transition to the #1 and #2 WR roles trouble-free and nearly effortless.
As FantasyGuru.com analyst Graham Barfield noted in his column following the Cooks trade, unless New Orleans drastically changes the way that they operate on offense, Thomas and Snead should receive at least 1-2 more targets per game.
Barfield is projecting Thomas’ target share to likely hover somewhere around the 20% range, while he projects Snead to see around 17% of the season-long targets from Drew Brees. Snead ranked 3rd on the Saints’ in percentage of target share in 2016 (15%).
Thomas now steps up into the #1 WR spot, which was exactly what the Saints intended him to be someday when they selected him in last year's Draft --- but he just developed quicker than even they had expected.
He had 92 catches for 1,137 yards and nine touchdowns in just 15 games last season; and led the Saints in target share, red-zone targets, receptions, yards/game, and touchdowns last season as a rookie, according to Barfield.
He also set the new Saints rookie receiving yards record, and was only the 2nd Saints WR ever to record over 1,000 yards receiving in a single season (Marques Colston was the other, with 1,038 in 2006).
ESPN beat writer Mike Triplett noted a few weeks ago that Thomas had the second-most catches by a rookie receiver in NFL history, behind only Anquan Boldin’s 101 in 2003. And he had six touchdowns over his final eight games as his role continued to increase.
And while it's up for debate as to whether that Thomas potentially could see a reduction in targets and catches thanks to opposing teams putting their top CB on him in coverage now as the new Saints #1 WR, there's no reason to suspect that Thomas will have any less of an impact than the one he made as one of the League's youngest "immediate impact" players in 2016.
Which is exactly why that no matter how many numbers or 'stats' that Thomas does or doesn't accumulate in 2017, his ever-constant rise to NFL "superstardom" is on an unstoppable path of inevitability.
Meanwhile, Snead could be the true benefactor of Cooks' departure; as he assumes the #2 WR role after starting off originally as the team's #4 WR; when he first made a huge impact as an undrafted free agent during Training Camp back in the summer of 2015.
Snead is now looking forward to his 3rd full year as a pro, after making a total of 141 catches for 1,879 yards and seven touchdowns since his arrival in New Orleans two years ago.
He was originally cut by the Cleveland Browns as an undrafted rookie in the 2014 Pre-Season; then subsequently ended up on Carolina's Practice Squad until getting released there as well, before finally landing on the Saints Practice Squad in December of 2014.
He has become an invaluable chess piece in the Saints offense, as Brees' "go-to guy" on 3rd downs; and and as a slot receiver who was ranked 4th overall in the NFL with 707 total receiving yards from the slot WR position in 2016, according to Pro Football Focus.
The 2017 season will 'officially' be Year #3 in the NFL for Snead, and he recalls having a big 3rd year once before: which was when he was a junior at Ball State (in Indiana) and grabbed 106 receptions that year for 1,516 yards and 15 touchdowns, setting the Ball State single-season receiving record and recording 100+ receiving yards in 9 games, a school record.
Those numbers led Snead to leave school a year early, but he went undrafted --- setting up his unique and well-traveled path to eventual stardom, in New Orleans.
“Every time I’ve had a third year, I balled out,” Snead said in an interview with CBS Sports' Jamey Eisenberg at Anquan Boldin’s charity event last month. “It’s all about timing. The first year you have to get acclimated, the second year Mike T came in, and I was fine with that. This year, now that Cooks is gone, I feel like it’s my time. I just have to make the most of it, stay humble and stay healthy.”
Snead will be an RFA (restricred free agent) after the 2017 season, since he recently signed a one-year tender from the team worth $615,000 just a few weeks ago.
It's expected that Snead and New Orleans -- at some point later on this year -- will reach a long-term deal in order to avoid the chance of him "hitting the open market", and to keep him with the franchise as an integral part of the Saints offensive attack for years to come.
Now while Thomas and Snead will have some help at the WR position, it's clear that the two of them will be leading the way forward as the team heads into the summer-long training process; which gets underway this Tuesday morning with the first day of OTA's at the Saints Practice Facility in suburban Metairie.
10-year veteran and 32-year old WR Ted Ginn, Jr. will step into the #3 WR role after the team signed him in Free Agency from the Carolina Panthers, to be a potential "deep ball" threat (as well as a kick and punt returner) within the offense.
However, it's rather unlikely that Ginn will have anywhere near the impact that Cooks had on the Saints offense since he is essentially a player almost a decade older than Cooks --- and likely will serve as more of a "decoy" to get open looks for Brees with other potential targets across the field.
Additionally, 3rd year veteran Brandon Coleman will presumably remain in the #4 WR role; while popular unrestricted free agent rookie Travin Dural of LSU will be one of a handful of WR's (Corey Fuller, Jake Lampman, and last year's #5 WR Tommylee Lewis are the others) who will all be competing for the coveted 5th and final receiver spot --- which is assuming of course that the Saints keep 5 WR's on the roster as they have in the past.
And of course, Brees will still have other receiving targets at his disposal, such as brand new rookie RB Alvin Kamara catching passes out of the backfield and returning veteran tight end Coby Fleener --- whom it's hoped will have a better 2nd year in New Orleans after a somewhat disappointing season last year when the Saints signed him to a lucrative contract (5 years, $36 million) in 2016 Free Agency.
But there isn't any question as to who the players are that the Saints offense will revolve around, besides Brees and the 3-headed monster running back attack of Mark Ingram, Adrian Peterson, and Kamara.
"The Dynamic Duo" of Michael Thomas and Willie Snead are ready to ride into the 2017 season --- and where ever the ride eventually ends, is the only thing left that's still yet to be determined........