How a Graham injury impacts the Saints
The Saints offense is built on versatile personnel that can Drew Brees and Sean Payton can move around a formation to create mismatches. During the Brees-Payton era, opposing defenses have seen New Orleans use its tight end at the line of scrimmage, in the slot, and split wide; it's running back in the backfield, in the slot, and split wide; and switch receivers from the slot to the perimeter. Jimmy Graham is the primary threat in this passing offense and despite the fact that the NFL ruled he's a tight end, Graham's versatility is focused as a slot player or a split end in this passing game more than it is as a tight end.
If Graham misses significant time, the Saints lose it's best red zone option, big-play threat, and part of its 1-2 punch (with Marques Colston) in the middle of the field. Colston, Graham, and Pierre Thomas often create a double or triple bind on the defense over the middle and Graham benefits more than anyone. Although the Saints have two players behind Graham on the depth chart capable of helping the team, New Orleans would have to acquire Cameron Jordan, Vernon Davis, Julius Thomas, or Rob Gronkowski to have a mismatch of similar caliber.
Ben Watson was once thought of as the potential Antonio Gates-like difference maker when the Patriots initially drafted him. A good blocker, Watson never maximized his potential in the receiving game. Josh Hill is an intriguing young athlete who has flashed some potential as a receiver, but there will be questions about how consistent he can be as a primary option in this offense. Losing Graham will place more pressure on the the receiving corps and the ground game. Brees and Payton have enough skill and experience to help these young players deliver, but the consistency of production could be a concern and I wouldn't be surprised if Watson is a factor in the Saints choosing to run more.
WR Kenny Stills - The second-year receiver displayed excellent skill in the vertical game as well as reliable hands on difficult targets. This was a bit surprising to some people last year who watched Oklahoma's offense and pegged Stills as more of a slot/underneath type. If Graham gets hurt, Stills could earn more of that role for the Saints and become the second option after Colston in the pecking order of the passing game. Stills' ability to win the ball in tight coverage could also make him a primary option in the red zone.
WR Marques Colston - The Saints' big slot receiver functions a lot like a tight end in the New Orleans passing game. If Graham gets hurt, some of the wide open passing lanes will be harder to create and it could hurt Colston in theory. However, Colston has been a high-producing fantasy receiver with and without Graham in the offense. Brees-Payton will figure out ways to great binds by using Colston, Brandin Cooks, and Pierre Thomas against defenses and Cooks will likely be the deep option that will enforce a safety's cushion. The same could be done with Stills. Either way, Colston remains a solid WR2 due to his zone savvy and reliable hands.
WR Brandin Cooks - I don't think Cooks is Steve Smith incarnate. He was not a physical receiver against tight single coverage and he had issues making plays in these situations on a consistent basis. I do think he can get better at it, but Steve Smith demonstrated far more skill with the ball in the air than I've ever seen from Cooks. Still, Cooks is a talented player in a great situation and if Graham gets hurt, you'll see a lot more targets planned for Cooks in the middle of the field where New Orleans can exploit his speed after the catch. I expect Cooks to be the replacement for Darren Sproles in the same way that the Patriots have been trying to replace Aaron Hernandez with Shane Vereen -- the positions are technicially different and they don't necessarily do the same things as well as their predecessors, but Cooks and Vereen offer a multidimensionality that can force mismatches that favor them and teammates. I don't see Cooks as a major red zone threat, but I do see packages where his receiver/runner hybrid tendencies could generate some big plays that result in a small handful of touchdowns.
QB Drew Brees - Brees will still have Marques Colston, Kenny Stills, and Pierre Thomas as a trio capable of creating mismatches in the middle of the field or in the flats. Where Brees' production could suffer is the red zone, but that is only if Stills or Nick Toon cannot rise to the occasion as a consistent red zone option. Add Cooks to the equation as a Sproles-like hybrid as explained above and Brees has more than enough weapons to remain a fantasy QB1.
Saints Running Backs - New Orleans flashed a strong ground attack in the playoffs and it would not surprise me if they use a little more of it this year even if Graham remains healthy. Pierre Thomas' projections are split among those who think he'll build on last year's production and those who believe it was a career-year due to Mark Ingram II's dings and the team's caution with introducing Khiry Robinson into the mix. I believe Ingram, Robinson, and Thomas are essentially three of one and a trio of the other. Hold who you took based on your belief of which one has the most potential. In PPR, my pick is Thomas, but Khiry Robinson might be the best overall value of the trio. If Graham gets hurt and the Saints opt for Watson and use him more at the line of scrimmage, Robinson and Ingram could benefit more in the run game.
WR Robert Meachem - There is still a cadre of fantasy owners (and writers) who will tout Meachem or draft him as a late round option. These owners appreciate Meachem's fine athleticism and remember the one decent season earlier in his career where he made big plays. That season even produced a nice effort on data sheets when it came to holding onto the ball. In this case fantasy TPS reports weren't helpful and the season was an anomaly. Meachem has longstanding issues holding onto targets and running consistent routes. He may have a few quality games, but whether he's a player you added or drafted late, I'd sell high on Meachem after his first big week.
TE Ben Watson - No longer the physical stud that once chased down former UGA teammate Champ Bailey from across the field during a playoff game to prevent a pick-six, Watson is still a capable tight end. He had 49-501-3 in Cleveland two years ago and 37-410-2 in 2011 despite missing 3 games. The greatest concern with Watson is a history of concussions. If he can stay healthy, he's capable of posting 5-6 scores with Drew Brees targeting him in the red zone -- especially with the personnel setup I've discussed that benefitted Graham.
TE Josh Hill - I would not sleep on Hill. I liked what I saw from him against Atlanta in Week 12 last year and the fact that the team incorporated him into the passing game during the playoffs is testament to his potential. The tall, athletic Hill could earn more time in the red zone than Watson if Graham gets hurt. Monitor his progress in training camp, because it's possible Hill could sneak into red zone duty even if a player like Colston went down.
WR Nick Toon - A fourth-round pick in 2012, the 6-2, 215-pound Toon is very much a receiver in the Colston-Michael Crabtree physical template. He's not a speedster, but he's fast enough to stretch the field up the seams on play-action passes. He's also big and strong enough to win position on a defender with the ball in the air -- and back-shoulder fades are a staple of the Saints' passing game. Toon also brings a possession receiver's hands and knack as a route runner. Toon has performed well early in camp and there's even talk that he might earn the No.4 spot on the depth chart. If Graham gets hurt, Toon is physically and technically a match for a big slot receiver role opposite Colston and he could see time in more four-receiver sets. He's not a high priority add unless it's Colston who gets hurt, but he's worth consideration if Graham goes down.
No one. As long as Drew Brees is delivering the ball, the Saints passing game will be a good investment.