Is Marques Colston a top-tier wideout

In the past three seasons under Drew Brees' stewardship, the Saints' aerial assault has averaged just fewer than 4,700 passing yards and nearly 34 passing touchdowns per campaign.

The confusing part is how the New Orleans passing game hasn't traditionally been a deep and varied resource for fantasy purposes.

In Brees' five seasons calling the signals for the Saints, his No. 1 receiver has averaged 1,053 yards per season and nine touchdowns. Wide receiver Marques Colston has averaged 1,019 and eight touchdowns in New Orleans over the past five seasons. He has been Brees' leading receiver in four of their five seasons together, missing out on a full five due to a significant thumb injury during the 2008 season.

If in Indianapolis three, and even four, relevant fantasy commodities can thrive in Peyton Manning's offensive orchestra in a given season, it seems that just one or two players produce at consistently capable levels in New Orleans' high-powered passing game. Colston has been the only fixture.

He was the 32nd of 33 wide receivers taken in the 2006 draft and just the fourth-to-last player taken overall. Just three picks from Mr. Irrelevant status, Colston has proved quite relevant as one of the league's premier red zone targets and a dangerously big downfield target.

The Hofstra product from Harrisburg, Pa., followed up a strong rookie season and proved to be a top-tier receiver in 2007, his second season in the league, as Colston hauled in 98 receptions for 1,202 yards and 11 touchdowns, all highs for a Brees wide receiver in his career as an NFL quarterback.

In 2008, the aforementioned thumb injury derailed another strong season and limited Colston to just 11 games, but he's averaged 77 receptions, 1,048 yards and eight touchdowns the past two seasons. Colston has built a reputation as one of the league's tougher receivers, regularly playing through injuries, even those requiring significant surgical repair.

The main question heading into 2011 concerns Colston's health. The big wideout had microfracture surgery performed on his right knee in May and also had a procedure done to his wrist this offseason. As far as recovery and rehab goes, Colston is no stranger to the grind, as he endured microfracture surgery on his left knee in 2009. He has now had three knee surgeries in the past 12 months.

Despite a propensity to get dinged up, he's proved decidedly durable. The consistent Colston seasons -- those just over 1,000 yards and just under 10 scores -- have continued to pile up in the face of such annual ailments, but there should still be some pause practiced when considering Colston in a fantasy context. He hasn't practiced in more than a week now in order to rest his knee, and he isn't scheduled to play on Friday night in preseason play. He has regularly told reporters that the time off the field is precautionary and is intended to stay ahead of the healing process.

The problems with Colston's fantasy stock in 2011 aren't solely over health, though, as he has tended to produce over stretches and in bunches, rather than affording his owners weekly statistical peace of mind. Colston ripped off a seven-game stretch of elite production from Week 7 to Week 14 last season -- with all seven of his touchdowns and well over half of his yards and receptions coming in that span -- while the first six weeks of the 2010 season were dramatically disappointing.

Spreading the ball around has been a definitive characteristic of the Brees era in the Superdome, therefore some inconsistent returns from his receivers are expected. Outside of Colston, Lance Moore has been the second-most valuable and consistent fantasy producer. In his past two full seasons with Brees, removing his seven-game season in 2009, Moore has averaged 72 receptions and nine touchdowns per season. The tertiary option has been Robert Meachem, who has 14 touchdowns over the past two seasons but isn't a consistent target for Brees.

Moore has been a prominent element to the passing game over the past several seasons, as his team-leading -- and fourth in the NFL -- 23 red zone targets in 2010 suggest. Colston had 22 red zone targets, good for fifth in football last season.

The emergence of Moore as a key red zone target shouldn't be a real cause for concern to Colston investors, as he's been in the top five in the league in red zone targets in three of the past four seasons (missing the cut in his injury-plagued 2008 season). Colston led football with 27 red zone targets in 2007, and was fourth with 24 such looks in 2009.

It's clear that when Colston is healthy, and the Saints are in the red zone, that he'll be getting more than a quarter of all the passes from Brees' arm, or at least the past five seasons say so. Even with Moore and Meachem posing as competition for attention, they aren't truly threats, as Colston still has Brees' eye, with his 131 targets last season second only to his 2007 opus. His catch rate was 64.1 percent last season, again second only to his 2007 effort.

Once you pore over Colston's numbers, you realize that, in the style that Denny Green coined, "He is who we thought he was." Colston has strong outings in about half of his games, and at times can sustain solid enough statistics when he doesn't score a touchdown thanks to some solid yardage efforts. In ESPN live drafts, Colston is currently going 15th at the position and has an average draft position of 46.6 overall, a significant gap to where Moore (40th at the position) and Meachem (42nd) are landing. The best approach with Colston, in some senses similar to Philadelphia's Jeremy Maclin, is patience, for now. If you are drafting sooner rather than later, and he's yet to resume practicing and playing, then the risk is clearly greater. One positive we can look to is how well he's returned from similar previous issues.

Overall, Colston produces at a No. 2 wideout clip and now comes at a No. 2 cost, given growing hesitations. The enticing element will always be that he has the imposing frame and potent offense to pose as an elite producer in some weeks, and during some prolonged stretches.

The risks with Colston, then, lie not with the nature and pace of the production we can expect when he's healthy, but rather with the question of if he will be healthy enough to collect his 1,050 yards and nine touchdowns.

Jim McCormick is a fantasy football analyst for ESPN Fantasy and the digital high school football editor for ESPN High School.