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Saints position spotlight: Receivers/tight ends

A position-by-position look at the New Orleans Saints’ roster through the Week 6 bye:

Snaps played: WR Brandin Cooks 275 , WR Marques Colston 265, WR Kenny Stills 160, WR Robert Meachem 125, WR Joe Morgan 49, WR Nick Toon 0.

TE Jimmy Graham 255, TE Benjamin Watson 168, TE Josh Hill 87.

Key stats: Cooks 32 catches, 255 yards, 1 touchdown. 5 rushes, 64 yards. Colston 15-248-1. Meachem 4-60-0. Stills 10-141-0. Morgan 0-0.

Graham 34-376-3. Watson 9-64-0. Hill 7-112-2.

My take: The disappearance of the Saints’ downfield passing game has become the biggest concern for this offense dating back to last year. While I’ve stressed that I don’t see any real signs of decline with quarterback Drew Brees, I think we are seeing regression with receivers Colston and Meachem. Those two are hardly the only problem, but the Saints will need better production from all of their receivers going forward -- especially if Graham is sidelined for a significant amount of time with a shoulder injury (he's expected to be highly questionable for this week at Detroit).

Graham hasn’t been perfect himself, with a fumble and some dropped passes. But he has remained Brees’ go-to guy in the middle of the field. And he has still shown his unique ability to exploit mismatches, whether defenses match up a safety, a linebacker or a top cornerback like Cleveland’s Joe Haden on him. Graham’s presence will be greatly missed if he’s out of the lineup.

The rookie Cooks has also been a bright spot -- and he became one of the go-to guys for the offense after Graham went down early against Tampa Bay last week. So far the Saints have been using Cooks’ quickness and explosiveness on short passing routes, screens and run plays. He hasn’t become a big factor on deep routes yet. It’ll be interesting to see if that changes going forward.

Colston seems to be healthy and started great in Week 1 at Atlanta with more than 100 yards. But he also fumbled in overtime during that crushing loss, and he has as many as seven dropped passes this year (depending on your grading scale). I’m not sure if it really matters whether or not Colston is losing speed, because that’s never really been the strength of his game. But he’s always had reliable hands while making some of those difficult back-shoulder throws and tough catches in traffic. I still see multiple 100-yard games in his future, I just wonder about the consistency.

The Saints count on Meachem mostly for his blocking and an occasional “shot play” down the field. So far they haven’t been hitting on those, which isn’t entirely Meachem’s fault -- a few have been underthrown; pass protection was an issue on some. But if Meachem’s not clearly beating guys in 1-on-1 matchups down the field, I wonder if the Saints will give Morgan another try instead.

Lastly, Stills’ lack of production is harder to explain. He was slowed early by a quad strain, but even in Week 5 he was barely targeted. I expect him to be more involved going forward, too.

Saints receivers coach Henry Ellard said the biggest issue for his position group is “the spacing on the sideline.”

“Especially when you’re pushing down the field, [we need to make sure] we give Drew plenty of room to lay that ball on the outside of shoulder of us, away from the defender,” Ellard said. “It really comes down to taking what you get from what the defense is playing at the time. But that’s something we’ve definitely gotta be aware of as a receiver.”

ESPN scouting Insider Matt Williamson’s take: “[The lack of downfield passing] is surprising. I think Graham is Graham, and he’s still great, and without him they’d be really hurting. I think Colston might be done. I’m not seeing Colston get separation. He never was the quickest or fastest to begin with. He relied on body positioning and routes and hands. And he’s not getting enough space. I think that’s a worry. I think Cooks is a work in progress, but he’s an obvious talent. I still have high hopes for Stills and really liked him last year. I just wonder if he’s taking time to get healthy. I wonder if it’s an injury thing with him.”