It was obvious throughout the preseason that there is a player missing from the Saints offense.
No longer is No. 43 lining up all over the field, taking on different roles from one snap to the next.
One might even worry that an element will be stripped from this high-powered offense with Darren Sproles taking his versatility to Philadelphia to play for Chip Kelly’s Eagles. The concern is justified. Even though he might have lost a step in recent seasons, Sproles is a unique player who cannot be easily replaced.
But the Saints aren’t worried about it. They believe things will move forward as usual.
“It’s not like we had a Darren Sproles package,” lineman Zach Strief said. “Other players are going to step up.”
There’s no choice: Other players will have to account for the role Sproles once filled. He collected 1,273 all-purpose yards lining up at running back, punt returner and kick returner last season, which is a good amount of yards even if it is 53 percent less than the total he posted in 2011.
Some of the burden will fall on players like receiver Brandin Cooks, the other running backs and players like Travaris Cadet, who served as the top returner during the preseason. The issue is that none of those players can be the chess piece that Sproles was.
Sproles did everything for the Saints, including play wide receiver, where he was targeted 40 times last season running receiver routes. Running back Pierre Thomas can catch passes out of the backfield, but he does not have the same type of versatility. Few players do.
So the idea that it will fall on Cooks, as has been the popular speculation since he was drafted in the first round of May’s draft, to replace Sproles does not sit well with those who have closely observed this team in recent years.
“People forget that, when you’re swapping out a running back, you’re not replacing him with a slot wide receiver,” said Heath Evans, a former Saints fullback and current NFL Network analyst. “You’re always looking to spread offense around. You bring in more offense through the draft (in Cooks), so that’s what you’re trying to do. It will look different.”
The question now is how different things will look.
The New Orleans offense will always be centered around the pass as long as Drew Brees is under center and surrounded by his many weapons. That is not likely to change this season, and this is where Cooks likely will step into the void.
Cooks proved proficient at running screens and making some receptions underneath during the preseason, much like Sproles used to do, but limiting Cooks to these kind of routes would be neutering his ability.
Cooks likely will be moved all around the field, but he also has the ability to get downfield and beat cornerbacks. Limiting him to plays from the “Sproles package” would not be what is most beneficial to him or the Saints.
“I kind of get the sense that Cooks will have a role that is a hybrid between what Lance Moore and Darren Sproles brought to that offense the past handful of seasons,” said Field Yates, a former Patriots and Chiefs scout and current ESPN analyst. “That’s not to say he’ll have the production that those two compiled as a pair, but perhaps there will be elements of what Sproles and Moore did that Cooks will sort of take on.
“I think it then becomes a question if the buzz around Khiry Robinson is legit. The Saints, as we know, seemingly uncover running backs better than any other team. So perhaps there’s another relative unknown turned into the next really productive player.”
Perhaps another running back does step up and help fill some of the void left behind by Sproles. But maybe it is not in the way that many expect.
“Do they start running the ball more?” NFL Films’ Greg Cosell said. “They say this every year in the preseason. They’ve certainly been running the ball a little bit more and running it well. They’ve been running it out of single-back sets, two-back sets. Maybe they’ll run the ball more.”
Maybe they will. There has been a great commitment to this season both on the field and when players talk about their goals for the upcoming season for this team.
However it happens, the Saints need to find a way to replace those yards left behind by Sproles.
It’s not clear how those numbers will be compiled, but it certainly will look different.