When you look at Brandon Coleman and Marques Colston and see the similarities in their builds, it’s hard not to begin making comparisons between the two players.
While Coleman is listed two inches taller at 6-foot-6, both men are roughly the same size and have similar body types. These measurements long led to the assumption that when Colston’s time came to an end in New Orleans, as it did this week, Coleman would be tapped to fill the void.
General manager Mickey Loomis fanned the flames last month by referring to Coleman as Colston’s heir apparent, and in many ways, he likely is going to be asked to take on a bigger role in the offense next season.
There is, however, nothing apparent about the situation. There are hopes. There are assumptions. There are even some likelihoods. But nothing is guaranteed about Coleman’s ability to step in and capably fill the void left behind by Colston.
While similar, these two players are different in just as many ways. That much became clear after going back through the tape of the 2015 season and charting how each man was used in the offense.
When Colston landed with the Saints in 2006, he was at the forefront of the movement that saw teams using bigger receivers in the slot. Not much has changed since then.
Colston lined as an outside receiver on only 23 of his 67 targets (32.8 percent) last season. On 11 of those plays, his route still took him to the inside or middle of the field. Coleman, meanwhile, served as an outside receiver on 42 of his 49 targets. Only 16 of those plays brought him to the inside or middle of the field.
It’s important to note Colston didn’t work exclusively from the slot and Coleman was locked to the outside. The two players ran plenty of routes from other spots on the field. These statistics simply highlight where they came from when the ball was thrown their direction.
It’s also entirely possible that Coleman could have played inside more often last season if he wasn’t sharing a field with Colston. But even with Colston sidelined during the final two games of the season against Jacksonville and Atlanta, Coleman still did most of his damage working from the outside.
Only four of his targets came while lined up inside during those games. Willie Snead had seven targets when lining up inside during those two games. Brandin Cooks was targeted twice after starting out as an inside receiver.
There is nothing that says Coleman couldn’t move inside and do his damage from that area of the field. If another receiver isn’t brought in and Coleman stays in the top three of the receiver depth chart, he’ll likely be given the opportunity to prove he can succeed there.
There are a lot of similarities in the routes Colston and Coleman ran last season.
The curl was the veterans most effective route last season and accounted for 40 percent of his receptions, as he caught 18-of-20 targets using it for 162 yards. Coleman has also been effective running curls, catching 7-of-9 targets for 68 yards. Overall, this accounted for 30 percent of his output.
The difference between the two players on these routes is that Coleman’s curls often came on the outside and deeper down the field. Colston often came out of the slot and worked over the middle of the field, using the curl to exploit soft spots in zone coverage, which has long been one of the strengths of his game. Colston’s feel for doing that has also often provided quarterback Drew Brees with a safety valve over the middle.
If Coleman is used more like Colston next season, he’ll need to show he has a feel for when to sit in zones and can work more over the middle of the field. His usage last season makes both of those things a bit of a projection.
One area that could help Coleman if he plays the slot more next season is his prowess on deep passes. He was targeted 13 times on vertical routes last season and made eight catches for 200 yards. Most of those came on the outside, but it’s easy to envision him working up a seam.
Colston was mostly ineffective on these routes, catching one pass on five targets for 20 yards.
Both players were similar in their production on other routes. Colston caught 7-of-16 targets on in and out routes. Coleman caught seven passes on 13 targets. Coleman caught five passes on six of his slant routes while Colston pulled in five passes the eight times he was targeted on a slant.
Boiling it all down, there are enough similarities between the two players to see a scenario where Coleman could easily step into the Colston role and help the offense continue to prosper. There are also enough differences to make it a bit of a projection.
If New Orleans decides to move forward with Coleman in that role, chances are the Saints will find ways to play to his strengths. That will mean doing some of the things Colston used to do, but also letting him to continue to prosper in some of the ways he did last season.
Coleman might be the heir apparent, but he also needs the opportunity to be himself.