The New Orleans Saints have issues at wide receiver.
Or they don’t.
One week, the position looks like the biggest problem on the roster. The next, the concerns feel overblown. It’s clear there is an issue. The appropriate level of concern isn't clear, and it varies by the week.
Someone could use last week’s loss at Dallas to create a full-blown panic over the position — but the week before, the big story was about how Drew Brees threw touchdown passes to four undrafted players.
We can safely say things were never better than when Michael Thomas, Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead were running routes for Brees, but the cupboards aren’t as barren as they appeared in the days before the team signed Dez Bryant.
Back then, Thomas seemed to be the only receiver on the field at times, the last man standing after injuries put Cam Meredith and Ted Ginn Jr. on the shelf. That led New Orleans to use rookies Tre’Quan Smith and Keith Kirkwood in more significant roles. While both players have had some promising moments, this isn’t what anyone envisioned back in August.
“I feel like I’m doing exceptionally well — but at the same time, it’s sad the situation that I came into,” Smith said before the Eagles game Nov. 18. “Having a bigger role in the offense, I didn’t expect it to be like that so soon.”
Smith, who missed a few games with a foot injury, has shown promise in his rookie season, including huge games against the Eagles (10 catches, 157 yards) and Redskins (three catches for 11 yards). He has 22 catches for 371 yards. And after four games, Kirkwood has seven catches for 117 yards.
The presence of those two players, as well as Austin Carr, is part of the reason New Orleans has been able to take its time working in Brandon Marshall, who signed after Bryant suffered a season-ending Achilles injury.
“He’s doing what he’s doing. He’s a smart football player,” Brees said of Marshall. “Veteran guy. He gets it. Obviously he’s chomping at the bit, but we’ve got a lot of guys. I’m sure his opportunity will come.”
The Saints like the players they have at wide receiver, which at some point could come to include Marshall. But chemistry is being built during live action — and even if Marshall took someone’s place on the field, that chemistry would need time to develop. That’s why the Saints expect things to look better in a few weeks than they do now.
“We didn’t have necessarily all the benefits of the offseason,” Brees said. “That’s when (I) spent a lot of time with Mike Thomas and Ted Ginn and some of these other guys — and all of a sudden, these young guys step up and they’re having significant playing time.
“Yeah, every week it is just kind of trying to focus on new things. Obviously, very game-plan-specific. Hey, this is what we’re doing this week and let’s work on this stuff in practice and developing that trust and confidence and chemistry.”
This is still a somewhat unusual talking point for a team that ranks sixth in yards per game (396.6) and second in points per game (34.9). Whatever issues exist on offense are ones that most other teams would like to have.
But when Super Bowl expectations take hold, the criticisms become a little more precise.
Most weeks, the Saints don't have a problem. Even when a team focuses on taking away Thomas, as the Eagles did, the other players have shown they can carry the burden. Dallas was a worst-case scenario.
New Orleans has players it can win with — and if Ginn ever comes back from injured reserve (he is recovering from a knee injury), the outlook will become brighter. At this point, whatever Marshall can give should be considered a bonus.
Other than that, the Saints just need to avoid another Dallas game.