Can Marques Colston Still Help an NFL Offense?

The New Orleans Saints will likely cut former star receiver Marques Colston soon. Is this the end of the line?

I was stuck.

I’ve recently felt completely uninspired to come up with the quipping intros or themes to my articles that I pride myself on. My well of ideas had run dry for the time being, and I was a few bad puns away from banging my head on the keyboard and going with that as a lead. So, I asked my Twitter followers to suggest a non-sports topic for me to connect to football. This is an old writing game that forces you to create new mental connections. I got some good suggestions that I’ll use later, but realized that I already had a perfect lead-in for this particular piece: being stuck.

Marques Colston has seemed to be stuck for quite a while. Whether it was injuries creeping in and sapping his physical abilities, or being one of the last skill position players over age 25 left on the New Orleans Saints after last year’s “scorched earth” rebuild strategy, or the fact that he literally runs like he’s Indiana Jones in quicksand -- the veteran wide receiver has been stuck.

All of that might change soon because the team is reportedly considering releasing the longest-tenured Saint besides Drew Brees and left tackle Zach Strief. Perhaps it would be helpful -- as I did when I was stuck -- to take a step back and scan the whole situation.

What has Marques Colston meant to the Saints over the last 10 years, and should they release him?

Tomorrow Never Knows

Marques Colston cost the New Orleans Saints a paltry seventh-round pick back in the 2006 NFL Draft. That would turn out to be one of the best draft deals of the past two decades.

You may remember that I did an article not too long ago on who the most prolific small-school NFL skill position players have been since 2000, and Colston headlined the receiver category. Through the 2015 season, he has racked up a whopping 920.62 career Total  Net Expected Points (NEP) in his 10 seasons in the league. In fact, that is the 10th-most by any receiver drafted since the class of 2000.

Even more remarkably, Colston is one of just eight wide receivers to play more than five seasons in the league while sustaining an average 90.00 Total NEP per season or better. He has also accrued more than 900 career Total NEP in just 10 years in the league. The only other wide receivers drafted since 2000 to do that are Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall.

Sure, playing with one of the best quarterbacks of the past decade in Brees will help you, but Colston was an integral part of the New Orleans Saints’ offense for 10 years. For the first seven years of his career, Colston’s 929 targets accounted for 17.72 percent of the team’s total drop backs and 21.41 percent of their total passing attempts.

That’s trust.

Stuck in the Middle With You

So, what’s happened to this titan of targets? We can look at his annual finishes in Reception NEP and see what the arc of his career has looked like. Are his recent slumps outliers, or part of a pattern?

Year Rec NEP Per-Play Catch Rate Success Rate
2006 111.67 (6th) 0.97 (4th) 60.87% (26th) 95.71% (8th)
2007 106.04 (10th) 0.75 (25th) 68.31% (8th) 90.72% (30th)
2008 71.20 (34th) 0.81 (14th) 53.41% (63rd) 95.74% (9th)
2009 93.36 (16th) 0.88 (13th) 66.04% (20th) 91.43% (21st)
2010 100.01 (11th) 0.77 (22nd) 63.85% (22nd) 93.98% (10th)
2011 106.15 (8th) 0.99 (6th) 74.77% (1st) 92.50% (25th)
2012 114.29 (8th) 0.88 (9th) 63.85% (25th) 95.18% (7th)
2013 91.56 (19th) 0.82 (20th) 67.57% (12th) 94.67% (9th)
2014 80.64 (26th) 0.81 (18th) 59.60% (51st) 96.61% (4th)
2015 45.90 (63rd) 0.69 (51st) 67.16% (25th) 82.22% (67th)

Only 3 of his 10 career years have seen Colston finish under 90.00 Total NEP, but two of those were 2014 and 2015. Incredibly, Colston sustained top-20 finishes in Reception NEP those seven years, and -- even more impressively -- he hadn’t had a year with a non-top-25 ranking in per-target Reception NEP (among wideouts with at least 40 targets) until this season. He wasn’t just racking up value based on volume; he has been a genuinely exceptional receiver for the majority of his career.

It is clear, however, that injuries have started to sap Colston’s physical ability, as his per-target Reception NEP slipped outside of the top-50 this year. This is reinforced by his only non-top-30 finish in Reception Success Rate (the percent of plays resulting in positive expected points) in 2015. It also doesn’t help that there is no elite talent like Jimmy Graham or incredible deep threat like Devery Henderson to take pressure off of the possession-based Colston.

Free Bird

So, limited to just 13 games last season (and only 67 targets across those games), it looks like Colston is a surefire cut for the Saints. They want to get ahead of the curve early on him, especially since his 2016 season would cost them a $5.9 million cap hit if they retained him. Instead, they’ll likely turn to Brandon Coleman to fill this big receiver role -- which they began to do in 2015 anyway.

The New Orleans Saints will move on without their all-time leader in receiving yards and touchdowns, it seems clear to say. If he were to attempt to sign somewhere else, we could see an Andre Johnson-esque swan song season, but it’s clear that he’s not playing the same game he used to. That kind of steep drop-off in rate production is a serious indicator of career decline.

Colston should not be remembered for his injuries and waning play in his later years. He should be remembered as part of one of the most dominant offensive stretches in NFL history and as one of the best small-school wide receivers of the modern era. In the face of what could be sad news, that’s a freeing reminder.