(AP) Saints record-setting quarterback Drew Brees has his three most productive receiving targets back from last season - and then some.
The addition of free agent Cameron Meredith and rookie Tre'Quan Smith, combined with the four-game suspension of 2017 rushing leader Mark Ingram, has set the stage for the Saints to revert to a more pass-heavy attack - if they choose.
Last season, Brees' 4,334 yards passing were his fewest as a Saint, but that could be attributed to New Orleans often playing with leads and controlling the clock with an effective running game.
Still, leading receiver Michael Thomas made the Pro Bowl in his second NFL season with 1,245 yards and five touchdowns, Ted Ginn Jr. had one of his best seasons with 787 yards and four TDs, and versatile running back Alvin Kamara was the offensive rookie of the year in large part because of his 826 yards and five TDs receiving.
''Forget about the new guys for a second and just start with Mike Thomas and Kamara and Drew Brees,'' said Tampa Bay coach Dirk Koetter, whose Buccaneers open the regular season at New Orleans on Sunday. ''Right there, you've got a passing game.''
The 6-foot-3 Meredith is eager to regain his form of two seasons ago, when he was Chicago's leading receiver. He missed 2017 with torn knee ligaments and also has been limited this preseason. On Wednesday, Meredith practiced fully and said he feels ready to immediately contribute to the offense.
''First of all, when you've got a future Hall-of-Fame quarterback at the reins, anything is possible,'' Meredith said. ''Drew's all about timing, so right now we're making up for lost time kind of, me and him specifically, getting our chemistry, our timing down. A lot of those windows (to complete passes) open up and close real fast.''
''Coming back this year feels great,'' Meredith added. ''I just need to pick up where I left off.''
Ginn said he has been impressed by the speed of the 6-2 Smith as well as how quickly the third-round draft choice out of Central Florida showed he could be productive in preseason games.
Smith was New Orleans' leading receiver in the preseason with 15 catches for 189 yards and a TD. Meredith caught only two passes in limited action, but one reception went for 56 yards and the other for a 16 yards touchdown.
Ginn said Smith and Meredith together could add ''a lot'' to New Orleans' passing game.
''They bring height. They bring speed. They make great catches,'' Ginn said. ''With Cam going, fighting back from the injury he had, Tre'Quan coming in and learning the system, I think they all came in and picked it up like they were supposed to, and they started playing faster and faster as the weeks go on. As this thing keeps going, as this boat keeps floating, you should see a lot more out of them.''
Brees suggested that the additions of new receivers, combined with Kamara's effectiveness as both a runner and receiver, should only make it tougher for defenses to anticipate where the ball is going on a given play.
''We are rotating guys all over the place and so it's about creating mismatches. It's about creating confusion for the defense,'' Brees said. ''Cam Meredith is coming along. He missed a lot of the offseason just coming off the knee (surgery) into training camp, and we're just continuing to use that time to develop trust, confidence, chemistry. Tre'Quan's gotten a ton of (snaps) from training camp until now. I think both those guys, as we move along here, will become an integral part of what we do.''
In Week 1, the Saints will be matching up against a Bucs defense that ranked last against the pass last season. Yet Koetter made it clear his defense couldn't afford to sleep on the Saints' running game, either. After all, much of the credit for New Orleans' success on the ground last season was attributed to a formidable offensive line and receivers who block well.
''If you don't stop their running game, (Saints) coach (Sean) Payton is going to keep running the ball on you,'' Koetter said.
Notes: The Saints had only two running backs practicing on Wednesday following their decision to waive rookie Boston Scott and sign offensive lineman Michael Ola. The addition of Ola came as starting left guard Andrus Peat missed practice with a quadriceps injury.
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