Saints G.M. Mickey Loomis: Investment in improving kick return game possible as draft looms

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- New Orleans Saints running back Travaris Cadet (39) makes a huge gain against San Francisco 49ers defensive back Tramaine Brock (26) during a NFL football game between the New Orleans Saints and the San Francisco 49ers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, La. Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013.

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON– New Orleans Saints running back Travaris Cadet (39) makes a huge gain against San Francisco 49ers defensive back Tramaine Brock (26) during a NFL football game between the New Orleans Saints and the San Francisco 49ers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, La. Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013.

In his last session with the media before the start of the 2014 draft on Thursday, Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis acknowledged the Saints had to bolster their kick return game.

Running back Darren Sproles — the primary handler of punt and kick return duties — had been traded away in March in exchange for a fifth-round pick in this year’s draft. Wide receiver Lance Moore, whose numbers were quite modest while backing up Sproles as a punt returner, was released in March and had moved on to Pittsburgh via free agency.

While reserve running back Travaris Cadet has accumulated some experience running back kickoffs, under him, the depth chart is pretty bare. So Loomis on Wednesday offered up a possible investment in the return game as another of the myriad things for Saints observers to watch out for during the three-day draft.

“Look, we have some candidates on our roster” to man the return positions, Loomis said at Saints headquarters. “(But) I would say … we would love to improve ourselves in that area.”

Between 2011 and 2013, Sproles led the Saints with 671 punt return yards and 1,827 yards running back kickoffs. His 72-yard punt return touchdown in Week 1 of the 2011 season at Green Bay marked the last time the Saints ran either a punt or a kickoff back for a score.

Now that Sproles has been shipped out, the most accomplished kickoff returner is Cadet. He topped the Saints with 690 kickoff return yards as an undrafted rookie in 2012. He upped his total in black and gold to 929 kickoff return yards by tacking on 239 in 2013; but he doesn’t have much experience with punts, running back a total of two to gain 2 yards.

Moore hadn’t been much more active returning punts under Sproles the past three seasons, running back three for 5 yards.

All of which leads to the present, where — aside from Cadet — the player with the most experience returning punts in the last few seasons is wide receiver Joseph Morgan.

Morgan, who last played in 2012, has missed the 2011 and 2013 regular seasons with knee injuries. He’s shown a measure of potential by returning five punts for 42 yards in the 2012 preseason as well as six for 107 yards and a touchdown in 2011 exhibitions.

But such an outlook for the Saints has prompted many to speculate that they could target a player such as Kent State running back Dri Archer.

In just 21 collegiate starts, he propped himself up alongside the school’s all-time leaders with 4,980 all-purpose yards. Aside from tallying touchdowns off 24 rushes and 12 receptions, he ran back four kickoffs for scores.

Only eight of his all-purpose yards came off six punts. Nonetheless , the 5-foot-8, 173-pound Archer clocked the fastest 40-yard dash among running backs at February’s scouting combine: 4.26 seconds. The next best time was .15 seconds slower.

Archer could be available in either the third or fourth round.

Quotable:

“Look, that is a trip that (coach) Sean (Payton) and I have done with our staff every year and we have always done it on this weekend. It just happened that the draft, in years past that trip was after the draft and this year because of the time schedule it ended up being before. So it had nothing … — absolutely nothing — to do with the draft.”

–Loomis, addressing ESPN’s report that the Saints’ brass traveled to Las Vegas the weekend before the draft because the later-than-usual date had made them weary. The draft is usually in the latter parts of April, but it was pushed back to Thursday’s start date this year.