Thursday, July 5, 2018
Saints Offensive Profile Under Sean Payton
2014-2017 Pass Attempts Rank: 2nd, 2nd, 2nd, 19th
2014-2017 Rush Attempts Rank: 19th, 20th, 19th, 13th
2014-2017 Play Volume Rank: 3rd, 4th, 1st, 19th
2014-2017 Yards Per Play Rank: 5th, 4th, 3rd, 1st
Unaccounted for Air Yards from 2017 (Rank): 689 (26th)
Unaccounted for Carries from 2017 (Rank): 87.5 (19th)
Projected Starting Lineup
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Passing Game Outlook
Drew Brees’ 2017 was perceived as disappointing with a 15-year low in touchdowns (23) and 14-year low in yards (4,334) due to decreased volume stemming from New Orleans’ run-game and defensive explosions. Brees averaged 33.5 attempts per game – his fewest ever as a Saint – on an 11-5 team that protected leads and dramatically slowed its pace, running 105 fewer offensive plays than the year prior, which equates to nearly two full games’ worth of snaps. Brees’ TD rate also sank from 5.8% over the previous six seasons to 4.3%, a stat primed to bounce back. Brees lost nothing off his fastball, though. He set the NFL completion-rate record (72.0%) and led the league in yards per attempt (8.1) in, quietly, one of the most-efficient years of his career. This will be Brees’ age-39 season, but he still attacks downfield with the best of them; Brees finished No. 2 among 34 qualifiers in PFF’s Accuracy Rating on 20-plus-yard throws (52.5%) and No. 8 in deep-passer rating (103.3). Mark Ingram’s four-game suspension, natural regression factors, and a much-tougher schedule suggest Brees’ attempts are likely to rise. A safe pick with more upside than last year’s results, Brees is my QB5 behind Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, and Cam Newton.
Michael Thomas turned in his second-straight top-ten WR1 finish despite managing five touchdowns after scoring nine as a 2016 rookie, feeling the trickle down of Brees’ lowered TD rate. New Orleans’ probable pass-volume recoil enhances Thomas’ box-score outlook, even after he ranked sixth among NFL receivers in targets (149) and third in catches (104). More versatile technician than his alpha-dog build (6’3/212) suggests, Thomas’ 69.8% catch rate ranked No. 3 among receivers who mainly play outside. Although Thomas runs nearly 80% of his routes on the perimeter, Brees targeted him at the league’s highest clip when aligned inside; Thomas’ 40.5% slot-target rate dwarfed co-runners up Adam Thielen and Robert Woods (25.0%). Slot targets typically come against weaker, smaller corners and allow Thomas to exploit mismatches with his size and precise routes. Thomas is a high-floor pick with double-digit TDs firmly in his range of potential outcomes. He is my WR6 behind Antonio Brown, DeAndre Hopkins, Julio Jones, Odell Beckham, and Keenan Allen.
Ted Ginn has a longstanding reputation for dropping passes, so it may surprise you that he led all NFL outside receivers in 2017 catch rate (75.7%), dropping just two balls all year. Even at age 33, Ginn registered elite Game Speed in Josh Hermsmeyer’s Next Gen Stats charts and ranked No. 2 among perimeter wideouts in average yards of separation at target (3.5), just barely trailing first-place finisher Tyreek Hill. Ginn topped six targets in only 2-of-15 regular season games – costing him consistency – but he finished with a bang on stat lines of 4/115/1 and 8/72/0 in the playoffs. Ginn also stands to benefit from New Orleans’ likely enhanced passing volume. Ginn is a worthwhile pick in the double-digit rounds, especially in best-ball leagues.
Cameron Meredith broke out to lead the 2016 Bears in receiving (66/888/4) as a second-year UDFA, then missed all of 2017 with left ACL and MCL tears suffered last preseason. Meredith tested 2018 restricted free agency and was stolen by the Saints on a two-year, $9.6 million deal. Declared “way ahead of schedule” by Sean Payton in late May, Meredith was limited at OTAs and will be over 12 months removed from his injury by Week 1. Meredith ran over half of his 2016 routes in the slot and has a chance to become Payton’s next Marques Colston with mismatch capability at 6-foot-3, 207. A onetime college quarterback, Meredith was a stellar athlete coming out of Illinois State with 4.49 speed and 90th-percentile SPARQ results. Thomas’ target-hog presence caps his ceiling, but Meredith is capable of becoming a WR3 sleeper if his knee holds up and the Saints’ pass attempts rise.
Ben Watson rejoined the Saints on a one-year, $2 million deal after a two-season stopover in Baltimore, where his Game Speed registered well above par and Watson ranked fourth among NFL tight ends in average yards of separation (3.3). Watson can still run and get open at age 37, and in 2015 he drew 110 targets from Brees to finish as a top-eight TE1. New Orleans’ pass-catcher corps is far stronger now than it was then, but Watson has a chance to become a matchup-based streamer and sneaky TE2. Watson’s main competition for usage will come from Josh Hill, who ran a pass route on just 40% of his 2017 snaps and has never topped 30 targets in five seasons as a Saint. Watson ran routes on 62% of his 2017 plays.
Other Saints pass catchers worth mentioning include No. 91 overall pick Tre’Quan Smith, a 6-foot-2, 203-pound vertical threat out of UCF who looks like the heir apparent to Ginn. Smith runs 4.49 and has long arms (33 3/8”). Last season, PFF College charted Smith with a 70.8% catch rate on 20-plus-yard targets, the second-best mark in Division I. 6-foot-6 scarecrow Brandon Coleman overtook Willie Snead as the Saints’ 2017 slot receiver but drew just 37 targets on 62% of New Orleans’ offensive snaps. Meredith was specifically brought in to upgrade on Coleman.
Running Game Outlook
Alvin Kamara will open the year as New Orleans’ clear-cut feature back, but the transition began before Ingram’s four-game suspension. After returning from a Week 14 concussion, Kamara out-touched (78, 71) and out-snapped (36.4, 31.6) Ingram in the Saints’ final five games, playoffs included. Perhaps most tellingly, Kamara replaced Ingram as New Orleans’ scoring-position back, out-carrying Ingram seven to one inside the ten-yard line during that five-game span. Just after Ingram’s suspension was announced, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported the Saints planned to install Kamara as their feature back all along. Kamara was a top-five RB1 as a rookie despite averaging a measly 7.5 carries per game, and a 100-catch season can’t be ruled out after Kamara’s 100-target, 81-catch debut. Kamara won’t keep averaging 6.1 yards per carry, but he is a dynamic playmaker in a high-scoring offense slated for a significant increase in touches behind an offensive line that returns all five starters after ranking No. 2 in Adjusted Line Yards and No. 4 in yards created before contact. I have no hesitation ranking Kamara as the RB5 behind Todd Gurley, Le’Veon Bell, David Johnson, and Ezekiel Elliott. I think an overall RB1 finish is even in play.
Mark Ingram irked Sean Payton by skipping OTAs to show displeasure with his contract, even after drawing the PEDs ban. “It wasn’t a surprise to us that he’s not here,” Payton said at spring practices. “I don’t agree with it. But it is optional, and that’s his choice.” Payton doghoused Willie Snead last year after a three-game substance-abuse suspension, and has long shown wavering commitment to Ingram for on-field errors. During Ingram’s month away, Terrance West, Jonathan Williams, Trey Edmunds, and rookie Boston Scott will audition for No. 2 back duties in an underrated camp battle. Should one step up and succeed – quite conceivable in such a running back-friendly environment — the possibility of Ingram returning without a role or in diminished duty puts him atop my do-not-draft list.
2018 Vegas Win Total
The Saints’ Win Total opened at 9.5 after last year’s 11-5 finish. Payton’s team managed seven wins in four of the previous five years, then exploded with an historically great draft class, efficient quarterback play, a dominant run game, and defensive turnaround keyed by DC Dennis Allen’s top-five secondary. Last year’s Saints laid waste to a Charmin-soft schedule, however, and this year Warren Sharp rated their slate sixth toughest. The NFC South is the best division in the league, and New Orleans faces a murderer’s row of opponents/locations in Weeks 7-17: @ BAL, @ MIN, vs. LAR, @ CIN, vs. PHI, vs. ATL, @ DAL, @ TB, @ CAR, vs. PIT, vs. CAR. I do expect the Saints to start fast with Alvin Kamara at the forefront, but that late-season gauntlet leaves minimal margin for early-season error. In an unforgiving NFC, the Saints are another Super Bowl contender whose win-total under I’m taking.