2018 Stats (Rank)
Total Offense: 6,067 (8th)
Offensive Touchdowns: 59 (2nd)
Offensive Plays: 1,010 (17th)
Pass Attempts + Sacks: 539 (28th)
Rush Attempts: 471 (5th)
Unaccounted for Targets: 78 (23rd)
Unaccounted for Carries: 159 (8th)
Sean Payton continued the radical re-balancing of his offense in 2018, dialing up 519 pass attempts compared to 471 rushes. The former was the 10th fewest in the league, with the latter the fifth most. This, after the Saints averaged 267 more throws than carries from 2010-16. It was the culmination of a stunning two-year transformation that not only changed the way the Saints went about scoring points, but returned them to championship contention. The last time the Saints’ run/play pass differential was lower? Their Super Bowl-winning campaign of 2009. Understandably, the change in philosophy has led to fewer plays, with the Saints’ 62.4 and 63.6 per game, respectively, over the past two years the two fewest of the Payton era. Football Outsiders charted them as the fourth-slowest offense in 2018. This would often make for a fantasy unit to avoid, but Drew Brees and company have been making up for the lack of plays and pace with ridiculous efficiency.
QB: Drew Brees, Teddy Bridgewater, Taysom Hill
WR: Michael Thomas, Tre’Quan Smith
WR: Ted Ginn, Rishard Matthews
WR: Keith Kirkwood, Austin Carr, Cameron Meredith
TE: Jared Cook, Josh Hill, Dan Arnold
Nowhere has the Saints’ metamorphosis been more evident than Brees’ box scores. After averaging 5,141 yards from 2011-16, Brees saw that number decline to 4,334 in 2017 before dipping below 4,000 last season. The sub-4K campaign was his first since he was a member of the Chargers in 2005. After a QB15 finish by average points in 2017, Brees bucked his fantasy downturn by becoming even more accurate and lethal. He completed an NFL record — by 2.4 — 74.4 percent of his passes. 6.5 percent of them ended up in the end zone, making for his best touchdown percentage since 2011, and the fourth best of his career. So even as the Saints retreated to a Mitchell Trubisky level of attempts, Brees finished as the QB10 by average points thanks to a Russell Wilson level of efficiency. Despite the solid overall numbers, Brees was a liability in fantasy crunch time, averaging 206 yards from Week 12 forward while posting a 7:4 TD:INT ratio across five starts. As Rotoworld’s Nick Mensio has pointed out, part of this was Brees struggling, but more of it was the Saints blowing teams out and taking the air out of the football. Brees did end the year with a mediocre NFC Championship Game performance.
Brees’ reward for his least-prolific campaign in over a decade was his 40th birthday. He is also being greeted by changes on offense, none bigger than the backfield’s swapping out of Mark Ingram for Latavius Murray. With the Saints seemingly keen on keeping Alvin Kamara in the 16-18 touch range, Ingram’s departure will be felt. Murray is a replacement-level runner and lacks Ingram’s pass-catching threat. In theory, the downgrading of Brees’ “1B” back should put more on his passing plate. Will he be up for it? I thought the eye test suggested that Brees had diminished as a deep passer, but Pro Football Focus actually graded him as the league’s best on balls that traveled at least 20 yards in the air last season. Brees did attempt just 55 such passes, good for 18th in the league. That number was 61 in 2017 and 66 in 2016. Next Gen Stats charted Brees with an “average completed air yards” of 5.9, up from 2017 but still smack dab in the middle of the pack. The future Hall-of-Famer appears to be “picking his spots” more often.
It could be physical decline, or it could be Brees being realistic about a top-heavy supporting cast. For as deep as the Saints’ overall roster is, that depth is not felt in the receiver corps. It is Michael Thomas and everybody else. Thomas, of course, is a pretty good place to start. The league-wide leader in receptions (321) since arriving in 2016, Thomas was historically good in 2018. Pro-Football-Reference.com has target data going back to 1992. Amongst wideouts to draw at least 100 looks in that timespan, Thomas’ 85.0 catch percentage last season was the best ever … by 7.8 percent. Even in this era of high-efficiency passing, Thomas and Brees are on another level. Playing for a new contract in a thin receiver corps, Thomas will once again be one of the most heavily-utilized pass catchers in the league. The 26-year-old has commanded a 28 percent target share over the past two years.
Behind Thomas are veteran role player Ted Ginn and sophomore Tre'Quan Smith. Now 34, Ginn has maintained his blinding speed but struggled to stay on the field last season. Dealing with a knee issue, his five appearances were a new career low by eight. After returning late in the year, he was the Saints’ clear-cut No. 2 wideout during the postseason, out-snapping Smith 76-62 and out-targeting him 13-4. The problem for Ginn is that, even if he keeps hold of No. 2 duties, an aging deep threat in an offense that is running more than ever and throwing down the field less than ever simply isn’t going to have fantasy value.
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Like Ginn, Smith is most potent at the second level of the defense. Unlike Ginn, 23-year-old Smith still has plenty of untapped potential. It came on just 44 attempts, but Smith generated a 136.5 QB rating when targeted by Brees in 2018. That’s brilliant, though 36.7 of Smith’s yardage came in one game, and 62.7 percent came in two. Smith would not be the first second-year pro to take a big step after an inconsistent rookie campaign, but for the reasons laid out above — a run-game commitment and passing-game realism with a 40-year-old quarterback — a breakout could be hard to come by.
Jared Cook’s presence won’t help Smith’s blow-up odds. The de facto No. 2 receiver, Cook is coming off a career year. His 896 yards last season were a new personal best by 137, and fourth amongst tight ends. The seam has mostly lain dormant in New Orleans since Jimmy Graham was traded to the Seahawks, but it’s a position Brees will pepper with targets when he has the personnel. Even Ben Watson drew 46 2018 looks. "He’s got a great feel for the game and I think he’s going to fit very well in our offense," Brees said of Cook in May. Perhaps you’re afraid of Cook becoming another Coby Fleener, but there is no rational reason to expect that to happen. Cook’s pass-catching threat is badly needed for a team this short on wideouts. A TE8-10 finish is squarely in the crosshairs.
Behind Thomas, Kamara, Cook, Ginn and Smith are a grab bag of potential No. 6 options. One of Keith Kirkwood, Austin Carr or Cameron Meredith will have to man the slot when Thomas isn’t in the middle. 30.1 percent of Thomas’ 2018 snaps came in the slot. Kirkwood probably enters camp the slight favorite. Affectionately dubbed “Killer” by ex-Rotoworlder Evan Silva, Kirkwood is a 25-year-old second-year UDFA out of Temple. He didn’t make it to the active roster until last Nov. 10, though he responded with some big plays down the stretch. Of his 13 receptions, four gained at least 20 yards. 6-foot-2, 221 pounds, Kirkwood was clocked at 4.45 at Temple’s Pro Day. Even at his elderly age, he’s an intriguing, zero-risk flier considering his potential role.
A third-year UDFA, the first nine receptions of Carr’s career came last season. The 25-year-old generated zero offseason chatter. Meredith did, though it was related to his 53-man roster spot being in jeopardy. Meredith still isn’t all the way back from his devastating 2017 knee injury. Lurking in the shadows is Rishard Matthews, who had a genuinely baffling 2018 but is still just one year removed from averaging 57 yards per game for the Titans. He’s a perfectly acceptable late flier in deeper/best ball leagues. Dan Arnold and Josh Hill will duke it out for No. 2 tight end duties.
Kamara is one of the best players in football. With Ingram suspended for Weeks 1-4 last season, Kamara averaged 23 touches. That number fell to 17 following Ingram’s return. Murray’s addition on a “four-year, $14.4 million contract” signals that the Saints want to keep Kamara in that workload range. Kamara’s 2018 efficiency was way down on his otherworldly rookie numbers, but he still cleared 4.5 yards per carry and 8.5 yards per catch, both excellent numbers for a running back. One of the Saints’ most important pass catchers, Kamara has notched 81 receptions each year in the league. Even with all the receiving work, the Saints featured Kamara in the red zone as a runner. His 13 carries inside the five-yard line tied for fourth. Murray could vulture an occasional score, but Kamara will be the primary short-yardage back in money situations. He is a safe top-three pick in every format.
Allowed to walk in free agency for the second time in three years, Murray ended up in the best possible spot. He should slide directly into Ingram’s vacated “1B” role, where he figures to see the ball enough for standalone value as an RB4/5. His useful weeks could be limited to when the Saints are projected to kill clock, however. For drafting purposes, Murray should be regarded as a pure handcuff.
No. 3 QB Taysom Hill posted a 37/196/2 line as a rusher last season. Unfortunately, Payton seems incapable of quitting his gadget quarterback. Hill will have zero standalone fantasy value, though he will sometimes still Kamara and Murray’s thunder.
The Saints are sitting around 10.5. A tough NFC South only got tougher with the addition of Bruce Arians in Tampa Bay. The Saints, meanwhile, had little opportunity to get better in the offseason. Maxed out against the salary cap, Cook was a big addition, but the only big addition. Lacking draft capital following last year’s Marcus Davenport trade up, the Saints had just five picks, the first of which they were forced to use on a center following Max Unger’s retirement. “Erik McCoy” was their lone pick before Day 3. A slow start is possible, as the Saints open the year with four-straight games against 2018 playoff squads. Payton has perfected his current formula, but run-heavy teams have little margin for error in the modern NFL. 10 feels like the right amount of wins for this aging group.