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Fantasy Opportunity Spotlight: New Orleans Saints

A team-by-team analysis of coaches’ tendencies and using them to help create realistic fantasy football projections. @TubaDeus takes a look at the New Orleans Saints.

Welcome to the new home of my yearly Fantasy Opportunity series! For those who didn’t see this series on Reddit last year, I try to take a different approach to fantasy projections than your run-of-the-mill analyst. The basis of my process is that the number one indicator of fantasy success is opportunities to touch the ball. Obviously, individual player skill can (and will) affect that, but at the end of the day, players are at the mercy of playcalling and play design. Therefore, if we want to make accurate projections, we need to look at each coach’s scheme and how they like to spread the ball around.

As a result, this series is very coach-centric. I’ll touch on individual players, but only as they relate to their coaches’ schemes. On a related note, this series will only aim to establish projections on how touches will be split up, not what individual players will be able to accomplish with those touches. That will come later once depth charts settle through training camp. Think of this series more as a basis for realistic expectations.

Make sense? Good. Let’s dive in.

Most of my stats are pulled from Pro Football Reference. Please support them. They are awesome and are my primary source of statistical information.

New Orleans Saints

Last Year’s Accuracy

Total PlaysRush Attempts (Rush %)Passing Plays (Pass %) – Includes SacksSacks Allowed (Sack %)WR Targets (WR Target %)RB Targets (RB Target %)TE Targets (TE Target %)
2020 Projections1010415 (41.1%)595 (58.9%)25 (4.2%)285 (50.0%)155 (27.2%)110 (19.3%)
2020 Stats1045494 (47.3%)551 (52.7%)29 (5.3%)267 (51.1%)143 (27.4%)98 (18.8%)
For league wide stats, see this spreadsheet.

Coaching Changes

Head coach Sean Payton has led New Orleans to a bittersweet landmark over the last four years; the Saints’ 49 wins in that time frame are the most ever by a team that failed to reach a Super Bowl. While the postseason success has not been there, consistent double-digit win seasons make for a safe job. Payton will keep his seat in 2021 as well as both his offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael and his defensive coordinator Dennis Allen.

New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton: I have coronavirus
Bill Feig/Associated Press

Coaching History

For the first time in 16 years, New Orleans will not be led by future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees. The goal of this series is to focus on what the coaches’ schemes and preferences are. Still, with such an extensive shared history, it’s difficult to separate Payton’s preferences from Brees’s. Fortunately, we have been given a window into the post-Brees Saints. Brees has missed nine games over the last two years due to injuries, which means we have slightly over half a season’s worth of data of non-Brees quarterbacks working in Payton’s system. Unfortunately, we have two completely different tales being told between the two years.

In 2019, Brees’s injury replacement was Teddy Bridgewater, a conservative passer with limited mobility. With Bridgewater helming the offense, Payton called a 44.7/55.3 run-pass ratio, which was more run-heavy than the 40.1/59.9 ratio New Orleans posted over the course of the entire season (although this was notably the most pass-heavy season since Payton flipped the script in 2017). There was no significant change in positional target share differences between when Bridgewater was under center (46.7/28.1/21.6 for WR/RB/TE) and New Orleans’ year-long totals (47.7/26.5/21.7 for WR/RB/TE).

In 2020, Brees was replaced by the much more athletic Taysom Hill. With Hill under center, Payton called a more run-focused offense with a 51.7/48.3 run-pass ratio, easily more run-heavy than the already exceptionally run-heavy 47.3/52.7 ratio posted team-wide over the entire campaign. Hill’s starts also featured a significant shift in positional target shares; wide receivers greatly benefitted from Hill’s starts (61.4% target share vs. 51.1% year long) at the expense of running backs (19.3% vs. 27.4%) and tight ends (15.8% vs. 18.8%).

Looking Ahead

Given the effect Hill can have on Payton’s scheming, the quarterback competition between Hill and Jameis Winston will be the single biggest factor in determining…pretty much everything for the Saints offense, really. While it’d be surprising for New Orleans to not use their $21 million QB to at least some extent, it sounds like Payton already has an early favorite in Winston. As long as Hill isn’t the starter, the Saints should still pass more than they run, though they will more than likely continue to run at a far higher rate than league average.

Winston and Hill are vigorously training in Saints QB battle
Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Regardless of who starts, one thing that is likely to happen is a reduction in total play volume. Payton has called one of the slowest offenses in the NFL since switching to a more run-focused scheme in 2017. Despite this, New Orleans has maintained a total play volume around league average thanks to an insanely efficient offense. Even when the offense slipped a bit last year, the defense finally came together in a big way to balance the scales.

Without Brees under center, however, it’s difficult to believe that the offense could pull through with that same level of efficiency. What’s more, the COVID cap crunch absolutely decimated the Saints defense. Sure, they attempted to replace lost players through the draft, but there’s only so much a small handful of rookies can do. With the offense likely to post fewer plays per drive and the defense likely to regress after losing several starters as cap casualties, the Saints could see a precipitous drop in total plays heading into 2021.

The one thing unlikely to change much is the positional target share split. New Orleans lost wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, but Michael Thomas coming back fully healthy should more than make up for that loss. Tight end Jared Cook was allowed to walk, but Adam Trautman has some impressive tape from his rookie year. Meanwhile, the backfield tandem of Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray remains unchanged. With a maelstrom of change everywhere else in New Orleans, we should be able to count on the target shares from the last three years (approximately 50/27/20) holding true yet again.

2021 Projections

Total PlaysRush Attempts (Rush %)Passing Plays (Pass %) – Includes SacksSacks Allowed (Sack %)WR Targets (WR Target %)RB Targets (RB Target %)TE Targets (TE Target %)
2020 Stats1045494 (47.3%)551 (52.7%)29 (5.3%)267 (51.1%)143 (27.4%)98 (18.8%)
2021 Projections (17 Games)1043488 (46.8%)555 (53.2%)27 (4.9%)272 (51.5%)143 (27.1%)95 (18.0%)

Previous Entry: New England Patriots

Next Entry: New York Giants

Find this article helpful? You can follow me on Twitter and Reddit as @TubaDeus, though I spend most of my time on Discord.

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