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How Does Sean Payton Elevate the Saints in 2021?

by Warren Sharp
Updated On: September 7, 2021, 8:04 pm ET

I wrote last year about the need for the Saints to get WR2 production for years.

From 2017-2019, the Saints had Michael Thomas as WR1 and Ted Ginn as WR2. As good as Michael Thomas is, this duo arguably ranked league average or worse when it comes to top receiver duos. The Saints finally found a competent WR2 to play opposite Thomas when they signed Emmanuel Sanders in free agency. 

For one week, it was bliss. Sanders scored a touchdown in his first game, a Saints win 34-23 over Tom Brady’s Buccaneers. But it was short lived. In that game, Thomas was injured and missed the next six games. Sean Payton had to adjust.

The injury was uncommon – in his career to that point, Thomas had played in 63 of a possible 64 games and was clearly the focal point of the passing game. 

In the first game without Thomas, Drew Brees played pitch-and-catch with Alvin Kamara (nine targets, nine receptions) and used Tre’Quan Smith as WR1 (seven targets, five receptions) with Sanders catching only one of three targets. The Saints lost by double digits in Las Vegas.

The next game did see Sanders get more involvement (five targets, four receptions, one touchdown) but it was again the Kamara show (14 targets, 13 receptions). It was a home loss to the Packers.

From that point onward, the Saints made a distinct goal to get the ball in Sanders’s hands more often. After receiving a team-high nine targets with six catches for 93 yards in a Week 4 win against the Lions, Sanders received a team-high 14 targets with 12 catches for 122 yards in a Week 5 win over the Chargers.

Getting the ball to Sanders was working. Brees’s target depth was stronger. After average target depths of 5.1 and 4.8 yards in Week 2 and Week 3 losses, the Saints worked Sanders into the game and started pushing the ball downfield more regularly. Brees’s Week 4 target depth was 9.0 yards. His Week 5 was 7.2 yards.

But then disaster struck again. Sanders caught COVID. Since most of the time we didn’t hear about these details, it was interesting to hear Sanders’s story. 

The Saints had a bye week in Week 6. After the bye week, Sanders practiced on Wednesday, but that day his wife said she couldn’t taste or smell anything. Sanders went to practice on Thursday but wasn’t feeling well. He started running routes, but self-reported to trainers. He was feeling “loopy.” When he told them of his wife’s loss of taste and smell, they gave him another COVID test which came back positive. Because he had symptoms, he had to miss two games. 

The Saints were without WR1 and WR2, as Thomas was still out. Sean Payton had to dig deeper into his bag of tricks. The easy part is giving Kamara targets, but he needed another receiver to step up. Week 7 it was Marquez Callaway, who had five catches on the season to that point. Callaway was targeted 10 times and caught eight of them. The Saints narrowly won without their top two receivers. But their Week 7 workhorse, Callaway, injured his ankle and he was unable to play the following week.

Week 8 arrived and the Saints were without Thomas, Sanders, and now Callaway. Once again, Payton had to dig even deeper into his bag. The Saints again overloaded targets to Kamara (13 targets, nine receptions) but turned to Jared Cook (seven targets, five receptions, one touchdown) as well as Smith (seven targets, five receptions). They also used Taysom Hill more in the receiving game, tossing him two passes which were both caught, one of which went for a touchdown. The margin was even closer, as the Saints won in overtime by a field goal.

Without Sanders and Thomas in Week 7, Brees’s target depth plummeted to 5.1 yards. Week 8, without both top receivers and Callaway, it plummeted further to 4.6 yards.

Things finally got better for the Saints in Week 9, a rematch with Brady’s Bucs. New Orleans was back to full power. They got back the services of Thomas, Sanders and Callaway. Sanders wasn’t yet 100% and played on a season-low 30% of snaps, but still caught four of five targets and had solid usage in those 22 snaps. The bottom line was, the Saints didn’t need him much. They won with ease, 38-3 over the Bucs, in a game that was over at halftime with the Saints up 31-0.

Ignore the second half entirely and Brees’s target depth was back up to 7.0 yards in the Week 9 win with the full complement of receivers.

One week after getting the receiving corps back, Week 10 against the 49ers saw a competitive game, but disaster struck again. Brees was sacked by 49ers DL Kentavius Street late in the second half. He toughed it out during the two minute drive, but sat out the entire second half with the injury. Brees would be lost for the next four games, only to return in Week 15. At the time, what we knew was that Brees suffered a myriad of rib fractures and a collapsed lung.

We’ll come back to games when Brees was absent momentarily, but for the sake of continuing the saga of the 2020 Saints starter availability, Brees was able to return in Week 15. Although they got Brees back, the Saints lost Michael Thomas for the season in Week 14. Thomas played 90% of snaps but battled through an ankle injury and was put on IR.

Although Brees was back, Thomas was lost. Somehow, the Saints lost by only three points to the Chiefs, 32-29, with Brees completing just 15-of-34 passes. He did not look like his normal self in his return. He still tossed three touchdowns and averaged 7.1 air yards, but his accuracy was way down.

After averaging an 81% on target rate over the course of the season, Brees had an on-target rate of just 69.7%. Not only did that pale in comparison to his year-to-date, Brees didn’t slowly get worse over the course of the season with his accuracy. It was a steep drop only as a result of the injury, as we can see by looking at the prior games post-bye compared to his first game back from injury:

Week 7: 88.2%
Week 8: 80.5%
Week 9: 80.6%
Week 10: 84.6%* injured
Week 15: 69.7%

Another metric worth comparing is completion percentage above expectation from Next Gen Stats:

Week 7: +9.2%
Week 8: +3.5%
Week 9: +11.4%
Week 10: *didn’t qualify due to injury
Week 15: -16.3%

Fortunately, Week 15’s performance did not carry forward for Brees. But neither did Tre’Quan Smith. He injured his ankle against the Chiefs and missed the final two games of the season. At the time, he was the Saints’ third-leading receiver in yards, behind Kamara and Sanders.

In Week 16, Brees and Payton used a primetime Christmas game to silence the critics. 

While the fantasy community was buzzing about Alvin Kamara’s absolutely insane day (six rushing touchdowns), the more important marker for the Saints was Brees. He didn’t throw a single touchdown, but he did go 19-of-26 for 311 yards. He averaged a target depth of a whopping 10.3 yards, his deepest of the season. Brees did get greedy on a third-and-6 at the Vikings’ 20-yard line, throwing an interception when targeting Cook. He threw another interception in the third quarter, but it was absolutely not Brees's fault. The ball was thrown to Sanders, who got two hands on the ball without diving. The ball went right through his hands, was tipped on the way through, and intercepted.

In that Week 16 game, despite the massive increase in target depth to 10.3 yards, Brees was +7.4% in CPOE with a 77.8% on-target rate. 
Sitting at 11-4 with one game remaining, the Saints didn’t need to play Brees the entire Week 17 game against the tanking Panthers. The Saints led 26-7 entering the fourth quarter, but Payton didn’t pull Brees. Through three quarters, Brees averaged a target depth of 7.4 yards. His final on-target rate was 82.8% and his COPE was +3.1%.

The hope of the 2020 season was to see what the Saints would look like with a real WR2 for the first time in years.

By the time the season ended, the Saints played just two games with Drew Brees, Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders on the field for a full game:

Week 1 win over the eventual Super Bowl champion Bucs 34-23
Week 9 win over the eventual Super Bowl champion Bucs 38-3

In between those games, the offense had to change itself many times over. The team played without it’s top receivers, sometimes down the top three at once, and won. The team played without it’s QB1 and went 4-1 in those five games.

After the season, Drew Brees’s wife said that in addition to his 11 broken ribs and a collapsed lung which he missed time for, Brees also played the entire season with a torn rotator cuff in his shoulder and torn fascia in his foot.

Certainly, the torn rotator cuff affects a quarterback in a massive way. But a torn plantar fascia negatively impacts a quarterback's ability to plant his feet on passes and prevents him from generating the necessary torque to create distance on throws.

I felt extremely strongly that Browns coach Kevin Stefanski should win Coach of the Year in 2020. And he did, but if there was a coach that might have been more deserving from the perspective of having to overcome difficulties in-season and still produce excellence, it was Sean Payton

While this team was the fourth-healthiest overall, they were well below average at the two most important positions – quarterback and wide receiver. At wide receiver, it was an injury to the clear-cut No. 1 WR with no other receiver a close second, coupled with cluster injuries much of the season.

The Saints went 12-4 despite all the injuries that Brees played through and sat on account of, in addition to all the other key pieces. The mastermind of the offense, Sean Payton, had to manage it along with his other head coaching responsibilities. They had to face the 11th toughest schedule of defenses in the NFL.

I haven’t heard enough discussion surrounding Sean Payton’s coaching job in 2020, so I’m here to reiterate how great a job he did. Payton would only finish sixth in voting for Coach of the Year, with two votes. Ahead of him were Kevin Stefanski (25 votes), Sean McDermott (7), Brian Flores (6), Ron Rivera (4), Matt LaFleur (3), and Andy Reid (3). It’s hard to discredit anyone on that list. They all did outstanding jobs, which is why they received votes. 

But for my money, the injuries he had to juggle and difficulties faced, I think it was the finest job we’ve seen from Payton in years.

Looking back on Drew Brees’s season and what we saw the last time he laced ‘em up in what was an incredible career was a season that absolutely was impacted by his own injuries and those of his teammates.

In terms of his ability to throw downfield, we were still seeing success from him late in the season. His best target depth was that Christmas game. The next strongest aDOT performances were the Week 4 and 5 wins when the team stopped just throwing to Kamara for two straight losses after Michael Thomas was lost. Rounding out his top-5 games with deepest aDOT were Week 15 vs the Chiefs and Week 17 vs the Panthers. 

Certainly, Brees looked terrible in the playoffs, but we must consider these games did come against ridiculously strong defenses. The Bears were seventh in defensive efficiency and the Bucs were fourth. Both were top-10 against the pass.

In fact, if we look at the rankings of the pass defenses Brees faced in his final games, we see it was a brutal schedule. Brees played the toughest schedule of pass defenses over the second half of the season:

Week 8: No. 9 Bears (win)
Week 9: No. 5 Bucs (win)
Week 10: No. 8 49ers (win)
Week 15: No. 12 Chiefs (loss)
Week 16: No. 13 Vikings (win)
Week 17: No. 23 Panthers (win)
Week 18: No. 9 Bears (win)
Week 19: No. 5 Bucs (loss)

We know that for Brees’s 2020 season, it’s overly simplistic to use just full-season stats, but we’ll do so here to just look at a snapshot as to how Brees and Payton did have to adjust the passing attack to support his injury status as well as a lack of receiving talent.

Here is Drew Brees’s target depth on early downs in the first three quarters slowly declined:

2018: 7.0
2019: 6.2
2020: 5.8

On first downs, it was even more noticeable, dropping from 8.3 in 2018 down to 6.4 in 2020. 

In 2019, Drew Brees was (still) a complete freak on first downs. His total EPA earned on first down was the most in the NFL. His success rate of 66% was also first, as was his TD:INT rate, passer rating, and sack rate.

All of that took a step back in 2020, and as a result, the Saints took a step back in early down success, dropping from eighth in EDSR in 2019 to 18th in 2020. 

The question now will be what happens to the Saints in the post-Brees era? Can Payton work his magic with another quarterback?

On the positive, in non-Week 17 games, the Saints were 8-2, covering 9-of-10 against the spread. On the negative side, the Saints averaged only 24 points per game, compared to 30 points per game for Brees over the last five years.

But in those games, the offense had to be changed for one week or a short stretch to operate without Brees, knowing he would soon return. Payton can change whatever he wants with the offense this offseason, and can practice the new offense such that there should be much higher comfort level through repetition during the 2021 season.

The biggest concerns for the Saints will be:

1.    how to maintain efficiency on early downs if passing less often and less consistently
2.    executing well on third downs
3.    minimizing sacks
4.    minimizing turnovers

The one thing I think we can assume the Saints will do well is develop an even more enhanced run game, which should allow them to stay proficient in short yardage and in the red zone — where running tends to be at maximum efficiency. Of course, the times they do throw will have to be accurate, but I believe they have a greater chance of falling off in the other areas than they do in the red zone. Case in point: in the four games Brees missed this year, the Saints scored touchdowns on 10-of-13 (77%) trips to the red zone.

With Brees, the Saints have finished above average in first down pass rate and first down pass efficiency over the last five plus years. Even if you include every single game from every single year (despite the few missed by Brees) since 2016, in the first three quarters the Saints rank:

Sixth in pass frequency
First in pass efficiency

Considering we know passes gain more yards than runs, and the Saints not only were one of the most pass-heavy offenses but also were the most efficient when doing so, it’s safe to assume they faced less yards-to-go on second downs.

And that is correct. 

The Saints averaged the shortest yards-to-go on second down in the NFL over the last five years. They also averaged the shortest yards-to-go on third down.

Not only is first down efficiency beneficial to bypassing third downs altogether, which we know correlates extremely well with winning games, it also reduces yardage-to-go when forced into third downs. Which we know is extremely correlated to conversion rate. 

So, averaging the shortest yardage-to-go on third downs over the last five years, it’s no surprise that the Saints have the NFL’s best conversion rate on third downs in that span.

Stacking it up, and they spill into one another:

Sixth in first down pass frequency
First in first down pass efficiency
First in shortest yards-to-go on second down
First in shortest yards-to-go on third down
First in conversion rate on third down

The sport of football is very complicated, but offensively, if you realize the goal is to move the ball as efficiently as possible down the field, avoiding as many third downs en route to scoring touchdowns rather than field goals, it’s clear why the Saints have had so much offensive success.

I am concerned a more run-based attack on first down could compromise their ranking in first down pass rate, and I certainly don’t expect (even if it’s Jameis Winston under center) the Saints to rank first in first down pass efficiency. As such, all of the other markers will inevitably regress as well.

When Drew Brees missed those four games with injury, the Saints went 24-of-55 (44%) on third down. They converted 53% of third downs during the weeks Brees played the entire game (excluding his first week back when he clearly wasn’t 100%) and that includes the playoff games against the brutally tough Bears and Bucs defenses. 

As an example of my concern, look just at the last three years when Brees was healthy and played the full season (2016-2018). When the Saints had above average pass rates on first down, they were top-5 in third down conversion rate. But in 2017, the year they drafted Alvin Kamara and decided to commit to a dual-headed ground attack on first down behind he and Mark Ingram, the Saints were significantly worse on third down conversion rate:

2018: 12th in first down pass rate (51%), fifth in third down conversion rate (45%)
2017: 20th in first down pass rate (46%), 22nd in third down conversion rate (36%)
2016: Fourth in first down pass rate (53%), first in third down conversion rate (49%)

We’ve covered the first two of my four biggest concerns for the future of the Saints offense. Next is an increase in sacks. They are drive killers.

Over the last five years, Drew Brees ranks second out of 57 quarterbacks in sack rate (3.5%). He’s taken only 89 sacks on 2,555 dropbacks.

In addition to simply knowing where to go with the ball and when to get it out, Brees benefits from the shorter yardage to go on these downs, so that the sticks are not as deep downfield. Should the Saints run into situations where they have longer to go on second and third down this year, inevitably it would lead to more sacks, even if Drew Brees was still the quarterback. 

For the record, over the last five years, Jameis Winston’s sack rate of 6.6% is nearly double Brees’s (and ranks 35th of 57).

If we relax the pass attempts required to qualify down to 100 (previously was using 400), Taysom Hill now qualifies in a sample of 85 total quarterbacks in the last five years.

Taysom Hill’s sack rate is 10.7%, which ranks 79th of 85.

Finally, we come to turnovers. Teams win 80% of games when they win the turnover battle. Drew Brees has a 1.5% interception rate the last five years, which ranks ninth in the NFL out of 57 quarterbacks (minimum 400 attempts).

Jameis Winston’s is double that, at 3.61%, which ranks 54th of 57 quarterbacks. It should be stated that Winston now has received eye surgery and may be able to see more clearly, which naturally would help in this department.

Taysom Hill again doesn’t qualify, but has thrown three interceptions (to four touchdowns) in his career and has a 2.24% interception rate, which ranks 31st if we relax the attempts requirement.

While I truly think the Saints have a roster that’s certainly above average in several key positions and play a manageable schedule, it will truly take Payton’s best season as a coach to get this Saints team to the postseason, considering how likely they are to take a step back offensively in the four key areas I outlined (early down efficiency despite less passing volume and efficiency, third down conversion rate, sack rate and turnover rate). If the Saints make the 2021 playoffs, count Payton as a strong candidate for Coach of the Year.

Stay tuned over the next eight weeks as we preview all 32 teams with daily articles and videos right here at the preview hub.  For complete team chapters featuring dozens of visualizations and 462 pages, pick up a copy of Warren Sharp’s new ‘2021 Football Preview’ book.

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Warren Sharp

Warren Sharp is a football and betting analyst for NBC Sports. As a leading voice in football analytics, Warren writes a yearly book previewing the upcoming season from all angles at his Sharp Football Analysis website. You can follow Warren Sharp on Twitter @SharpFootball.