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2020 Stats (Rank)
Total Offense: 6,023 (12th)
Offensive Touchdowns: 58 (Third)
Offensive Plays: 1,045 (10th)
Pass Attempts + Sacks: 551 (26th)
Rush Attempts: 494 (Fifth)
Unaccounted for Targets: 174 (10th)
Unaccounted for Carries: 21 (26th)
The Saints are undergoing a seismic shift at quarterback this offseason, moving on from Drew Brees to some amalgamation of Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston. Fortunately, Sean Payton remains at the helm to guide New Orleans into their next era. The Saints are also returning offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. For the franchise, Payton’s decision on how to approach the quarterback position will set the course going forward. Last year, with Brees casually nursing a bruised lung and broken ribs, Payton turned to Hill over Winston. The former punt gunner started four games and took home three wins, looking competent as a passer in the process. He completed 71.9-percent of his passes and averaged 7.2 adjusted yards per attempt. With Brees retiring in the offseason and Hill holding his own as a starter, it was a surprise to see the Saints retain Winston in free agency. Since then, all reports have indicated that Winston will get the first crack under center in 2021 with Hill playing an increased version of what can only be described as The Taysom Hill Role.
Assuming Winston is slinging it for New Orleans, the Saints' offense is going to look widely different sans Brees. In the past five years, Brees has finished among the bottom five quarterbacks in air yards per attempt four times. Winston, on the other hand, is chaos incarnate. Before spending most of 2020 on the bench, he finished no lower than third in air yards per attempt in the prior four seasons. The last time we saw Winston, he threw for 5,109 yards and 33 touchdowns plus 30 interceptions. Because so many of Winston’s drives ended in a touchdown or advantageous field position for his opponents, Bucs games hit the over in 12 of 16 weeks in 2019. Payton may attempt to dial Winston’s aggression back and Lasik surgery may have changed the gunslinger's ability to read defenses but nothing is going to alter Winston’s fundamental nature as a quarterback. Expect a passing attack that targets the deep and intermediate parts of the field far more often in 2021.
This seemingly spells doom for Michael Thomas, who thrived in the Brees-led Saints offense. While Thomas’s role will change with Winston, there’s no reason to believe he can’t excel in a role that sees him work the intermediate and deep sectors of the field more often. According to Pro Football Focus, Thomas has caught all 29 of his catchable deep targets (20+ yards downfield) since entering the league. He was graded as a top-five receiver on intermediate targets (10-19 yards) in 2019. Thomas was used primarily on short targets because of Brees’ diminishing arm strength, not because he can’t pick up yardage on chunk plays. The shift to Winston has fantasy drafters scared but this looks like the ultimate buying opportunity on a player just one year removed from a WR1-overall season.
The receiving room in New Orleans thins out quickly after Thomas. Tre’Quan Smith has been with the Saints for three years and has failed to break out despite being given plenty of opportunities to do so. The burner from UCF is entering a make-or-break year as his contract is up at the end of the season. In previous years, Smith has competed for the role of deep-threat with Emmanuel Sanders and Ted Ginn. With no New Orleans receiver outside of Thomas and Smith having more than 213 career receiving yards, Smith should be locked into a starting role, even in two-receiver sets. However, he finished the 2020 season dead last in yards per route run (1.12) among receivers with at least 30 targets. There’s still hope for a small breakout from Smith based on his role but he’s no more than a Saints stacking option in deep Best Ball leagues.
Marquez Callaway and Deonte Harris will compete for the No. 3 role but neither player projects to have any fantasy value unless Smith utterly flops as the second receiver. Both ancillary options get a healthy dose of snaps on special teams which is not often the calling card of a viable fantasy option.
With little hope at receiver beyond Thomas, the Saints will look to second-year tight end Adam Trautman for extra production in the passing game. The Dayton product spent most of his first NFL season blocking, playing on more than a third of the Saints’ offensive snaps but catching a measly 15 passes. In college, Trautman was a man among boys at his small Ohio school. In his senior season, Trautman racked up 916 yards and 14 scores on 70 receptions. Standing at 6’5 and weighing 255 pounds, Trautman also has prototypical size for an every-down tight end.
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The Saints backfield has settled into an outlier that we can bank on repeating every year for fantasy purposes. Alvin Kamara is going to run for more yards per carry and score more touchdowns per attempt than most other backs and “regression” gets little say in the matter. The biggest question for Kamara will be how the change to Winston affects his receiving role. In Winston’s five years as a starter, his teams’ running backs averaged fewer than 100 targets per season as a unit. Kamara’s 16-game pace has never been below 100 targets in a single season. Winston has yet to play with a back like Kamara but his tendency to look downfield is slightly concerning for the elite pass-catcher. Getting a full season from Thomas, who missed a majority of the 2020 season, could also eat into Kamara’s target volume. This squeeze on Kamara’s role combined with his already modest job as a pure runner — he has never rushed for 1,000 yards or hit 200 carries — make Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley viable alternatives to him in the top half of the first round of fantasy drafts.
Latavius Murray is viewed purely as an insurance policy on Kamara by most fantasy drafters. He has played two games without Kamara in the past two seasons. In those contests, the veteran back picked up 307 yards and four touchdowns on 62 touches. However, Murray’s role with Kamara active is also worth noting. He averaged 10.1 PPR points in wins and 12.4 points in wins of six or more points last year. In a pinch, Murray can serve as an RB2 for teams in need of a pulse at the position, especially when Vegas pegs the Saints as a favorite. Having a role independent of an injury to his team’s lead back makes Murray a far better option than ZeroRB heroes like Tony Pollard and Alexander Mattison.
Most books have given the Saints a total of nine wins. This reflects serious concerns on the switch from Brees to Winston or Hill as the Saints have been above 10 wins for four consecutive years. New Orleans will have to go through the reigning champions in Tampa Bay twice but the rest of their division is expected to be weak at best. Vegas has the Panthers and Falcons lined at 7.5 wins. Betting the Saints line simply comes down to the bettor’s belief in Winston as a starting quarterback. Winston has averaged eight yards per pass attempt over the past four years, a mark that would have been top-five in 2020. His interceptions are back-breaking but if he can scale them back even a little bit, his ceiling as a passer is sky-high. If forced to pick a side, I’d take the over because of Winston’s physical abilities but his variance is so drastic that this line feels appropriate.