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Fantasy Breakdown: Deciphering The New Orleans Saints Offense

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Deciphering the Rubik’s Cube that is the New Orleans Saints

Elite offenses are fantasy gold mines right?

Quarterbacks in fantasy football are a widely controversial topic as a whole. From conversations of them being overvalued as starters, or that the position is just too deep to care about wasting an early pick in your fantasy draft, the debates are endless and tiring. There are, however, a few quarterbacks in the NFL that put these debates to rest. Names like Brady, Rodgers, and Brees have managed to put up elite and consistent numbers over the years that have left fantasy owners giddy. With this said, these different elite-QB led offenses offer different fantasy results in regards to the consistency of their wide receivers.

With teams like the Patriots and Packers you know what you’re getting in terms of value. Drafting highly targeted pass catchers (usually) translates into easy fantasy production. Drew Brees and his New Orleans offense on the other hand, is a much different story.

Rolling the Dice

With the exception of Jimmy Graham, who emerged as the go-to guy for Drew Brees over his tenure in New Orleans, picking consistent receivers in the Big Easy has been nothing short of maddening. Yes, the Saints have plenty of talent around the ball and these players do end up accumulating solid fantasy numbers by the end of the season, but it almost never happens on a consistent week-by-week basis.

The way in which Sean Payton runs his offense is brilliant from an NFL team perspective, which is all he cares about (and rightly so), yet it makes starting pieces of the Saint’s offense more risky nonetheless. Take a look at the Saints’ top-five target catchers over the past 5 years, we can see this trend:

Saints 2010 Rec. Yrds TD % of Targets
M. Colston 84 1023 7 19
L. Moore 66 763 8 15
R. Meachem 44 638 5 10
J. Shockey 41 408 3 9
D. Henderson 34 464 1 8
Saints 2011 Rec Yrds TD % of Targets
J. Graham 99 1310 11 21
D. Sproles 86 710 7 18
M. Colston 80 1143 8 17
L. Moore 52 627 8 11
P. Thomas 50 425 1 11
Saints 2012 Rec. Yrds TD % of Targets
J. Graham 85 982 9 20
M. Colston 83 1154 10 20
D. Sproles 75 667 7 18
L. Moore 65 1041 6 15
P. Thomas 39 354 1 9
Saints 2013 Rec Yrds TD % of Targets
J. Graham 86 1215 16 19
P. Thomas 77 513 3 17
M. Colston 75 943 5 17
D. Sproles 71 604 2 16
L. Moore 37 457 2 8
Saints 2014 Rec Yrds TD % of Targets
J. Graham 85 889 10 19
K. Stills 63 931 3 14
M. Colston 59 902 5 13
B. Cooks 53 550 3 12
P. Thomas 45 378 1 10
Saints 2015 Rec Yrds Rec. TD % of Targets
B. Cooks 84 1138 9 18
B. Watson 74 825 6 16
W. Snead 69 984 3 15
M. Colston 45 520 4 10
M. Ingram 50 405 0 11

Brandin CooksIt’s stats like these that left Saints fans and fantasy football fans alike scratching their heads when the tight-end stud was traded to the Seattle Seahawks after the season in 2014. The Saints were left with a rising-star wide receiver taken in the 2014 NFL Draft in Brandin Cooks, an aging Marques Colston, and a no-name tight end named Benjamin Watson. Despite this seemingly lackluster receiving-core however, Sean Payton and Drew Brees still were able to accomplish what they have been consistently doing for the past decade, and that is put up immense passing numbers.As you can see, over the past five years, Drew Brees has definitely had his favorite targets over the years. In 2010, Marques Colston led the team in yards (1023) and in target percentage (19%). He caught 18 more targets than his next-closest teammate Lance Moore, which is impressive in itself. However, since good ol’ Jimmy Graham took the league by storm in 2011, Drew Brees has shown completely unfettered favoritism. 2011 through 2014, Jimmy Graham led the Saints in target percentage, receptions, and touchdowns. He also averaged 1099 yards per season over this four-year period as a top-five receiver in the Saints offense.

Season of Change

Something very important to note here is the way in which the New Orleans Saints’ offense was forced to play in 2015. While Drew Brees put up his second highest passing yardage total since 2011 with 5205 yards (highest being 5347 yards), and amassed 32 total passing TD’s; their defense was nothing short of horrible, and their secondary might as well have consisted of a group of those new robotic tackling dummies. Because of this, the Saints played from behind the majority of the time, and the offense’s production was spread out a bit differently in 2015 than in previous years:

Player Pos. 2015 FP Rec. TDs Rec. Yds. Rush Yds. Rush TDs
B. Cooks WR 169.6 9 1138 18 0
M. Ingram RB 153.4 0 405 769 6
B. Watson TE 116.5 6 825 0 0
W. Snead WR 113 3 984 0 0
M. Colston WR 76 4 520 0 0
Hightower RB 74.4 0 129 375 4
B. Coleman WR 57.4 2 454 0 0
K. Robinson RB 53.5 0 115 180 4
CJ Spiller RB 47.1 2 239 112 0
T. Cadet RB 28.2 1 146 28 0
J. Hill TE 24 2 120 0 0

*Statistics from FantasyPros; Regular scoring; 2015

Because of this change, players like Brandin Cooks proved to be immensely successful, as he caught 80 passes for 1106 yards and 7 touchdowns outside of the red-zone. Very impressive numbers, but what happens when their defense is improved, they can spread out their offense, and not play from behind the entire game? Within the red-zone, Brandin Cooks had very scary numbers in 2015, as he only caught the ball 4 times for 26 yards and 2 touchdowns. Not ideal for someone who is supposed to be the team’s go-to threat and playmaker. To put things in perspective, Marques Colston put up a 5 reception for 25 yards and 3 touchdowns in the red-zone last year, and those were his worst red-zone numbers to date in his career. To drive the point home further, the lowest red-zone stat-line of Jimmy Graham’s career with the Saints was 7 receptions for 62 yards and 5 TD’s.

Drew Brees the Carpenter

It may seem somewhat obvious why Brandin Cooks is not a go to guy in the red-zone, right? He’s a small guy for wide-receiver standards, and doesn’t have the best vertical in the world either, so why would he be targeted?

If you take a look around the league, you will see my concern. Other QB’s find a way to get the smaller receivers involved in the red-zone. From Luck with TY Hilton, to Brady with Julian Edelman, now more than ever being smaller is not as much of a handicap as long as you are shifty and fast.

Cooks certainly has the athletic ability to be a red-zone threat, but the point here is that Brees just has his preferences. He knows what tools he has on his tool-belt, and he uses what he feels is the right tool at the right time.  The stats don’t lie. Brees almost always go to bigger guys in the red-zone, and if they are able to establish their run game even further and keep the game close, Cooks is beginning to look like just another one of those inconsistent and risky starters for the Saints. Just how valuable will he be when the Sean Payton isn’t forced to send him on a go-route every other play because they are down 14 points?

Different year, Different landscape

Coming into 2016, the Saint’s have brought in some more tools for Brees’ tool belt. Tight end Coby Fleener joins the team, and is fully expected to be a favorite in the red-zone this season. They drafted Michael Thomas out of Ohio State this year to hopefully fill the void left by Marques Colston departing. His build and skillset is almost identical to Colston’s, and Colston was able to surpass 1000 yards his rookie season with Brees. It will take work and dedication on the part of Thomas, but if he has the drive and is able to develop a report with Brees, he could be a dangerous weapon in New Orleans. Willie Snead -who performed decently from a fantasy perspective in 2015- has proven he can get the job done, but I feel like that was more a result of good QB play than anything else. Picture a Lance Moore-like fantasy star, burning short and bright for one or two years.

The Saints spent a lot of draft stock on defensive players last month, and this combined with their already experienced and young defensive core, should allow the team to play their games from behind less often. New Orleans last year achieved their second lowest rushing yard total since 2008, and everyone is fully expecting that to change this year as well with Mark Ingram coming back from a successful season cut short by an injury. The past has shown for the Saints, and for all NFL teams, that if you have successful run game, your passing offense will benefit tremendously:

Year RushYds Rush TDs Passing Yds Pass TDs Total Yds / TDs
2008 1594 20 4977 34 6571 / 54
2009 2106 21 4355 34 6461 / 55
2010 1519 9 4441 33 5960 / 42
2011 2127 16 5347 46 7474 / 62
2012 1577 10 4997 43 6574 / 53
2013 1473 10 4918 39 6391 / 49
2014 1818 16 4764 33 6582 / 49
2015 1491 16 5205 32 6696 / 48

*NFL.com Statistics

These combined factors should give the Saint’s more red-zone opportunities, and as a result it will be targets like Fleener and Thomas, not Cooks, that will reap the rewards. Cooks has an ADP of around 31st overall, and is the 16th ranked WR, according to FantasyPros. While I love what he did last season, and have full faith in his speed and ability, this Drew Brees led-offense has a history that just can’t be ignored.  I’m extremely uneasy about Cooks’ prospects, and I’m definitely not going to recommend that anyone reach for him in 2016 fantasy drafts. Drew Brees and Mark Ingram are obvious safe-bets for good fantasy production that should go in early rounds, but Cooks just isn’t nearly as safe for his draft stock cost.

“That’s a bold strategy, Cotton”

For the price you would have to pay to draft Brandin Cooks to your team this year, you could snag other receivers such as before-mentioned Edelman or Hilton; and arguably achieve more consistent and safe fantasy results in 2016. You’d be better off waiting until either the mid-rounds for Fleener, or taking a late-round flier on Michael Thomas if you want a piece of the Saints’ passing offense that has larger upside and red-zone target percentage.  This obviously won’t be a very popular opinion, as Cooks has been marked a favorite by many fantasy analysts to break out this upcoming season, but I’m going to side with history by the numbers on this one.

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About the author

Christian Kirchner

Christian is a native New Englander. He remembers watching in horror as Drew Bledsoe of the Patriots went down against the Jets early in the season in 2001, and seeing the 199th overall QB, Tom Brady walking onto the field for the first time. Everyone knows the rest of the story, and it was through watching this inspirational progression that he developed an immense love for the game of football, and as a result, fantasy football.

After high school, Christian moved to South Carolina in order to pursue a Political Science degree from the College of Charleston. It was here that his already standing love of the NFL was exposed to a culture that lived and breathed college football. This only served to solidify his obsession and status as a self-proclaimed football “super-nerd”. When he’s not bombarding his friends with endless football statistics, or crunching numbers; Christian can be found playing tennis, or enjoying a few cold ones at the beach.

1 Comment

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  • Don’t think this defense is all of a sudden going to go from historically bad to respectable in one offseason. Even if it did, Sean Payton has never been much of a game-manager. Him and Brees pour on the points, even with a big lead. Safe to say another 600-700 pass season is likely. With new faces all around and Cooks entering his third season (fresh off a highly efficient second half in 2015), there’s reason to believe he will emerge as a target hog this year. He may not be efficient in the red zone, but he has the straight line speed to dominate vertically, which we saw a lot of last year down the stretch and the lateral quickness to win in his short and intermediate routes. I love this guy in 2016 and moving forward. Think he’s got top-5 potential.

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