2015 Fantasy Football Outlook: New Orleans Saints
July 7, 2015 | Chet
The New Orleans Saints finished 7-9 last season, their second losing season over the past three years and it appears the shine from Sean Payton’s Super Bowl win in 2009 is finally beginning to dim. Even with diminishing output, New Orleans was still one of the best fantasy offenses to latch onto, but with wholesale changes this offseason, will they continue to be so?
2015 Saints Schedule
Here’s your disclaimer that strength of schedule analysis is far from predictable. Looking at the slate, though, the Saints don’t have many mountains to climb drawing the AFC South to go along with their own subpar division but they will be tested early with four of their opening seven games against 2014 playoff teams. With Drew Brees’ outdoor road bugaboos well documented, it is nice to see that New Orleans has no back to back road spots and that he’ll be indoors for half of their road contests. Rushing defense carries more of a rollover than passing defense year over year, and in that case, it’s hard not to notice the Saints have a potential very light run schedule.
Although the Saints have now scored fewer points than the previous season for three consecutive seasons, this was still a highly effective offense in 2014. Across the major counting statistics that provide fantasy production, they were still a high end club.
The big move the Saints made this offseason was by dealing their best receiver and touchdown producer in Jimmy Graham, who had just signed a four year extension the previous offseason. Graham’s departure has a major rippling effect on every area of this offense, not just the passing game, so what can we expect to happen with the components of this offense for 2015?
The strength of the Saints’ skill players is in their backfield and by moving Graham; many are anticipating New Orleans to lean towards a run heavy approach going forward. I do agree to a degree, but I still have a hard time believing game script and the way this offense functions will see them push past the 40 percent mark in terms of rushing plays. Sean Payton also denies any “drastic” changes. The last time a New Orleans team ran the ball that much was in 2009. In that season they went 13-3 and won the Super Bowl, so maybe they’ll attempt to channel some of that success, but since that season, no one has more completions, attempts, yards and scores through their passing game.
Love for the NOLA Backfield
Mark Ingram was a player I suggested dealing for last offseason as a post hype sleeper (ignore the part covering the Rams receiving unit please) and the former first round selection finally received his opportunity to be a feature back for the first in his career after injuries across the board to the Saints backfield. After the Saints week six bye, Ingram handled 73 percent of the New Orleans carries and over that run had seven top-20 scoring weeks with four inside of the top 10. Here’s how his breakout season looked compared to his previous sporadic usage.
He also led the NFL in carries from inside the five-yard line (20) in 2014, although some of that volume was self-induced as he posted just a 35 percent (seven for 20) conversion rate on those runs, which ranked 15th out of the 22 players to have double digit carries inside of the five. And that’s the thing with Ingram last season as he wasn’t earth altering in efficiency a season ago, and he did slide a touch in the final month, rushing 54 times for 197 yards (3.6 YPC), but still was a top 21 scoring back in three of those weeks. Opportunity is the name of the game at the position and volume provides a safer floor for backs than efficiency more times than not. Ingram has that opportunity while being tethered to a good quarterback which overall bodes well for fantasy production. I view him as solid floor RB2 and have no qualms over anyone taking him as early as the second/third round turn.
The other side of the Graham deal that also helps Mark Ingram’s stock outside of potential volume boon as New Orleans transitions to a more ball control offense is they swapped him for a player that immediately makes Ingram better by adding Max Unger to their offensive line. With Unger active last season, Marshawn Lynch ran for 25.1 more yards per game (98.6 to 73.6) and had three more rushing scores in his nine games than in the 10 games that Unger missed. Add in the fact that New Orleans then also added offensive tackle Andrus Peat with the 13th overall selection and Saints line looks much improved on paper heading into the season than it did closing the season when Ingram was performing. Even without these upgrades, the Saints backfield was already consistently better than the league average in terms of success rates per level of run.
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The Saints also went out and signed C.J. Spiller to fill the roles vacated by Pierre Thomas and Travaris Cadet. If you’re looking for my full on expansive take on why I’m a huge fan of the fit for him in this offense, you can find that here from when he signed. The shorter version for this space of course centers mainly on his elite pass game involvement and his strengths in speed and space in that role. Over the course of the past 12 years (including 2012 when he was suspended by the league), Sean Payton backfields have averaged 147 targets per season and 179 per season since 2010. The Saints have lost 315 passing targets from last season and Thomas and Cadet totaled 106 of those. I genuinely believe a 60 reception season is the floor for Spiller with an almost unlimited ceiling in regards to how many he actually garners.
The wildcard is that Spiller is a bigger back than Sproles and more explosive runner than Thomas. This role has never been held by a back with Spiller’s all-around acumen and the closest we’ve seen to it was early Reggie Bush before he became the well-rounded back he was later in his career. I don’t believe Spiller challenges for an even time split or anything, but his big play rushing acumen can vault his ceiling and weekly viability.
I may inevitably be priced out on him if he ends up costing a third round selection since that rushing production is still an unknown and he’s historically been a sketchy touchdown producer. Over his career he has just seven attempts inside the five-yard line and as mentioned, Ingram will sponge up those carries here. If his price jumps up to those levels, I’ll leave him mostly for DFS play and Best Ball formats, but I’m very high on Spiller having weekly relevancy in 2015.
Khiry Robinson is a hard guy to nail down today, because of the effort to bring back Ingram immediately in free agency, the addition of Spiller right after that move and also when factoring in his usage immediately evaporated when Ingram took over after his own injury. He posted a 47/245/1 line rushing in the three games Ingram missed last season (RB44, RB22, RB15), then in the first week in which Ingram returned Robinson then received three carries to Ingram’s 10 and then had just 12 total carries over his final three games being active. As the chart above shows, Robinson was effective and efficient, but he’s in no man’s land right now on the depth chart. I don’t see weekly viability for him unless Ingram goes down, which isn’t too far-fetched of a scenario given his resume of health. In that case, Robinson will be a hot pick up once again.
Targets “Tremed” from 2014
As mentioned, the Saints lost players that accounted for 48.5 percent of their total targets. Those have to go somewhere unless you firmly believe that they are going to throw it well under 600 times. Jimmy Graham (125), Kenny Stills (63) and Robert Meachem (20) accounted for two thirds of those departing targets. The biggest perceived beneficiary for an increase in looks is second year receiver Brandin Cooks.
Cooks had his rookie campaign cut short after 10 games needing thumb surgery and through 11 weeks was 20th in the league in receptions with 53. At that time, Cooks had accounted for 16.8 percent of the team targets and had found lukewarm fantasy success with five top-24 weeks and two top-12 scoring ones.
Cooks really had a tale of two seasons inside of one shortened one as the Saints struggled to use him effectively early in the season, miscasting him as speed and space only option that needed to be fed the football near the line of scrimmage instead of treating him like an actual receiver. Over the first six games, Cooks’ aDot (average depth of target per Pro Football Focus) was a molehill at 6.0 yards. That was even lower than Tavon Austin (6.4 aDot) over the same span. What’s even more curious is just why the Saints kept forcing this role onto him as he averaged just 3.7 yards after contact per reception, the same amount as Anquan Boldin. After reeling in a 32-yard grab in week one, his longest reception over the next five games was just 19 yards. Once they scrapped that role and started using him vertically (starting the week they played Green Bay), his production took off. Over the next four weeks, he had receptions of 31, 40 and 50 yards. It was just a small four game sample, but it could be the signs of what is in store for his future usage. Here are those splits and his production.
With a boost in target share upwards of just 20 percent and the Saints still throwing in the neighborhood of 630 times this season, that has Cooks flirting with 130 targets. That 20 percent share is a number that Marques Colston even in his prime hovered around, but never toppled. The same when the passing game was running through Jimmy Graham. If Cooks gets into the 22-25 percent range of targets, he’s going to be hard to ignore, but I can’t see his share getting past the lower 20 percent mark unless this offense really isn’t functioning properly. That high end ceiling is what many are already sinking their teeth into right away as his ADP is in the middle of the third round in reception leagues. That’s an iron price and based on C.D. Carter’s Equity Scores, not placing enough risk in his WR3 median projection, which isn’t even his floor projection.
Cooks has the ability to be a reception machine, but it bears marking out again that at his best as a rookie, he wasn’t used in that fashion. If the Saints attempt to just jam him the football again, then good luck finding that ceiling. I don’t believe they’ll do that and that Cooks will be a fine fantasy option, but his price makes him someone I’m going to let another draft since I believe you can land similar production later since Cooks has limited touchdown upside, even attached to Brees.
The other main returning target is 32-year old Marques Colston. Colston has been a declining asset now for three years running and seen his biggest drop off in production so far in 2014.
Colston had just five scoring weeks inside of the top 30 at the position, with just three inside the top 20. His target share has diminished consistently along with everything else and he has just 10 touchdowns over the past two seasons combined. The Saints restructured him to make him fit in their immediate plans and he does occupy a similar presence in terms of area of the field that Graham held, so it’s not unreasonable to believe he’s the one who gets a target bump, especially in the red zone. Before the past two seasons, Colston was an effective red zone target for the majority of his career.
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As your fifth or sixth wide receiver in the ninth round or later, I have no issue on making the squeeze on Colston once again having some regained significance in fantasy. I like him at his price a lot more than Cooks at his, and at that spot, you’re not hindered if he in fact has met the end of his pristine production.
There’s an ongoing battle to see who will be the final receiver standing over the summer between Nick Toon, Seantavius Jones, Brandon Coleman, Willie Snead and the dueling Morgan brothers, Josh and Joe (they also have a plethora of secondary slot guys competing in camp for roster spots, but there’s no immediately availability for them to be fantasy relevant). Coleman has dispatched the competition early in camp and should be on your radar since he is literally free right now as well and can be had with one of your final picks and even your Mr. Irrelevant one. I like the idea of pairing Colston together with Coleman in deep enough leagues because you can insulate yourself on Colston’s demise while still playing on Coleman having standalone value. If he never gains traction, then there’s no harm done with your selection and you move on. As late round players that could post a 70 plus catch season or more, that’s a calculated dart to throw.
The immediate opportunity unlocked up by trading Graham of course effects tight end Josh Hill. Through his first two years, Hill has been an efficiency standout on albeit a very small sample, turning 20 receptions into six touchdowns. He has also turned five of eight red zone looks for scores so far in his young career and Graham accounted for 26.7 percent (43 of 161) of the red zone targets over the past four seasons. Graham on average has accounted for 20.9 percent of the New Orleans targets over the past four years, so if Hill can get north of even 15 percent, he can flirt 95-100 looks. The question is can Hill garner the majority of those vacated targets or enough to make him a viable weekly fantasy play since prior to Graham’s breakout in 2011, Sean Payton has had no issue rolling out a committee at the position.
Hill’s only competition for targets in a committee is 35-year old Ben Watson, so of course I’m going to be drawn to ascending player with a strong athletic profile like Hill has in comparison. Coming out of Idaho State he ran a 4.66 at 246 pounds and awesome agility (4.19 three cone and 7.00 short shuttle) with high explosion marks (36.5” vertical and 127” broad jump). I also definitely prefer his current price point behind Zach Ertz, Eric Ebron and Maxx Williams and you can also often pair him with a reliable vet like Jason Witten or Delanie Walker if that ceiling and usage never comes to fruition.
Leaving Drew in the Brees?
Even in what many perceive as a down season for Drew Brees, he was still more than useful for fantasy purposes. Although he experienced drops in in several areas, he finished as the sixth highest scoring quarterback over the entire season, his 11th consecutive top-10 scoring season.
Brees was fifth in average weekly scoring finish at QB10.5, but survived more on volume creating a safe floor than in years past when he carried one of the best weekly ceilings. Only Andrew Luck (one) had fewer weeks in the bottom half of quarterback scoring than Brees (two) had, but he trailed the top group in top three and top-six scoring weeks and was a clear rung below the other top shelf options at the position in 2014.
It’s always a red mark when a quarterback loses an elite target, and if players like Cooks and Hill don’t hit the requisite ascension and Colston is indeed dust in the wind, Brees could potentially be throwing to one of his worst units ever. The ray of sunshine there is that Brees has shown to be a quarterback who also elevates ancillary pieces. Even though he’s losing a player who has 46 touchdowns over the past four seasons, Brees wasn’t strictly created by Graham; he just was the component who unlocked his massive ceiling. Using the RotoViz Game Splits App, here’s how Brees has performed in New Orleans with and without Graham.
Count me in on Brees still this season and I’ll be grabbing him where I can if he’s the quarterback out of the top group that falls into the eighth round or later area. At a discount, I’ll take his floor at that spot over any random high ceiling from the position in the same area.