This fantasy preview is part of a preseason series by FantasyLabs Editor-in-Chief Matthew Freedman. Other pieces in the series are available on our Fantasy Football Preview Dashboard.
Once the laughing stock of the NFL, the Saints have been one of the league’s marquee franchises ever since 2006 — almost. They won a Super Bowl following the 2009 season, and Sean Payton and Drew Brees have formed one of the all-time great head coach-quarterback duos — but Payton also embarrassed the league with Bountygate in 2012, and the Saints have missed the playoffs each of the last three seasons with their losing 7-9 records. Payton’s seat isn’t hot, but it’s warm: At +1,400, he has the eighth-highest implied odds to be the first coach to lose his job this year. For Payton and the Saints, 2017 is about getting back to the playoffs and advancing far enough in the postseason to earn some good will.
Before Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo, there was Payton. An undrafted quarterback out of Eastern Illinois in 1987, Payton played with three different teams in the Arena and Canadian Football Leagues his first year out of college before getting his shot at the NFL: During the 1987 players strike, he suited up for three games as the backup quarterback of the ‘Spare Bears.’ In his limited action he was sacked seven times and completed 34.8 percent of his 23 attempts for a meager 79 yards and an interception. After the strike ended, he never wore an NFL uniform again. After a quick jaunt in 1988 playing for the Leicester Panthers — in the United Kingdom — Payton hung up the cleats.
He spent the next nine years on the college circuit, gradually working his way up the ranks:
- San Diego State: Offensive assistant (1988-89)
- Indiana State: Running backs and wide receivers coach (1990-91)
- San Diego State: Running backs coach (1992-93)
- Miami (OH): Offensive coordinator (1994-95)
- Illinois: Quarterbacks coach (1996)
In 1997, Payton returned to the NFL as the quarterbacks coach for the Eagles under HC Ray Rhodes and OC Jon Gruden, the latter of whom left in 1998 to coach the Raiders. Under new OC Dana Bible the Eagles offense was religiously bad, finishing last in the league with 10.1 points per game (PPG) as quarterbacks Bobby Hoying, Koy Detmer, and Rodney Peete completed only 52.8 percent of their 534 passes for 2,730 yards and seven touchdowns (to 18 interceptions). Predictably, Rhodes, Bible, and Payton were all fired.
Payton wasn’t unemployed long. He was hired by the Giants and HC Jim Fassel as the quarterbacks coach, a position he held for a year (1999) before his promotion to OC. In his first year (2000) as the play caller, Payton oversaw an offense that scored 30.5 PPG in the postseason on the way to the Super Bowl only to be embarrassed by a 34-7 loss to the Ravens. Although the offense improved the next season (2001), finishing ninth in yards, the Giants were only 21st in points and Fassel eventually grew so displeased with Payton that he stripped him of play-calling duties in 2002. After the season Payton was hired away by the Cowboys before the Giants had the chance to fire him.
With the Cowboys, Payton served as the assistant HC and quarterbacks coach under HC Bill Parcells and OC Maurice Carthon for two years (2003-04). After the departure of Carthon, Payton was promoted to assistant HC/passing game coordinator in 2005. With no OC on the staff, Payton unofficially oversaw the unit as the senior-most offensive coach, and he coaxed a respectable campaign out of then-starter Drew Bledsoe. After the Cowboys went 9-7 and barely missed the playoffs, Payton was hired as the Saints HC in 2006. It should be noted that it was Payton who encouraged Parcells in 2003 to sign Romo as an undrafted free agent and keep him on the roster and it was under Payton that Romo developed on the bench for three years before breaking out in his fourth year. After joining the Saints, Payton offered a third-round pick to the Cowboys for Romo in the 2006 offseason, just in case Brees disappointed as the starting quarterback. The Cowboys refused. They knew the value of the investment Payton had made in Romo as his position coach.
As it turns out, Brees didn’t disappoint. Over the last 11 years, not once — not once — have the Saints finished outside the top six in total yards. Not once have they finished outside the top 12 in points scored. Not once have they finished outside the top 10 in total plays. Not once have they finished outside the top eight in yards per drive, the top 10 in plays per drive, and the top 12 in points per drive. Since 2006, the Saints have been unbelievably and consistently productive. Even during Payton’s 2012 Bountygate suspension, the Saints did well, finishing second in yards and third in points partially because of OC Pete Carmichael, who was calling plays.
Carmichael is an underappreciated member of the Saints staff. While people talk about Payton and Brees as a duo, it’s more accurate to say that Payton, Brees, and Carmichael form a trifecta. A baseball player as an undergraduate at Boston College, Carmichael got into football coaching after college, starting out as an assistant offensive line coach at New Hampshire in 1994 (working on the same staff as then-running backs coach Chip Kelly) and eventually becoming an offensive assistant with the Chargers (2002-05) before he was hired by the Saints as the quarterbacks coach for Brees, with whom he’d worked in San Diego the previous four years. In 2008 Carmichael was promoted to quarterbacks coach/passing game coordinator, and the next year after OC Doug Marrone left Carmichael was promoted to OC. That season the Saints won the Super Bowl.
Although Payton had called plays for the offense since 2006, in 2011 he shifted most of the play-calling responsibilities to Carmichael, and that year Brees passed for a then-NFL record 5,476 yards. In 2012 Carmichael continued to call plays in Peyton’s absence — and the offense was still a top-three unit — but upon his return in 2013 Payton assumed play-calling duties only to relinquish them once again to Carmichael in 2016 after the Saints slipped to 10th, ninth, and eighth in points scored during Payton’s three seasons in charge. Naturally, with Carmichael calling plays last year the Saints were first in yards and second in points. As good as Payton is as a play caller and offensive strategist, Carmichael might be better — and he’s calling plays in 2017.
Although the Saints play fast — last year they were second in neutral pace (Football Outsiders) — it doesn’t follow that they must also be a pass-heavy team. In the last 11 years the Saints have been top-five in pass volume 10 times. That makes sense: They have a future Hall-of-Famer at quarterback. At the same time, the one year the Saints shifted toward the run, finishing top-10 in rush attempts and run/pass ratio with a three-headed backfield, the unthinkable happened: The Saints won a championship — in Carmichael’s first year coordinating the offense.
It’s likely the team will rely on Brees throw a lot because that’s almost always what happens — but the Saints seemingly went out of their way this offseason to create a three-headed backfield of Mark Ingram, Adrian Peterson, and Alvin Kamara. It’s possible the Saints will turn back the clock to 2009 and use an uptempo run-heavy system in the hopes of shortening the game and keeping their abominable defense on the sideline. As it is, even with ‘just’ league-average passing volume in 2009, the Saints were still fourth in yards and touchdowns through the air. Come what may, Brees will get his.
As an offense known for its consistency, this unit had a fair amount of turnover this offseason:
- QB: Drew Brees
- RB: Mark Ingram/Tim Hightower/Travaris Cadet –> Ingram/Adrian Peterson/Alvin Kamara
- FB: John Kuhn –> Kuhn/Zach Line
- WR: Michael Thomas
- WR: Brandin Cooks –> Ted Ginn, Jr./Brandon Coleman
- WR: Willie Snead
- TE: Coby Fleener/Josh Hill
- LT: Terron Armstead/Andrus Peat –> Armstead/Ryan Ramczyk
- LG: Andrus Peat/Senio Kelemete/Tim Lelito –> Peat
- C: Max Unger
- RG: Jahri Evans –> Larry Warford
- RT: Zach Strief
At the age of 32, Peterson has a wide range of outcomes. He’s probably an upgrade on the departed and also aged Hightower, but that’s not certain. Selected in the third round, Kamara is a massive upgrade on Cadet as a runner and receiver. By next season he could be the team’s clear-cut lead back. I don’t talk much about fullbacks — but the Saints currently have Line on their roster. A longtime Freedman favorite and productive runner in college at Southern Methodist, Line was the lead blocker for Peterson’s league-leading 327-1,485-11 campaign with the Vikings in 2015. If he makes the team, that might be significant for Peterson’s prospects. Signed by the Saints one day before they traded Cooks to the Patriots for the 32nd pick, Ginn is slated to be the deep threat in the offense as Snead continues to operate mostly out of the slot.
Although the offensive line was first last year with 4.93 adjusted line yards per carry and fifth with a 4.5 percent adjusted sack rate, it might be shaky to start the season. Armstead is on the Physically Unable to Perform list as he recovers from a shoulder surgery and is expected to miss at least the first six weeks of the season. In his place the first-rounder Ramczyk is slated to protect Brees’ blindside. Unger has also missed a lot of preseason action while recovering from a foot surgery: He’s expected to be ready for Week 1, but he was also expected to play in the third preseason game and that didn’t happen. Finally, after 11 years with the team, Evans left via free agency and signed with the Packers. Although he hadn’t made a Pro Bowl since 2014, Evans was still a four-time All-Pro who had started every game of his career with the Saints since 2006. Warford is younger and ranked higher by Pro Football Focus, but he could struggle to replace Evans.
On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Dennis Allen’s unit has experienced significant turnover, which is probably good but also might be bad. Frankly, how Allen still has an NFL job is a mystery. In 2011, he coordinated a Broncos defense that was 20th in yards and 24th in points. In 2012-14, he coordinated a Raiders defense that 28th, 29th, and 32nd in points. And over the last two years in New Orleans he’s coordinated a defense that’s been 31st and 27th in yards and 32nd and 31st in points. No matter what Allen does, he doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing:
- DE: Cameron Jordan
- DT: Nick Fairley –> Sheldon Rankins
- DT: Tyeler Davison
- DE: Paul Kruger/Daryl Tapp –> Alex Okafor/Tapp
- OLB: Craig Robertson/Nathan Stupar –> Alex Anzalone
- MLB: James Laurinaitis/Stupar/Robertson –> Manti Te’o/Robertson
- OLB: Dannell Ellerbe –> A.J. Klein/Stupar
- CB: Delvin Breaux –> Ken Crawley/Breaux
- CB: B.W. Webb/Sterling Moore/P.J. Williams –> Marshon Lattimore
- SCB: Sterling Moore/Vonn Bell –> Williams/Moore
- SS: Kenny Vaccaro/Roman Harper –> Vaccaro
- FS: Jarius Byrd/Vonn Bell –> Bell
The defense has been a bottom-five scoring unit in four of the last five years. Change is probably good, but the defense is so in flux that it’s hard to know for sure who is playing where. A first-round pick last year, Rankins is slated to replace Fairley, who is on the Non-Football Illness list and has basically been forced into retirement because of an enlarged heart. The starting linebackers are all new to the team: Te’o and Klein are free-agent acquisitions and Anzalone is a third-round rookie. It’s highly uncertain that the linebacking group will coalesce into a solid unit with their unknown chemistry. Breaux has a fractured fibula — which the team’s orthopedists missed — and is expected to miss at least a couple of games to start the year. The first-round rookie Lattimore is expected to start at corner, but he’s missed the last few weeks with a knee injury. Vaccaro and Bell are a good safety duo and Jordan is one of the top edge defenders in the league — but this defense has problems.
PFF has ranked the front seven and secondary as its fourth- and second-worst units entering the season. Only once in the last 11 years has this defense been in the top 10 in takeaways: That was the championship campaign of 2009. In the other 10 years, the Saints have on average finished 23.3 (of 32 teams). If this unit can be opportunistic then maybe it will be good enough to help the Saints get back to the playoffs.
It’s like looking at Mike Bell, Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush, Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Devery Henderson, and Jeremy Shockey all over again — except those guys won a Super Bowl.
Drew Brees, QB
Brees has led the league in passing yards each of the last three years, five of the last six years, and seven of the last 11 years. In his three seasons (2011-12, 2016) with Carmichael calling plays, Brees has led the league in passing each year with 5,476, 5,177, and 5,208 yards. He hasn’t thrown for fewer than 30 touchdowns in a season in nine years. Over the last half-decade no quarterback comes close to his 25,360 yards or 184 touchdowns. With 66,111 yards, Brees is just 5,829 yards shy of Peyton Manning’s career NFL record. When Brees overtakes Manning in a Week 3 home game next year, that will be just one more joyful memory he’s gifted the post-Katrina city of New Orleans.
I’m not a fan of taking quarterbacks early, but with his average draft position (ADP) of 46.0 in DRAFT best ball leagues Brees is a tempting pivot play to Aaron Rodgers (25.3) and Tom Brady (32.5) — and in daily fantasy it’s almost mandatory to roster Brees whenever he’s playing at home in the Superdome: The Coors Field of fantasy football. Brees has had significant home/road splits for his entire career — even when he was in San Diego — but the splits have been especially pronounced over the last three years (per our Trends tool):
- DraftKings points per game (PPG): 25.43 vs. 20.27
- Plus/Minus: +5.90 vs. +0.53
- Consistency Rating: 70.8 vs. 52.2 percent
- Yards per game (YPG), passing: 338.2 vs. 300.8
- Touchdowns per game, passing: 2.46 vs. 1.87
- Interceptions per game: 0.83 vs. 0.96
Of course, his ownership rate is also much higher at home (9.3 percent) than on the road (5.7). This year FantasyLabs users can review ownership trends across GPPs of various buy-in levels with our DFS Ownership Dashboard, which is reason enough to subscribe to FantasyLabs. Monitor our Vegas Dashboard to see how the market views the Saints each week. A perpetual option in cash games, Brees is also rosterable in GPPs if you’re sure to study our DFS Contests Dashboard throughout the season to learn which Saints stacks are contrarian enough to use intelligently in tournaments. Consult our Correlations Matrix to get a sense of Brees’ best stacking partners and construct your stacks with our Lineup Builder for a streamlined and maybe even pleasurable all-around process.
Right now Brees is +350 to lead the league in passing yards. Chris Raybon, Peter Jennings (CSURAM88), Bryan Mears, and I talk about this prop on our recent Daily Fantasy Flex episode. While I think it’s possible the Saints will run the ball more than they have in recent seasons, I also understand that for the last 11 years it’s been unwise to bet against Brees.
Mark Ingram, RB
For a guy who had just 13th percentile SPARQ-x athleticism as a prospect (PlayerProfiler) and has been forced to share the ball throughout his career with the likes of Thomas, Chris Ivory, Khiry Robinson, Travaris Cadet, and Tim Hightower, Ingram’s done alright. Over the last three seasons he’s averaged 1,215 yards and 8.3 touchdowns from scrimmage as well as 41.7 receptions per year despite missing five games, finishing as the 10th back overall with 16.23 DraftKings PPG. Last year specifically he was eighth among backs with 0.45 fantasy points per snap. Of the three backs on the roster, he has the best combination of NFL experience, knowledge of the offense, age, rushing competency, and receiving capability. He’s a better receiver than Peterson and a better runner than Kamara. That said, he might be just the second-best runner and second-best receiver on the team, and if that’s the case he could get squeezed for touches, especially those of the high-value variety near the end zone and through the air.
Adrian Peterson, RB
Here’s what I had to say about Peterson in my summer piece on the top 100 NFL players:
On the one hand, Peterson looked like burnt toast last year, playing in only three games because of knee and groin injuries and struggling when he played. On the other hand, Peterson was running behind PFF’s third-worst offensive line and when he’s been healthy (and not suspended) he’s had at least 1,000 scrimmage yards and 10 touchdowns each season of his career. It’s possible that the heretofore medical marvel had a short-term snakebite last year. If Ingram struggles, Peterson could be the lead back in New Orleans. If Peto struggles, he’ll likely be the poor man’s luxury Hightower. Either way, his current ADP of 51.5 is an abomination.
Peterson now has a more reasonable DRAFT ADP of 66.2 and warrants speculative portfolio exposure in the event that he is a practitioner of the dark arts and/or occasionally visits the Forbidden Forest to drink unicorn blood and/or has an Ingram voodoo doll. He’s the greatest runner of his generation, and he’s never been this cheap. Over the last three years the Saints have given Hightower (2016), Hightower and Robinson (2015), and Robinson and Thomas (2014) a steady 170 touches per year for 857.3 yards and 6.3 touchdowns from scrimmage. Even if Peterson isn’t all the way All Day, he could still be a useful player.
Alvin Kamara, RB
The Saints selected Kamara near the top of the third round with the 67th pick, trading away a seventh-rounder and 2018 second-rounder for the right to draft him. The presumptive back of the future in New Orleans, Kamara has the potential to contribute right away and is the Zero RB option in this backfield. Although Kamara didn’t run the ball much in his two years at Tennessee, he was frequently used as the pass-catching complement to the incumbent big-bodied grinder Jalen Hurd, amassing a 74-683-7 receiving line. Before Kamara balled out in the preseason, people held his lack of rushing production as a Volunteer against him, which was ridiculous:
- It’s hard to say that a guy who averaged 988.5 yards and 12 all-purpose touchdowns per year in his first two seasons of major conference action isn’t a good player.
- Before transferring to Tennessee, Kamara tore up the junior college ranks in nine games as a redshirt freshman at Hutchinson Community College, rushing for 1,253 yards and 18 touchdowns while adding 224 yards and three more touchdowns through the air.
- The season before playing at Hutchinson, Kamara was with Alabama and slated to be the Crimson Tide back of the future, but a preseason knee injury forced him to redshirt. After clashing with the coaching staff, he decided to transfer.
- As a high school senior, Kamara was a top-five running back recruit in 2012.
It’s probable that Kamara can run the ball — and while he picks up the nuances of running in the NFL he’ll likely contribute as a receiver. With good size (5’10” and 214 lbs.) and burst (131.0-inch broad), Kamara is an upside player whose value in dynasty leagues is almost certain to rise over the next year.
Michael Thomas, WR
After leading the state of California in receiving as a high school senior with an 86-1,656-21 stat line, Thomas prepped for a year at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy in 2011 (rooming with Cardale Jones) before enrolling at Ohio State, where in his third and final season he emerged as the primary receiver on a run-heavy ball-control offense, scoring nine of the team’s 19 receiving touchdowns. The nephew of Keyshawn Johnson, Thomas displayed Keyshawn-esque athleticism at the combine: He wasn’t fast (4.57-second 40), but he had good agility (6.80-second three-cone) for his prototypical size (6’3″ and 212 lbs.). Drafted by the Saints in the second round last year, Thomas quickly supplanted Cooks as Brees’ go-to receiver, leading the team in targets (121) and receptions (92) and finishing tied for third in the league with 11 targets inside the 10-yard line. The only NFL receivers in the modern era to match or surpass Thomas’ 1,137 yards and nine touchdowns as a rookie are Randy Moss and Odell Beckham Jr. He might turn into second-year Michael Clayton, Tampa Bay Mike Williams, or even Eddie Kennison — but he probably won’t.
Willie Snead, WR
The son of a high school football coach, Snead is a substandard, eighth percentile SPARQ-x athlete (PlayerProfiler) — but he’s a player. An undrafted early entrant out of Ball State in 2014, Snead was a dominant technician in his two seasons (2012-13) as a college starter, playing in the slot and outside, getting open at will with precise routes, making contested catches when his quarterbacks were off target, and averaging 7.5 receptions per game for 102.5 yards, 0.92 touchdowns, and a strong 35.4 and 43.5 percent of his team’s receiving yards and touchdowns. Snead did nothing for his first year in the league, spending time on the Browns and Panthers practice squads before catching on with the Saints, who over the last two years have given Snead 205 targets. In NFL history, the only late-round/undrafted receivers with more than Snead’s 141 receptions in their first two years of NFL playing time are Hostra studs Marques Colston and Wayne Chrebet as well as Victor Cruz.
Last year Snead ran only 101 of his 514 routes lined up out wide and is almost exclusively a slot receiver. As such, he’s played behind Ginn this preseason, seeing action in only three-wide sets. While that undoubtedly limits his upside, it’s possible the Saints will use more 11 personnel packages this year, and it’s also likely Snead will be targeted more often in three-wide sets than he was last year. Unless Thomas and Ginn take all 117 of Cooks’ 2016 targets, Snead will likely have his best NFL season yet. Per PFF, Snead had a 74.7 percent catch rate and 1.89 yards per route run (YPRR) in the slot last year and enters the season with the third-easiest slot schedule.
Ted Ginn, WR
A former first-round pick with lots of speed (4.38-second 40), Ginn is basically Cooks. Not really — but the Saints are going to pretend he is. An early-career Tavon Austin-esque player miscast as a No. 1 receiver, Ginn has evolved as he’s aged. He’s not just a boom-or-bust sprinter. He’s an underappreciated producer with an average of 96 targets and nine carries for 824.5 yards, 49 receptions, and seven touchdowns per year over his last two seasons in Carolina. Able to streak down the field and rush the ball on jet sweeps, Ginn doesn’t have his predecessor’s floor or consistency, but he’s a sharp real-life Cooksian arbitrage acquisition by the Saints. Running 82.0 percent of his routes out wide last season, Ginn is an outside-the-numbers deep threat with week-winning upside. Last year he was 31st among wide receivers with a 1.74 YPRR.
Brandon Coleman, WR
Always the handcuff, never the hand.
Coby Fleener, TE
Magnificently disappointing last year in his first Saints campaign, finishing 28th with 1.67 fantasy points per target, Fleener is something of a post-hype sleeper. From Antonio Gates in San Diego to Shockey, Jimmy Graham, and even Benjamin Watson in New Orleans, tight ends have been productive with Brees throughout his career. Fleener’s inconsistency will likely linger into 2017, but he has 96th percentile SPARQ-x athleticism (PlayerProfiler) and will almost certainly have some big performances. Last year he was significantly more productive at the Superdome (11.85 DraftKings PPG) than on the road (5.69), and in his three games with a touchdown he averaged 21.07 DraftKings PPG. As a GPP-only play, Fleener will have his spots and moments.
The Saints currently have an 8.0 win total with an even over and -130 under. They’re also +195 to make the playoffs and -250 not to. Last year they had an 8.3-win Pythagorean Expectation, and this year’s roster probably isn’t worse than last year’s. Within the Brees era, the Saints on average are 9.2-6.8 per year. Still, the Saints are 7-9 in four of the last five years, and it’s hard to like a team with a defense as consistently poor as theirs. If you’re optimistic that this team will reach at least nine wins, you might as well take them to make the postseason. The payoff is significantly better, and the Saints have a decent chance of making the playoffs if they can get above .500. That said, I wouldn’t bet on them to get above eight wins or make the playoffs.
The Saints are +5,000 to win the Super Bowl, +2,000 to win the NFC, and +400 to win the NFC South. Right now, the Saints have the lowest implied odds to win their division. I wouldn’t pick them to win their division, but only once in the Brees era have they finished fourth. In a division loaded at quarterback with Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, and Jameis Winston, the old-timer in New Orleans is still the black-and-gold standard.
Over the last three years, during the 7-9 campaigns of the Ingram era, the Saints have amazingly and almost predictably played to the level of their opponents. They are 25-22-1 against the spread since 2014. However, over that time they are 16-4-0 (80.0 percent) ATS as underdogs and 9-18-1 (32.1 percent) ATS as favorites. That’s the hallmark of a mediocre team. If someone had merely practiced the strategy of betting on the Saints as underdogs and against them as favorites, the 34-13-1 record would’ve resulted in a 70.8 percent win rate. There’s little reason to think the Saints won’t be just as mediocre this year as they’ve been over the past three years.
In researching for this piece I consulted Evan Silva’s excellent Saints Fantasy Preview at Rotoworld and relied on data from Pro Football Reference, Pro Football Focus, Football Outsiders, Football Perspective, PlayerProfiler, Team Rankings, The Power Rank, NFL.com, and the apps at RotoViz as well as the FantasyLabs Tools and Models.
Ian Hartitz contributed research to this article.