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2020 Team Report: New Orleans Saints

Last updated: Sat, May 23

Offensive Philosophy

Drew Brees and Sean Payton almost defy belief as paragons of consistency in a league colloquially known as the "Not For Long"; the pair joined the Saints together in 2006 and have been running virtually the same offense together for the last fourteen years. In the passing game, the team segregates players into specific routes more than nearly any other offense, with running backs handling the short passing game (Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram, Alvin Kamara), 1 or 2 receivers dedicated to attacking deep (Joe Horn, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem, Kenny Stills, and Ted Ginn), and another receiver operating between those extremes and serving as the primary target (Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Jimmy Graham, Michael Thomas). As Brees' arm has declined the role of the deep threat has been reduced and the intermediate receivers have seen a commensurate uptick in volume. But one thing that hasn't changed is how involved the running backs are in the overall passing game; since 2006, Saints RBs have caught 25% more passes than the RBs on any other team in the league and 75% more passes than the median NFL franchise. The only reason Saints running backs haven't completely dominated fantasy leagues for the last decade and a half is because the team much prefers to use a heavy committee approach to keep its backs fresh. Last year, leading rusher Alvin Kamara received just 12 carries per game. The Saints under Payton have never had a top-2 fantasy back, but they have placed four different backs inside the top 10 (Reggie Bush, Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram, and Alvin Kamara) and frequently produce multiple fantasy starters (most impressively in 2017 when Kamara finished 3rd and Ingram finished 6th in PPR leagues).

Quarterbacks

Starter: Drew Brees
Backup(s): Jameis Winston, Taysom Hill

Starting QB: After yet another season with a bitter pill playoff loss ending, Drew Brees has returned for his 20th NFL season. Brees signed a two-year, $50 million dollar deal in the offseason, but the second year was mainly to spread out the cap hit of his 2020 compensation, most of which came in the form of a $23 million signing bonus. Head coach Sean Payton mistakenly said this will Brees final season and quickly corrected himself, but the question remains of whether Brees will return for 2021. His 2019 was marred by a wrist injury and it's fair to ask whether the thumb injury on his throwing hand affected him after he returned. That should give hope of a better 2020, along with the addition of Emmanuel Sanders, a massive upgrade at #2 wide receiver. Brees has fallen from the ranks of the elite or strong QB1 candidates, but he's still on the fringe of QB1s in ADP and could outperform that cost as one of the quarterbacks with the most continuity in his offense entering a season with no offseason ramp up/transition time.

Backup QB: The Saints showed their commitment to Hill as the backup quarterback and perhaps quarterback of the future with a one-year $4.641 million dollar first round restricted free agent tender and then folding that into two-year, $21 million dollar extension with 16 million guaranteed. This kept any other team from trying to sign Hill to a long-term offer sheet. Teddy Bridgewater is gone to become Carolina's starter, but Hill might not be the starter if Brees goes down again this year, as the team signed former rival Jameis Winston to a one-year deal to reboot his career as the likely backup quarterback. Hill is still mostly an unknown as an NFL pocket passer, but his running ability gives him a leg up on the fantasy competition if he does end up starting at any point this year, and it makes him a good dynasty hold ahead of the likelihood that Brees retires before the 2021 season and the cap hamstrung Saints have to turn to Hill as the starter on his new discount (for an NFL starting quarterback) contract. For 2020, Winston would be a solid fantasy option if Brees goes down, but the team could turn to closer to a quarterback by committee if that happens.

Running Backs

Starter: Alvin Kamara
Backup(s): Latavius Murray, Dwayne Washington, Taquan Mizzell, Ty Montgomery
Fullback(s): Michael Burton

Starting RB: Kamara had a disappointing 2019, in part due to leg injuries and in part due to a dropoff in performance after Teddy Bridgewater took over. He looked more and more like his old self as the season went on and finished the year with four touchdowns in the last two games. He'll be drafted in the top five in most leagues despite not living up to that price last year. Kamara may sign an extension before the season, but if he doesn't he'll have a lot of pressure to stay healthy and perform up to expectations with his contract expiring after the season and so many cautionary examples among running back second contracts at market value lately.

Backup RBs: Murray was signed last offseason after the Saints and Mark Ingram couldn't find any common ground in contract negotiations and the offense didn't seem to suffer too much for it. Murray was called on to start two games when Kamara was hurt and he was dominant in both, eclipsing 100 yards rushing, scoring twice, and catching at least five passes in each game. Murray was quiet after Kamara returned, but he should remain one of the most valuable #2 backs in case of starter injury and in the first group of backups drafted in fantasy leagues. One of Washington, a size/speed underachiever who maps well to Murray's role, Mizzell, a special teams ace, or Montgomery, a wide receiver/running back tweener who has flashed in the past with Green Bay and maps well to Kamara's role, could stick as the third running back, but if Kamara or Murray miss significant time, they might pick up a free agent to handle the vacated touches and snaps.

Fullback: Burton will have a shot to replace Zach Line, who retired after the 2019 season. Sean Payton likes to use his fullback as much as any team in the league, often to the chagrin of fantasy players who hate touchdown vultures, so Burton could join Taysom Hill under the "wasted touchdown scorer" column for the Saints in 2020

Wide Receivers

Starters: Michael Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders
Backups: Tre'Quan Smith, Deonte Harris, Maurice Harris, Lil'Jordan Humphrey, Emmanuel Butler

Starting WRs: What more can be said about Michael Thomas's record-breaking 2019? He eclipsed Marvin Harrison's record (143) by six, and Harrison's record was seven more than the second-best single season reception total, which Julio Jones and Antonio Brown shared. Thomas's hands and ability to get open in the short and intermediate areas are unmatched in the league and his production did not drop off one bit when Teddy Bridgewater replaced Drew Brees. Thomas got paid after a short camp holdout last year and should be ready to pick up where he left off, going off of the board as the #1 wide receiver in every fantasy draft. If there is any threat to his ability to match his 2019 numbers, it is the addition of the best #2 wide receiver he has played with in his career by a large margin. The Saints were quiet early in free agency, but after the initial flurry of moves had come to a close, they signed Emmanuel Sanders to a two-year, $16 million dollar deal. Sanders showed that he could integrate in a new team's offense on the fly last year after he was traded mid-season to the 49ers, although part of that was that he left an offense in Denver that was designed by a Kyle Shanahan disciple, Rich Scangarello. Sanders will give the Saints a reliable third-down target if Thomas is double-teamed and a very precise route runner who can still make plays downfield in his age 33 season. He will be drafted a top bench receiver, but could easily become a weekly starter if the Saints pass more in 2020.

Backup WRs: The Saints backup receivers will likely be without Ted Ginn for the first time since 2016. 2018 third round pick Tre'Quan Smith will be relied on to replace some of Ginn's vertical presence, and the team could also 2019 UDFA breakout player Deonte Harris, who was an impact player on special teams and could play a larger role in three and four wide receiver sets in 2020. The team could choose to carry only four wide receivers into the regular season with Taysom Hill able to play a role as an eligible receiver in the passing game. If they do want to have five receivers on the final 53, the competition will likely come down to veteran Maurice Harris, who generated some buzz with the Patriots in the offseason last year but did not make the team, and two 2019 undrafted free agents. Humphrey is a Texas product who plays more like a huge running back, and Butler is a small school Northern Arizona product who has length and athleticism but needs to develop his game to fit in on Sundays

Tight Ends

Starters: Jared Cook
Backups: Adam Trautman [R], Josh Hill, Garrett Griffin, Jason Vander Laan

The Saints finally found a tight end to replace the passing game impact they lost when they dealt Jimmy Graham to the Seahawks in 2015. Jared Cook's season-long numbers hide that he was a top five option after Drew Brees returned to the lineup. Cook was able to add a seam ripping presence and huge red zone target. Cook's target share could suffer with the addition of Emmanuel Sanders, but his ADP is already at a discount from his per game production last year. The Saints liked Adam Trautman so much that they gave up their fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh round picks for him. They see the small school product out of Dayton as a classic in-line tight end who can block as well as threaten downhill, while possessing the hip looseness to run a variety of routes. He projects a high upside replacement for Jared Cook down the line and should be rostered in dynasty leagues. Josh Hill is back for his eighth season with the Saints, and he is coming off of career highs in catches and yards, in part due to his competent play in place of Cook when he missed two games with an ankle injury, but he is a bigger contributor as a blocker than a receiver. Vander Laan is a converted quarterback who filled in at fullback some last year. Griffin has been on and off of the Saints roster since 2016 and caught a touchdown in the 2018 NFC title game, but he missed the entire 2019 with an ankle injury.

Place Kicker

Wil Lutz: Lutz is well-established among the very best fantasy kickers and is showing no signs of dropping off in 2020. He made 32 of 36 field goal attempts, including 13 of 15 from 40-49 yards and no misses from under 40. He also made 48 of 49 extra point attempts. If you want a top end kicker, Lutz is right there with Harrison Butker and Justin Tucker as being worth a pick earlier than the final round to get an advantage at kicker, or as an anchor for a best ball league that uses kickers.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Deonte Harris

New Orleans' return situation is about as settled as can be; Deonte Harris fielded 90% of the team's punt and kickoff return attempts and was named first-team All Pro returner for his efforts. Expect to see plenty of Harris lining up deep to receive kicks in 2020 as well.

Punt Returners: Deonte Harris

New Orleans' return situation is about as settled as can be; Deonte Harris fielded 90% of the team's punt and kickoff return attempts and was named first-team All Pro returner for his efforts. Expect to see plenty of Harris lining up deep to receive kicks in 2020 as well.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Terron Armstead, LG Andrus Peat, C Erik McCoy, RG Cesar Ruiz [R], RT Ryan Ramczyk
Key Backups: OL Nick Easton, OL Will Clapp, OL Ethan Greenidge

The dominance continues in New Orleans, with three of their five starters receiving Pro Bowl honors. Right tackle Ryan Ramzyck leads the unit making All Pro first team. The team invested a first round pick in center Cesar Ruiz from Michigan to replace right guard Larry Warford. Bringing back left guard Andrus Peat was a key move this offseason. This group specializes in execution of the hybrid zone scheme.

Team Defense

The Saints defense had a terrible day vs San Francisco in a game that lost them the #1 seed and created a wild card matchup with Minnesota that they lost in overtime, but otherwise they were strong, posting 51 sacks, 23 takeaways, and three defensive scores. The final rankings in points and yards allowed were 14th and 11th, but again the 48-46 outcome is masking a much better overall season for this unit which helped the team weather the loss of Drew Brees for almost half of the season. The offseason saw Malcolm Jenkins return to replace Vonn Bell, but otherwise the 2019 defense is mainly intact and should again be a top option in fantasy leagues. They are a worthy pick in the 8-10 range.

Defensive Line

Starters: DT Malcom Brown, DT Sheldon Rankins, DE Cameron Jordan, DE Marcus Davenport
Backups: DT David Onyemata, DT Mario Edwards, DT Shy Tuttle, DT T.Y. McGill, DE Trey Hendrickson, DE Carl Granderson, DE Wes Horton, DE Noah Spence, DE Margus Hunt

Starting DL: The defensive line is a particularly potent area for the Saints, with a deep and varied set of talents to terrorise offensive lines. The carnage is usually led to perennial All-Pro and anchor of the line Cameron Jordan, a player that has not failed to record at least 12 sacks in the past three seasons. The up-and-comer on the opposite edge is another first round pick, Marcus Davenport, who flashed in spots last season and should carve out a larger role in 2020. On the interior, the competition is fierce; Malcom Brown projects as the current nose tackle, but David Onyemata - who played the most snaps of all Saints interior defenders in 2019 - and Mario Edwards will be vying for that spot. Sheldon Rankins and Shy Tuttle split snaps almost evenly last season, so a competition is brewing there as well.

Backup DL: The Saints have a plethora of capable backups to keep the starting line fresh, notably David Onyemata, who played 622 snaps last season - more than any other Saints interior player. Mario Edwards mostly played edge defender last season but ceded a lot of playing time to Trey Hendrickson, another promising tyro the team is hoping for big things from. Former NFC South rivals Wes Horton and Noah Spence round out an exceptional crew. Margus Hunt was snapped up post-draft, but will face stiff competition on a roster brimming with talent.

Linebackers

Starters: MLB Kiko Alonso, WLB Demario Davis, SLB Craig Robertson
Backups: LB Alex Anzalone, LB Manti Te'o, LB Kaden Elliss, LB Ray-Ray Armstrong, LB Zach Baun [R], LB Anthony Chickillo

Starting LBs: Kiko Alonso tore his ACL in the Saints' wild card round playoff loss to the Vikings, but the signs coming from the team are optimistic regarding his return in time for training camp. The veteran was a bit-part player in 2019 and projects to assume the same role this season. Alonso's role is diminished primarily due to the quality of his teammate, Demario Davis, who performed as one of the best linebackers in the league last season. Davis' 12 passes defensed, 87 solo tackles and 25 assists made a huge contribution to the team's success on defense. He is one of the anchors of the entire unit. Craig Robertson, like Alonso, will not see the field much if we use recent history as our guide.

Backup LBs: Manti Te'o was snapped up by the Saints towards the end of last season and stands a chance of competing for snaps behind Kiko Alonso at middle linebacker. Much will depend on the progress of Alex Anzalone, who has been plagued by injuries during his short career. Entering the final year of his rookie deal, Anzalone has much to prove. Kaden Elliss, a seventh-round pick last season, and veteran Ray-Ray Armstrong round out the backups. The Saints traded up in the NFL Draft to select freakishly athletic Wisconsin linebacker Zach Baun, who will transition to an off-ball role after playing a hybrid edge position in college. Chickillo was signed after the draft. The Steelers let him go after he failed to live up to his second contract as a backup edge rusher and outside linebacker.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB Marshon Lattimore, CB Janoris Jenkins, FS Marcus Williams, SS Malcolm Jenkins
Backups: CB Patrick Robinson, CB P.J. Williams, CB Justin Hardee, CB Deatrick Nichols, S D.J. Swearinger, S Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, S Saquan Hampton, S J.T. Gray

Starting DBs: Janoris Jenkins settled in quickly with the Saints after being picked up on waivers at the tail end of the 2019 season. The team was so impressed with his cameo that they re-signed him until 2022, a move that was both an expression of their faith in him and an effort to clear cap space. Jenkins will line up opposite Marshon Lattimore who, after a blistering start to his career, took a couple of steps back last year. Still a gifted player, he will be buttressed by the signing of former Saint Malcolm Jenkins, who returns to the Big Easy after a successful spell in Philadelphia. Jenkins is as solid a pair of hands on the back end as one finds in the league. Budding superstar Marcus Williams will rove the middle of the field after posting his best career season in 2019.

Backup DBs: P.J. Williams' poor play last season prompted the team to swoop for Janoris Jenkins, creating uncertainty around his role in 2020. Patrick Robinson has played just 14 games over the past two seasons, with injuries starting to catch up to the 33-year-old. Chauncey Gardner-Johnson has the best chance among the backups of carving out a significant role and he figures to be the successor to Malcolm Jenkins, who profiles as an excellent mentor for the second-year pro.