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2021 Team Report: New Orleans Saints

Last updated: Mon, May 24

Offensive Philosophy

Drew Brees and Sean Payton almost defied belief as paragons of consistency in a league colloquially known as the "Not For Long"; the pair joined the Saints together in 2006 and ran running virtually the same offense together for fifteen years. But with Brees retiring, change is on the horizon. Schematically, Payton prefers to segregate 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 declined, the role of the deep threat diminished and the intermediate receivers have seen a commensurate uptick in volume, but it's possible a strong-armed new quarterback could reverse the trend. 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. In 2019, leading rusher Alvin Kamara received just 12 carries per game. In fact, the Saints under Payton had never had a top-2 fantasy back, but they had 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). That changed in 2020 when Kamara finally demonstrated what a back could do if he ever earned the lion's share of the Saints' workload, finishing as the #1 fantasy back in PPR leagues by 40 points.

Quarterbacks

Starter: Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill
Backup(s): Jameis Winston, Taysom Hill, or Ian Book

Starting QB: The retirement of Drew Brees leaves the New Orleans Saints in flux at the quarterback position. When Drew Brees was injured in 2020, the Saints had the ability to choose between Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston, they chose Hill. Hill started weeks 11 through 14, and ranked 18th in expected points added per play (0.071) and 9th in completion percentage over expectation (6.1%). Hill received a 4 year 140-million-dollar extension in the offseason, but that is largely a contractual gimmick. Winston was also re-signed to a one-year deal 5.5-million- dollar prove it deal. Winston's decision to re-sign with the Saints when Andy Dalton and Ryan Fitzpatrick signed more lucrative contracts may be an indication he has been promised a starting job. The offense could look different given who quarterbacks the team. Hill's 2020 air yards per attempt was 7.0, amongst the bottom 10 in the league in 2020. By comparison, Jameis Winston averaged 10.5 air yards per attempt in 2019, the second highest in the league.

Backup QB: The Saints drafted Ian Book in the fourth round of the NFL Draft. Book projects as a more developmental type than a threat to start in 2021. The selection and development of Book is notable for the fact if he shows well in the preseason while Jameis Winston wins the starting job, it will allow the Saints to continue using Taysom Hill in his jack of all trades role.

Running Backs

Starter: Alvin Kamara
Backup(s): Latavius Murray, Ty Montgomery, Dwayne Washington, Tony Jones
Fullback(s):

Starting RB: Alvin Kamara's 2020 season was a tale of two stories. With Drew Brees in the lineup, Alvin Kamara averaged 29.2 PPG. Without Drew Brees in the lineup, Kamara averaged 14.2 PPG. The biggest difference in his usage was his receiving volume. With a drop in targets (8.27 to 4 targets per game) along with receptions per game to (6.64 to 2.5). On the ground, Kamara was .55 yards over expectation, good for 12th in the league. Assuming Kamara is healthy, his workload is easily projectable. Over the past three years, Kamara has averaged 18, 18, and 18.3 touches per game. Over the past four years, Kamara has 81, 81, 81, and 83 receptions. His touchdown totals, will be the determining factor on his fantasy upside.

Backup RBs: Latavius Murray is the perfect backup running back. He is locked into the backup role in 2021, has a history of production, within an offense that has a history of strong running back production. In the event Alvin Kamara is injured, there is little touch competition for Latavius Murray. Ty Montgomery, Dwayne Washington, and Tony Jones are the remaining running backs on the roster. Montgomery offers the most fantasy upside if given an opportunity.

Fullback:

Wide Receivers

Starters: Michael Thomas, Tre'Quan Smith
Backups: Marquez Callaway, Deonte Harris, Juwan Johnson, Lil'Jordan Humphrey, Jake Lampman, Jalen McCleskey, Kawaan Baker [R]

Starting WRs: Michael Thomas is coming off the worst season of his career. Thomas played week one before missing six games and returning hobbled in week 9. Thomas then played a six game stretch where he had no touchdowns and averaged 70.2 yards per game. Who is the real Thomas is a question the market is asking. The guy who averaged 150 targets, 117.5 receptions, and 1378 receiving yards and 8 touchdowns per game in his first four seasons, or the guy who returned from multiple injuries to gut it out in the hopes of getting Drew Brees another ring. One concern about Thomas is the loss of Drew Brees. In his 70 career games, Thomas has played with Brees in 60 and without Brees in 10. In the 10 games without Brees, Thomas has averaged more PPR points per game (18.74 to 18.51), receptions (7.7 to 7.22), targets per game (9.6 to 9.37) and yards (92.3 to 83.78). The only difference has been the reduction in touchdowns to .3 from .48. Thomas is the type of talent where you do not worry about who his quarterback is. TreQuan Smith is the second option in the passing game, but is a more ancillary piece than fantasy option. An annual subject of media puff pieces, Smith has failed to produce more than 448 yards in a season.

Backup WRs: Reserve options include Marquez Callaway, Deonte Harris, Juwan Johnson, and Lil'Jordan Humphrey. The Saints are an under the radar landing spot for a wide receiver in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft to go along side Michael Thomas. The Saints added size speed prospect Kawaan Baker in round seven of the NFL draft, but he faces an uphill battle to make the roster.

Tight Ends

Starters: Adam Trautman
Backups: Nick Vannett, Garrett Griffin

Veteran Jared Cook has left for free agency, which creates an opportunity for 2020 third round pick Adam Trautman. Trautman was targeted 16 times, for 15 receptions, 171 receiving yards and a touchdown in 2020 in limited opportunity. Trautman produced 1.16 yards per route run and was only targeted on 11% of his routes. He should see an increased opportunity in 2020. The Saints signed five year journeyman Nick Vannett in free agency to fill in depth alongside Garrett Griffin. Both are low end reserve options in your fantasy league.

Place Kicker

Wil Lutz: Lutz will still cost you a top 5ish pick among kickers, but after his performance in 2020, he's probably not worth it. Lutz had his lowest number of field goal attempts, makes, and worst field accuracy of his career. He was also only 1 for 3 from 50+ and missed a kick from under 29 yards for the first time in his career. He did have a career high in extra points made, but that only helped his fantasy value a little at the margin. While he could bounce back to previous fantasy production levels, there's no need to pay a premium for Lutz coming off of a down year.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Deonte Harris, Marquez Callaway

The Saints' return units are typically among the better ones in the NFL, and after both Deonte Harris and Marquez Callaway excelled there last year, the outlook for 2021 is rosy.

Punt Returners: Deonte Harris, Marquez Callaway

The Saints' return units are typically among the better ones in the NFL, and after both Deonte Harris and Marquez Callaway excelled there last year, the outlook for 2021 is rosy.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Terron Armstead, LG Andrus Peat, C Erik McCoy, RG Cesar Ruiz, RT Ryan Ramczyk
Key Backups: OT James Hurst, OL Landon Young [R], OL Calvin Throckmorton

Right tackle Ryan Ramczyk made All-Pro for the third time in four seasons and leads this second overall ranked unit. While center Erik McCoy and right guard Cesar Ruiz are reliable, left tackle Terron Armstead and left guard Andrus Peat are expensive players with durability concerns. James Hurst provides decent swing depth. This line isn't perfect, but they maintain their elite grade with constant investment.

Team Defense

The Saints D/ST was a top 10 unit in most formats and they won't cost a top 10 pick in some, if not most drafts. They tied for the league lead in interceptions, finished 8th in sacks, and held their opponent to three points two times. The defense lost 2020 breakout sackmaster Trey Hendrickson, but replaced him with first round pick Payton Turner. Better health from Marcus Davenport would also smooth over that loss. Janoris Jenkins is gone from the secondary and there is a hole in his place that could be filled by third-round pick Paulson Adebo. While they might not be as good as last year's unit, if Aaron Rodgers isn't a Packer, the team will open at home against Green Bay in their first game with a new starter, so they are still draftable to see if that comes to pass.

Defensive Line

Starters: DE Cameron Jordan, DE Marcus Davenport, DT Malcolm Roach, DT David Onyemata
Backups: DE Payton Turner [R], DE Tanoh Kpassagnon, DE Noah Spence, DE Carl Granderson, DT Christian Ringo, DT Shy Tuttle, DT Ryan Glasgow, DT Jalen Dalton, DT Josiah Bronson

Starting DL: The Saints have kept the status quo along the defensive line entering this season, with stalwart Cameron Jordan anchoring the unit in his 11th season with the team. Jordan, a perennial disruptor, and headache for opposing offenses, racked up 7.5 sacks last season and will remain the primary threat that offensive coordinators will lose sleep over. An elbow issue robbed promising edge rusher Marcus Davenport of early games last season before a concussion waylaid him later in the campaign. Entering his fourth season, he will be expected to develop into the long-term successor to Jordan. On the interior, New Orleans can rely on the pass-rushing ability of David Onyemata to create havoc, while undrafted Malcolm Roach made his presence felt in his rookie season and will be determined to build on that momentum.

Backup DL: The signing of former Chiefs bookend Tanoh Kpassagnon will be a boon to the Saints' depth at edge rusher, especially with Cameron Jordan moving on in years and Marcus Davenport yet to put it all together. A torn ACL knocked Noah Spence out of the equation for the entire 2020 season, but he will be back this year on a veteran minimum salary. Shy Tuttle will be kicking off his third season in the Big Easy and should be a valuable contributor in a rotational role, along with teammates like Christian Ringo and Jalen Dalton. Payton Turner was selected in the first round of the Draft, providing the Saints with a high-upside developmental end-tackle hybrid player.

Linebackers

Starters: WLB Demario Davis, SLB Zach Baun, MLB Pete Werner [R]
Backups: LB Kaden Elliss, LB Marcus Willoughby, LB Chase Hanton, LB Wynton McManis, LB Shaq Smith

Starting LBs: With 119 total tackles in 2020, Demario Davis proved his worth to the Saints organization after they had signed him to an extension last year. The veteran, even at 32 years of age, still has plenty left in the tank and will be the heartbeat of the second level of the defense. Beyond Davis, there is a lot to be figured out as we approach training camp. Last season's third round draft pick Zach Baun is a developmental prospect who saw only a handful of snaps in his rookie year. With another offseason under his belt, the team will hope he can act as a designated pass rusher and versatile contributor from the strongside position. Pete Werner was drafted in the third round and could slide straight in at middle linebacker or elsewhere depending on the need.

Backup LBs: The Saints are lacking any true difference-makers among their backup linebackers, with third-year pro Kaden Elliss the most likely to be called upon in a pinch. Marcus Willoughby, Chase Hanton and Wynton McManis are likely to be special teams contributors and little more.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB CJ Gardner-Johnson, CB Marshon Lattimore, S Malcolm Jenkins, S Marcus Williams
Backups: CB Paulson Adebo [R], CB Keith Washington, CB Bryce Thompson, CB Patrick Robinson, CB Grant Haley, S P.J. Williams, S J.T. Gray, S Trill Williams, S Eric Burrell

Starting DBs: CJ Gardner-Johnson produced a breakout season last year, totaling 52 solo tackles and 13 passes defensed. The versatile defensive back is likely to drop down into the nickel in obvious passing situations but will spell Patrick Robinson or whoever ends up winning the job opposite Marshon Lattimore. The former Ohio State cornerback Lattimore is entering his fifth season with the team and has a starting role locked down despite a few wobbles last year. The safety tandem of Malcolm Jenkins and Marcus Williams is firmly entrenched and provides a solid last line of defense. Jenkins returned to New Orleans last season after several years in Philadelphia and rolled back the years with 69 tackles, 2.5 sacks and three interceptions.

Backup DBs: Among the backup defensive backs, Patrick Robinson is the most experienced and could carve out a role after playing just 248 snaps in 2020. J.T. Gray has been a valuable special teams and rotational player for the Saints the last two seasons. The team rewarded him with a new contract this offseason. Paulson Adebo, a rookie out of Stanford, had outstanding big play production in college and was always around the ball. A willing tackler, Adebo could immediately compete for meaningful snaps.