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2021 Franchise Focus: New Orleans Saints

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2021 Franchise Focus: New Orleans Saints

The Saints are in a year of transition.

That’s obviously going to be the case when a future Hall of Fame QB retires, as is the case with Drew Brees. But coach Sean Payton, GM Mickey Loomis, and the franchise are trying to ease the move into the future. They’ve been grooming Taysom Hill for a while and Jameis Winston for a year, and the two will battle it out over the next six weeks (and potentially beyond) for the starting QB job.

But either will have his work cut out for him, with news that the ankle injury star WR Michael Thomas battled in 2020 lingered into 2021 — he had surgery in June and will miss at least a small chunk of the regular season.

We don’t want to underestimate Payton, but this could be a fascinating fantasy team with RB Alvin Kamara and a bunch of no-names at WR.

New Orleans Saints Franchise Focus Companion Podcast

The Basics

Team FuturesOdds
Season Win Total (O/U)9 (-105/-118)
NFC South+300
Playoffs (Y/N)+114/-143
NFC Championship+1200
Super Bowl+2500

Season Prop Movement

  • Win Total: 9 (-110) in late March to 9 (-105)

  • Super Bowl: +1700 in early February to +2500

Premium 2021 Betting Preview from Tom Brolley found here.

Key Offseason Moves

AdditionsDraftDepartures
Mike Brown (OG)Ian Book (QB)Drew Brees (QB, retired)
Stevie Scott (RB)Landon Young (OT)Nick Easton (OG)
Nick Vannett (TE)Kawaan Baker (WR)Emmanuel Sanders (WR, Buf)
Dylan Soehner (TE)Payton Turner (DE)Jared Cook (TE, LAC)
Lorenzo Neal (DT)Pete Werner (ILB)Josh Hill (TE, retired)
Tanoh Kpassagnon (DE)Paulson Adebo (CB)Sheldon Rankins (DT, NYJ)
Brian Poole (CB)Malcolm Brown (DT, Jax)
Bryce Thompson (CB)Trey Hendrickson (DE, Cin)
Eric Burrell (S)Alex Anzalone (ILB, Det)
Kwon Alexander (ILB)
Craig Robertson (ILB)
Janoris Jenkins (CB, Ten)
Justin Hardee (CB, NYJ)
D.J. Swearinger (S)

Scott Barrett’s Fantasy Strength of Schedule

Quarterback: 10th-softest (+0.18)

Running Back: 7th-toughest (-0.68)

Wide Receivers: 7th-softest (+0.67)

Tight Ends: 5th-softest (+1.12)

Pace and Tendencies

Pace (seconds in between plays): 29.1 (T-28th)

Plays per game: 64.6 (15th)

When the game is within a score — Pass: 55.5% (21st) | Run: 45.5% (12th)

When the team is ahead — Pass: 46.2% (24th) | Run: 53.8% (9th)

When the team is behind — Pass: 65.3% (18th) | Run: 34.7% (15th)

With Drew Brees on the 18th hole of his career, the Saints started leaning way more on the run in 2020 and that trend should continue into this season — especially with Michael Thomas (ankle) out. The winner of the QB battle remains to be seen, but if Taysom Hill ends up getting the nod, HC Sean Payton will likely continue to build this offense around the run game. In Hill’s four starts last year (Week 11-14), the Saints went 51% pass/49% run when the game was within a score and a ridiculous 61% run-heavy when the Saints were ahead. On the other hand, starting Jameis Winston would obviously lend itself to a more pass-heavy attack.

Key Statistics

  • In the eight games that Michael Thomas missed last year, Alvin Kamara averaged a whopping 30.9 fantasy points per game on the back of WR1-esque volume.

  • Without Thomas on the field, Kamara saw 8.6 targets per contest and turned that into a 7-catch, 70.3-yard per game receiving line.

  • Brees targeted his running backs on 29% of his attempts while Taysom Hill threw to his backs 20% of the time.

  • In nine full games (including playoffs), Michael Thomas saw 66 targets and went for 45/511/1 receiving.

  • Thomas was clearly never close to healthy and only played on 80% of the snaps in 3-of-9 games.

  • Tre’Quan Smith (244) led the Saints in routes run in the games that Thomas missed last year while Emmanuel Sanders (208) was second, Marquez Callaway (136) was third, and Deonte Harris (95) was fourth.

Huber’s Scheme Notes

Offensive

If you were blindsided by Michael Thomas’ ankle surgery announcement, join the club. But we should always bet on talent, especially the elite variety. And I believe Thomas still has plenty of tread remaining on his tires. That being said, there is no reason to linger on the status of Thomas other than to say that he’ll continue to be the focal point of the passing game upon his return. You can guarantee that, if they knew Thomas would require surgery this close to the season, GM Mickey Loomis and HC Sean Payton would have invested another draft pick on a WR. And it’s just too much of a coincidence for my taste that Dede Westbrook signed with Minnesota mere hours before the Thomas news broke — someone clearly tipped the Vikings off New Orleans would be entering the WR market.

If we’re being honest with ourselves, we know as much information now as we did when Drew Brees retired concerning his replacement. When it appeared Thomas would enter the season healthy, everything pointed to Jameis Winston providing the offense with the highest ceiling. Without Thomas, the tide could very well have shifted in Taysom Hill’s favor due to his dual-threat athleticism. We have nothing in the way of historical success for any receiver on the New Orleans roster to aid us in projecting how the targets will be distributed. That is not a good thing for Winston. Not only does Winston’s upside live-and-die with his right arm, he is brutal whenever facing single-high coverage (Cover 1 or Cover 3). Hill, on the other hand, has yet to give us a reason to categorize his name alongside any of the five most common coverage schemes as a weakness. But one or more will emerge upon receiving the required data. Where Hill separates himself is on the ground. He averaged 10.7 pure rushing FPG during his four starts last season. That is a game-changing number requiring only game manager-type passing stats for success.

No matter who ends up starting at QB, what WRs are actually going to catch their throws? Winston has only attempted 11 passes for New Orleans, so we need to look elsewhere. When Hill started from Weeks 11-14, Thomas was gifted with a 33% target share, 16% went to Emmanuel Sanders, and 11% to Tre’Quan Smith. No other WR was targeted more than once on Hill’s 108 intended targets. Let’s discuss Smith. Among WRs who received at least 51 targets last year, Smith ranked 85th out of 91 in yards gained per route run (YPRR). BREAKING NEWS: Smith’s ‘20 YPRR average set a new career high! In four games played with Hill under center, Smith topped 50 yards once, and scored a single TD.

It’s always possible Smith receives a high enough volume to overcome his debilitating inefficiency. Not a chance I am willing to take. Instead, two options have some potential upside. The first name to consider is Marquez Callaway. Should we rush out to invest dynasty stock in Callaway? Uh, no. Why does the ‘20 UDFA hold potential upside? It’s all about Cover 3. During his rookie season, Callaway posted 1.77 YPRR and increased his FPs/Route (FP/Rt) by 34% when facing Cover 3. On 38% of all rookie routes, Callaway brought in 52% of his receptions, and 50% of total yardage vs. Cover 3. Oh yeah… and the Saints will face defenses that ranked with a ‘20 rate of Cover 3 inside the top-15 teams in five of their first six games — precisely within the window when Callaway will see extended run.

The other WR on the New Orleans roster that I have my eye on is ‘21 seventh-rounder Kawaan Baker. He’s quite different from Callaway in that Baker was already on my dynasty radar. And Baker also provides the Saints with an entirely unique H-back type skillset. In addition to posting 127 receptions, 1,829 receiving yards, and 16 TDs, Baker added 371 rushing yards and another TD on 91 carries during his South Alabama career. At his Pro Day, Baker posted a 4.44-second 40-yard time (70th percentile), 40.0-inch vertical jump (90th), and 128-inch broad jump (89th). You can dwell on Baker not being drafted until the seventh round or focus on the fact that he was the only receiver Loomis and Payton bothered to draft.

The one receiver who we can all confidently expect to post a good amount of production is Adam Trautman. Even though he played way behind Jared Cook, Trautman still ran exactly half of his routes detached from the line during his rookie season. He also outproduced Cook with 1.26 YPRR — compared to 1.09 for Cook — during Hill’s four games as the starter. Short of a receiver coming out of nowhere, Trautman concludes the list of low risk receiving options until Thomas returns.

If Hill does come away with the starting role, it will be interesting to see how he utilizes Alvin Kamara. During Hill’s four featured games, Kamara only saw an average of 3.8 targets and produced a miniscule 0.70 YPRR. And his rushing production didn’t exactly set the world ablaze. He scored three TDs, true, but only exceeded 60 rushing yards in one-of-four games. Does this all mean we should be downgrading Kamara? In every sense of the word NO! It may take the two a few in-season games to find their groove, but Kamara is simply not the type of player that should ever be discounted. Let’s also consider the fact that the Saints boast one of the absolute finest O-lines in the NFL — both in pass pro and run blocking. It’s very possible that Payton and long-time OC Pete Carmichael Jr. hand the ball off in excess of the 45% rate from last season (fifth-highest) in order to offset the attrition at receiver. In that scenario, Latavius Murray would become quite the asset for the Saints’ multiple concept rushing attack.

No matter how Payton decides to proceed with his offensive approach without Thomas and whichever QB he selects to lead his team, we can rely on his outstanding track record for producing annual offensive powerhouses. Let’s also keep in mind that every indication has been given that Thomas will return prior to midseason. It’s obvious they’ll need to work out some kinks. But this offense is not going to prevent the Saints from reaching the playoffs.

Defensive

DC Dennis Allen’s defense limited entire opposing offenses to the fifth-fewest FPG last season. The Saints generated the third-highest average of QB pressures and fifth-lowest missed tackle rate. They limited opposing QBs to the second-lowest completion percentage and sixth-lowest YPA. They also permitted the fourth-fewest rushing YPG, fourth-lowest YPC, third-lowest rate of first downs, and second-lowest TD rate. And that was all before they devoted their first three picks in the ‘21 draft to the defense.

An already stacked defensive line added 5-technique Payton Turner. Their starting D-line is already so dominant that Turner will need an injury to either superstud Cameron Jordan or 2018 first-rounder Marcus Davenport to see anything other than backup snaps. But Turner will likely see some unusual shifting to get him some extended run while David Onyemata serves his six-game PED suspension to open the year.

From the moment he joined Allen’s defense, the very best of Demario Davis’s talents have been siphoned to the point of now placing his name among consideration as one of the NFLs top-10 LBs. After Alex Anzalone departed for Detroit, a gaping hole was left behind at WILL. Not to worry. Loomis took to the draft to select underrated Buckeye Pete Werner in the second round. Werner will start from Day 1, landing with the perfect staff/system capable of bringing out the very best of his gifts. Early in training camp, Zack Baun has been rotating snaps with Werner. Baun’s coverage skills are most definitely an asset, so he’ll definitely see the field. But Loomis did not spend a second-round pick on Werner to keep the bench warm.

The Saints drafted Patrick Robinson in the first round way back in 2010. They declined his fifth-year option, then he spent all of one season each with the Chargers, Colts, and Eagles. The ‘21 season will be his fourth after New Orleans brought him back on a four-year deal after helping Philadelphia take down Super Bowl LII. He has simply not lived up to that $20 million contract, as his play has trended downward in each subsequent season. You can bet Loomis took that note with him to Cleveland that resulted in selecting Paulson Adebo with his ‘21 third-rounder. Prior to opting out of the ‘20 season, Adebo proved his worth for Stanford as one of the top cover CBs in the country, as well as a tackling machine. Put it this way, you can pencil Adebo as New Orleans’ starter at LCB right now. Loomis also brought in Brian Poole to play the slot. Poole provided the Jets with top-10 results in every important coverage metric before going on IR after Week 9 with a shoulder injury.

Last but far from least, we have the Saints’ safety unit. He may be 33, but that didn’t prevent Malcolm Jenkins from being one of the best, if not the best, tackling strong safeties in the NFL last season. He is also a consistent beast in run defense. The only defenses that forced opposing QBs to identify more coverage schemes than New Orleans last year were the Chiefs and Buccaneers. They played Cover 1, Cover 4, Cover 3-Seam, Cover 0, Cover 2-Man, and several others at competitive rates. You need one hell of a free safety to pull off that many looks. The Saints have just that with Marcus Williams, supported by his top-10 coverage analytics.

Sean Payton will find his QB. Michael Thomas will return this season to give the offense their elite No. 1. Alvin Kamara will finish the season as a top-five fantasy back. These are all outcomes that will come to fruition. It’s just disgusting how stacked the NOS defense stands. A true embarrassment of riches. When Thomas returns, if/when either Taysom Hill or Jameis Winston grinds the proverbial gears into motion for this passing attack, the Buccaneers and Packers may find a substantial obstacle in their way toward returning to the NFC Championship.

Projected Fantasy Contributors

Taysom Hill (Proj: QB29 | ADP: 207 | Pos ADP: QB31)

Hill has been the presumptive #2 quarterback in New Orleans since Drew Brees announced his retirement and Jameis Winston re-signed with the Saints this winter. HC Sean Payton and the Saints clearly have some interest in finding out what they have in Winston since they brought him back for another season, but the organization has also invested a lot of time into developing Hill since they claimed him off waivers and played him on special teams in 2017. Payton bailed on giving Winston a chance to play last season and he elected to go with Hill for four starts while Brees was out of the lineup. The Saints posted a 3-1 record in Hill’s starts and he averaged 7.3 YPA and he completed 72% of his passes. He also added 209/4 rushing and his production on the ground propelled him to rank as the QB7 in Weeks 11-14 with 22.3 FPG. Hill’s presence in the lineup expands the offense and he has much better second-reaction skills, which has been a major weakness and a cause for some of Winston’s turnovers throughout his career. Hill should get a chance for significant playing time at some point even if Winston opens the year as the starter because Winston’s track record suggests mistakes will continue to be made and Payton isn’t going to tolerate turnovers. Payton could also be more willing to turn to Hill early in the season since they may have to execute a more run-heavy attack with Michael Thomas (ankle) expected to miss at least the first month of the season. Hill is rightfully being drafted as a QB3 with his playing status for the season up in the air, but he needs to be targeted in best ball and two-QB leagues because his rushing ability gives him QB1 potential.

Jameis Winston (Proj: QB34 | ADP: 178 | Pos ADP: QB27)

Winston elected to stay in New Orleans this off-season with Drew Brees heading into retirement, signing a one-year deal worth up to $12 million in incentives. Jameis has been the odds-on favorite to win the starting job out of training camp since after the draft despite Taysom Hill getting the call with Brees out of the lineup for four starts in 2020. Winston might be the most “DGAF” quarterback of all time as evidenced by his 2019 season in Tampa when he finished with an incredible 33:30 TD-to-INT ratio while leading the league with 5109 passing yards. Winston headed to New Orleans last off-season to rehabilitate his game, much like Teddy Bridgewater did before him, but HC Sean Payton elected to play Hill over his new pet project. Winston threw only 11 passes in the regular season (none of which were picked off!) and his biggest moment of the season came on a 56-yard TD pass to Tre’Quan Smith on a trick play in the Divisional Round. Winston has arm talent and a lot of the qualities coaches look for in a quarterback, but the big question coming into the 2021 season is did he learn how to curb his turnovers while learning under Payton for a season. Winston’s track record suggests mistakes will be made and Payton isn’t going to tolerate turnovers so Hill could get a chance for significant playing time at some point. Even if Winston holds off Hill, Tayson still figures to be a thorn in Winston’s side since he’ll be involved in goal-line packages. Payton could also be more willing to turn to Hill early in the season since they may have to execute a more run-heavy attack with Michael Thomas (ankle) expected to miss at least the first month of the season. This season should see a couple of plot twists for these Saints’ quarterbacks but Winston still has some upside and he’s worth a look in two-QB formats.

Alvin Kamara (Proj: RB4 | ADP: 3 | Pos ADP: RB3)

Kamara comes into the 2021 season as the reigning top-scoring fantasy back on a per-game basis (25.2) and overall (377.8) after posting 187/932/16 rushing (5.0) and 83/756/5 receiving (9.1 YPR) across 15 games. Kamara’s Christmas Day performance in the fantasy finals will forever live on in fantasy lore. He tied an NFL record with six rushing TDs against the Vikings, and he had the sixth-best fantasy performance for a running back since 1950. Kamara would likely be challenging Christian McCaffrey and Dalvin Cook for top-two fantasy status if it weren’t for Drew Brees’ retirement this off-season. Kamara averaged four targets per game in Taysom Hill’s four starts and 7.4 targets per game in 11 contests with Brees last season. Hill is also a threat to steal more goal-line carries after he accounted for four rushing TDs in his four starts so Kamara drafters may be better off with Jameis Winston getting the most quarterback snaps. Kamara is still playing behind an elite offensive line and he’s as dangerous as any player in the league with the ball in his hands. He could also see a boost in targets early in the season with Michael Thomas (ankle) set to miss at least the first month of the season — Thomas leaves behind a bare-thin receiving corps. Kamara has more question marks than in years past with Brees’ retirement, but he’s still locked in as an elite fantasy option who should be drafted inside the top-five picks in all non-two-QB formats.

Latavius Murray (Proj: RB40 | ADP: 126 | Pos ADP: RB47)

Murray has found his niche as the steady #2 runner and the insurance policy for his team’s top back over the last three seasons behind Dalvin Cook (2018) and Alvin Kamara (2019-20). Latavius has seen exactly 146 carries in each of his first two seasons in the Big Easy and he’s averaged 41.7 rushing yards per game with nine rushing TDs in that same span. He’s also been more involved as a receiver than most would think with a combined 57/411/2 receiving. Murray was an RB1 option in his two games without Kamara in the lineup back in 2019, posting a silly 48/221/3 rushing (4.6 YPC) and 14/86/1 receiving on 18 targets in those contests. Latavius could be an overlooked beneficiary from Michael Thomas’ absence to start the season. The offense should skew more run-heavy with Thomas out of the lineup since they’ll be left with one of the worst receiving corps. He would also benefit from more starts by Taysom Hill as he saw his most carries in a two-game span (31) in Weeks 11-12 with Hill in the lineup last season. It doesn’t hurt that Murray will be running behind one of the league’s elite offensive lines, per Ross Tucker. Murray will once again be one of the better handcuffs to target in the RB4 range, and he’ll be a waiver wire priority during the season if Kamara misses any time.

Michael Thomas (Proj: WR37 | ADP: 28 | Pos ADP: WR9)

Thomas is coming off a frustrating 2020 in which he failed to score a touchdown and he played in just seven games because of a high-ankle sprain. He also comes into the 2021 season with an uncertain quarterback situation after his boy, Drew Brees, announced his retirement this off-season. It wasn’t too shocking then that his ADP had sunk to its lowest mark (in the third round) since his rookie season in 2016…and that was before we learned he’ll miss the first 1-2 months of the season after undergoing ankle surgery in June. Thomas suffered the innocuous-looking injury at the end of the 2020 season opener when Latavius Murray clipped the back of his legs, and Thomas would never be the same the rest of the season. He made two different appearances on the injured reserve for the issue on his way to finishing with career-lows in receptions (5.7), receiving yards (62.6), and targets (7.9) per game. He also finished with the third-most targets (55), receptions (40), and receiving yards (438) without a touchdown catch last season. When Thomas is eventually healthy enough to play, he’ll be teaming up with Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill on a full-time basis after playing mostly with Brees in his first five seasons. On a promising note, he held a healthy 37% target share and he averaged 7.5/85.8 receiving on 9.3 targets per game in the four contests started by Hill last season. Thomas should remain among the league leaders in target share when he’s in the lineup as the Saints have one of the weakest receiving corps with the likes of Adam Trautman and Tre’Quan Smith as his top lieutenants. Thomas was a third-round pick before news broke in late July about his ankle surgery and he’ll now be drafted as a boom-or-bust WR3/4 going forward. Thomas has the potential to put fantasy teams over the top late in the 2021 season if owners are able to survive the first month or two of the season without him. He could also be a wasted pick if he struggles to get healthy and he looks like a shell of himself like he was for most of the 2020 season.

Tre’Quan Smith (Proj: WR59| ADP: 185 | Pos ADP: WR71)

Smith has quietly been a big winner this off-season with Drew Brees retiring and with the Saints getting weaker at receiver, but he’s been forgotten about because of the underwhelming start to his career after the Saints drafted him 91st overall in 2018. He’ll have no excuses if he disappoints again this season and his profile is suddenly on the rise with Michael Thomas expected to miss 1-2 months to open the season. Veterans Emmanuel Sanders (Bills) and Jared Cook (Chargers) got squeezed out of New Orleans because of their salary cap situation, which opened up the 10th-most targets (174) in the league. The Saints also passed on drafting receivers through the first four rounds of the draft to solidify his position as the #2 WR in New Orleans’ new-look offense in 2021. Smith should be able to easily reset the career-best numbers he set last season when he posted 34/448/4 receiving on 50 targets in 14 games. Smith’s speed (4.49) and size (6’2”, 210 pounds) have been wasted with Brees at quarterback with his aDOT sitting at just 9.0 yards in each of the last two seasons. His depth of targets should increase by a couple of yards this season with much more aggressive downfield throwers taking over in Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill. Brees also had the tendency to lock in on his top two targets, Thomas and Alvin Kamara, who saw 52% of the targets when they were in the lineup last season. Thomas and Kamara will continue to dominate targets when they’re in the lineup, but passes should be at least a little more evenly distributed than they have been in recent years. In fact, Smith saw 6+ targets in just two games in which Thomas also appeared last season and both of those games came with Hill at quarterback. Odds are that Smith won’t be a true fantasy difference-maker this season, but he’s still in by far the best situation of his career and no one should be stunned if he breaks through. Don’t be afraid to draft him as a WR5 just in case he puts it all together.

Marquez Callaway (Proj: WR68 | ADP: 446 | Pos ADP: WR135)

Our Greg Cosell first turned us onto Callaway last year, who went undrafted out of Tennessee in 2020. He has a very similar size (6’2”, 204 pounds) and speed (4.55) profile as Tre’Quan Smith, whom he’ll be battling for the #2 WR spot along with Deonte Harris and a host of others. The Saints WRs will also be battling with Adam Trautman to be the #1 target for Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill in the first month or two while Michael Thomas is out of the lineup with his ankle injury. Callaway was once a coveted four-star safety prospect out of high school before he switched to WR with the Volunteers. He had a moment as a rookie with Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders out of the lineup in Week 7 as he posted 8/75 receiving on 10 targets against the Panthers before he injured his ankle late in the game. Callaway ended his rookie season with 21/213/0 receiving on 27 targets in 11 games as he missed time due to knee and ankle injuries. He should see a significant uptick on his 36% snap share from a year ago after the Saints failed to meaningfully upgrade their receiving corps after Sanders got pushed out because of their salary cap situation. Callaway is a player to consider drafting in the final rounds of the best ball leagues with Thomas now out of the lineup to start the season. Callaway will be off the radar in all but the deepest season-long formats but he’s a player to monitor in case he emerges as the #2 WR in New Orleans.

Adam Trautman (Proj: TE16 | ADP: 148 | Pos ADP: TE17)

Trautman has been one of the most popular second-year breakout receivers, and he’s steadily seen his ADP rise this summer since the Saints did nothing of note to address the departures of Jared Cook and Josh Hill this off-season — they added Nick Vannett to be an inline blocker in 12 personnel sets. His ADP is likely to keep rising the rest of the summer with Michael Thomas out for the first 1-2 months of the season. The Saints traded a small farm to draft Trautman in the third round last year in preparation for Cook’s departure after the 2020 season. He’s set to see a significant uptick in playing time after he totaled 15/171/1 receiving on 16 targets while playing 39% of the snaps in 15 games. Trautman is built like a three-down TE at 6’6”, 253 pounds, and he posted a 96th-percentile three-cone drill (6.78 seconds) at the combine — his 4.8 40-time was less impressive. He has the chance to carve out a significant role in this passing attack this season with the Saints vacating the 10th-most targets (174) this off-season. Drew Brees retired after the 2020 season but the ascension of Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill to the top of the depth chart might not be the worst thing for the second-tier options in this passing attack. Brees had the tendency to lock in on his top two targets, Thomas and Alvin Kamara, who saw 52% of the targets when they were in the lineup last season. Thomas and Kamara will continue to dominate targets when they’re in the lineup, but passes should be at least a little more evenly distributed than they have been in recent years. Trautman is unlikely to go from the Saints’ bench as a rookie to an elite fantasy option in his second season at 24 years old, but his situation is good enough to break into the top-12 at the position after being drafted as a mid-TE2 this summer. He’s also the type of player who could surge in the second half of the season when he gets more playing time under his belt so don’t be afraid to add him off the waiver wire if a frustrated owner drops him early in the season.

Hansen’s Final Points

The Saints are in big trouble this year given their lack of talent at the skill positions other than star RB Alvin Kamara, and in my opinion, there’s only one scenario at QB that appeals to me: Taysom Hill being the clear starter. But it’s a serious battle between Hill and Jameis Winston for the gig, and it’s going to be a close call as to who wins it. It’s my contention, given their dearth of talent at receiver, that Hill should be the guy. At least with Hill and his running ability, they can manufacture production on offense. The Saints were also 3-1 in Hill’s starts, and Hill posted a strong 72% completion rate with a solid 7.3 YPA, and Hill added 209 yards and 4 TDs on the ground. With Michael Thomas’ status in doubt to open the season and with him expected to miss multiple games, the Saints should roll with a run-heavy offense, and with Hill. In the early days of camp, Hill did get the first rep with the ones, but Jameis has also looked good, so this battle is hardly over. Hill’s being drafted as a QB3, so the cost versus the upside is quite appealing, especially in best ball. But let’s see if he clearly wins the job. As I write this on July 30, he’s been the top QB in practice the first two days of camp.

Even if Jameis Winston clearly wins the job over Taysom Hill, Winston could still be quite frustrating. If the Saints pulled HOFer Drew Brees for Hill in critical situations last year, and they did, they will certainly yank Jameis off the field for Hill. I just don’t see Jameis at this point making their young players and their offense overall much better, so I question the point of starting him. If anything, the point could be that the best way to take advantage of both players is to start Jameis and liberally work Hill into the mix. But that’s not ideal for fantasy. And Winston could also get pulled at any moment if his turnovers aren’t under control. The status of Michael Thomas is also a huge question. Winston’s ADP of 175 isn’t very expensive, yet I see a ton of players I like more going off the board around that time, even some QBs. In short, as far as I’m concerned, you can have Winston.

It’s well established that Alvin Kamara is one of the better talents to ever play the position, and the Saints OL is one of their core strengths as a team, but we do have some problems and concerns after Drew Brees’ retirement. Kamara’s target number dropped 3.4 targets a game without Brees last year, and while Jameis Winston starting would likely help, Winston isn’t nearly the checkdown QB Brees is. Still, Kamara owners and fans should root for Jameis to win this job, since Taysom Hill is a bigger threat to vulture short TDs than Jameis. At least his target total should see a boost as long as Michael Thomas is out, but Kamara has more questions than ever this year, and I can see why someone would knock him down to the 6-7 range overall by taking comparable options in better situations (like Ezekiel Elliott). We’re very used to his “good Kamara” but this year there’s some potential “bad Kamara” with Brees gone.

While starter Alvin Kamara is looking shakier this year, Latavius Murray might actually be looking better than he was heading into last year. Murray has seen exactly 146 carries in each of his first two seasons as a Saint, but while we have that number rising to only 150, it’s a fairly conservative projection, and we have his catch totals rising from 14 to 25. Murray isn’t a brilliant pick at his ADP of 125 overall and RB45, but we do have him at RB40, so we’d take him a round earlier with or without Kamara on our roster. He is a handcuff who’s costly, but he’s also a great handcuff, so he’s worth it (he was an RB1 in two games without Kamara in 2019). As mentioned above, Murray could benefit from Michael Thomas’ absence to open the season, as they go with the run more, and he saw his most carries in a two-game span (31) in Weeks 11-12 with Taysom Hill in the lineup last season.

There’s two ways to look at Michael Thomas now that we know his status is questionable and his return to the lineup unclear. On one hand, he will be majorly discounted in drafts, so considering you won’t take a zero while he’s out with a replacement player, Thomas owners could easily benefit from his depressed price. On the other hand, Thomas’ ankle issue has been a problem for almost a full year, so even if he’s set to return to the lineup in Week 4 or so, it’s no lock that we’re good with Thomas. Thomas last year did click well with Taysom Hill, so Thomas owners may actually be rooting for Hill to win the job. MT had a massive 37% target share and he averaged 7.5/85.8 receiving on 9.3 targets per game in the four starts by Hill last season. Ultimately, I think I’d rather preach caution on Thomas and hope he slips to a “no-brainer” range where he’s a value no matter what rather than being overly aggressive. But until we get more info on his health and target return date, it will be tough to figure out when Thomas does actually stand out as a good pick. For now, I have that as the seventh round of a 10 or 12-team league, but check our rankings and article updates on him all summer for the latest before your draft.

Generally speaking, if a wideout is going to break out and show us the best he has to offer, it happens no later than year three, which isn’t a great sign for the underwhelming Tre’Quan Smith. He did show progress last year, his third in the league, and he filled in well for Michael Thomas, which he will have to do again early in the 2021 season. The Saints lost veterans Emmanuel Sanders and Jared Cook, and they didn’t do much in the draft to address the receiver in free agency and the draft, so Smith has an excellent opportunity this year, which is the final year of his rookie deal. There’s a chance that his upside hasn’t been realized due to Drew Brees’ weaker arm and poor downfield mojo lately, as Smith’s aDOT is sitting at just 9.0 yards in each of the last two seasons. Smith saw 6+ targets in just two games in which Thomas also appeared last season, and both came with Taysom Hill. But he also clicked in limited snaps with Jameis Winston, so Hill may be in good shape regardless. Ultimately, I’m not counting on this three-year underachiever, but I’m willing to take a shot if I’m looking for some upside 150 picks into a draft. It would help my confidence if he had a strong showing all summer, so we’ll see.

As soon as the Michael Thomas news came down on July 23, my first thought was of Marquez Callaway, for what it’s worth. Obviously, Tre’Quan Smith is the obvious choice to benefit from the situation, but Callaway probably sees the biggest spike in terms of expectations and role. Once a coveted four-star safety prospect out of high school, Callaway converted to WR and went undrafted. Sean Payton does love his unknown pet projects, and Callaway looked really intriguing heading into Week 7, and he posted 8/75 receiving on 10 targets, showing some nice potential. We still have to see him perform well in camp and settle near the top of their depth chart, but he’s definitely a candidate to haul in 50+ catches, so he’s a good flyer very late for most.

It was a small sample size, but I thought rookie TE Adam Trautman looked good last year and moved really well. Expecting him to bust out in 2021 is expecting a lot, but he couldn’t ask for a better opportunity, and he is a high-level prospect. He had only 16 targets as a rookie, but he impressively caught 15 of them for 171/1. The Saints have vacated the 10th-most targets (174), and QBs Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill should be solid options in terms of getting him the ball (especially Jameis, who has worked well with TEs in the past). He’s only a TE2 and he can’t be truly counted on, but he also strikes me as the type of player who could surge in the second half of the season and then create a ton of hype for him the following year.

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