Fantasy football players need to be prepared for the wave of ripple effects across the entire New Orleans offense, depending on which player earns the starting gig. Both quarterbacks offer different pros and cons, so savvy drafters will need to adjust their expectations for the running backs, wide receivers and tight ends as soon as a starter is determined.
2021 Team Preview
Based on betting odds (-190) from DraftKings SportsBook, Winston is the frontrunner to be under center Week 1. Yet, the fantasy football market believes it will be Hill based on ADP (QB28), which three spots higher than his teammate's (QB31).
The betting odds might sound counterintuitive, considering the Saints had an opportunity to start Winston last season but instead opted for Hill during Drew Brees’ absence.
But the Saints made that decision because they learned their lesson when they showcased Teddy Bridgewater in 2019. Teddy Two Gloves balled out in the team's favorable scheme and then signed with the Carolina Panthers. To prevent another team from plucking Winston, New Orleans kept him behind closed doors and played Hill to see what he could offer at quarterback.
To Hill’s credit, he played well. He posted the league’s highest adjusted completion percentage (83%) and performed admirably within the structure of the offense. For fantasy purposes, Hill was a revelation.
The Saints’ tight-end-turned-quarterback averaged 22.6 fantasy points per game — sixth-best over that time. His rushing production — 209 yards and four touchdowns — massively boosted his numbers. If Hill is named the starter, his rushing upside alone would easily make him a top-12 option at the position.
However, aside from Hill's rushing talent, the offense otherwise remained status quo as it did with Brees under center. Hill’s average depth of target (7.3 yards, 34th) was hardly an upgrade over Brees (6.6).
As a result, New Orleans finished last in deep ball rate (6.4%). The Saints also leaned more on the run (28th in neutral game script pass rate, 53%), a far cry from their prior rate the past five seasons (fourth in neutral game script pass rate, 61.4%). Expect head coach Sean Payton to take full advantage of Winston’s arm talent next year by having him throw more overall and take more shots downfield.
Payton entrusted Winston’s arm strength last season, bringing him in during the playoffs to launch a deep shot and spark the offense.
Nothing to do with college football, but Jameis Winston is spinning it
— PFF College (@PFF_College) January 18, 2021
The buzz this offseason regarding Winston has been all about him working on his deep ball with several Saints wide receivers. Winston’s average depth of target ranks first since 2019, so it’s not hyperbole to say bombs are coming in the Big Easy; it’s fact.
That would make Winston an enticing late-round quarterback option, as he's just one season removed from a QB3 overall fantasy finish. But the glaring issue is that with No. 1 wide receiver Michael Thomas sidelined for at least the first six to eight weeks of the season due to injury, Winston’s fantasy potential is severely compromised.
The injury also makes it less likely that the Saints feel confident starting Winston at all. Hill’s rushing ability enables New Orleans to add an extra layer to an already run-heavy offensive approach that Winston can’t offer.
The strategy also allows them to double-down on featuring their best offensive player through all facets of the game plan.
RB ALVIN KAMARA
Kamara was listed under “Buyer Beware” in the original version of this preview because of all the question marks within New Orleans' offense.
But the aftermath of the Michael Thomas injury has increased Kamara’s ranking from No. 6 to No. 4 in PPR. And that’s because he will now undoubtedly become the focal point of head coach Sean Payton’s offense, much like he did last year when Thomas missed time. In those eight games, Kamara averaged 20.5 touches, 8.3 targets and 24 expected fantasy points per game.
However, fantasy drafters can’t take those splits as an exact projection of Kamara’s 2021 outlook because there are other variables outside of the Thomas situation that need to be considered. First, Thomas isn’t going to miss the entire season. His return will decrease Kamara’s target share.
Second, none of the games Thomas missed last season coincided with either Hill or Winston under center. When Hill started, Kamara’s target share tanked (21% versus 13%) as a result of the quarterback’s tendency to run.
Having Winston at quarterback won’t be nearly as detrimental for Kamara, but the quarterback’s ability to throw downfield could hurt his bottom line as a receiver. Winston’s average depth of target ranks first since 2019.
The fact that it’s no longer Brees under center is not ideal for Kamara. In nine games without Brees over the past two seasons, he averaged 15.9 fantasy points per game. In 20 games with Brees, he averaged 24.3 fantasy points per game. And although Kamara’s workload should increase without Thomas, the overall efficiency of the offense could dampen his opportunity.
Last season, no team averaged more red-zone plays per game (13.7) in the span of Thomas being healthy. Without him, the Saints’ red-zone plays per game (11.0) fell to 10th.
Kamara’s fantasy floor increased following Thomas' injury, but an RB1 overall repeat is unlikely playing in an offense poised to take a step back in 2021. No player finished with more fantasy points over expectation last season, which is a dead giveaway that regression is approaching.
The hope is Kamara makes up more production as a rusher. Payton leaned more on his star running back on the ground at the end of the 2020 season. Kamara set a career-high in rushing attempts in Week 16 (22) and then did one better during the wildcard playoff game (23).
New Orleans Saints second-year tight end Adam Trautman was a mega-producer in college, scoring nearly 20 fantasy points per game, and he displayed flashes of that upside as a rookie. In addition to finishing as PFF’s No. 1-graded run-blocker (86.9), Trautman led all tight ends in catch rate (94%) and finished third in yards after the catch per reception (7.7).
Jared Cook‘s absence is also big for Trautman, as the veteran tight end has led the team in end-zone targets the past two seasons. Touchdowns are essential for tight ends to be fantasy-relevant, and those high-value opportunities give Trautman a chance to break out in Year 2.
He and Winston should have a chance to build a strong connection in the red zone, as the polarizing passer has found success targeting his big-bodied tight ends in potential scoring situations. Since 2015, Winston has 32 passing touchdowns and zero interceptions when targeting tight ends in the red zone.
Bearing in mind that Brees has the highest passer rating (110.6) when throwing in the red zone over that same time period, anticipate the Saints' passing attack to thrive in scoring situations.
Jameis Winston in a nutshell
32 TDs and ZERO interceptions targeting TEs in his career in the RZ
*Adam Trautman tweet* https://t.co/9H6ZmfQG6q
— Andrew Erickson™ (@AndrewErickson_) August 9, 2021
Former 2020 undrafted free agent Marquez Callaway is turning heads at Saints training camp. By all accounts, he has stepped right into the No. 1 role vacated by Michael Thomas, and that's not surprising.
Last season, Callaway ranked in the 95th percentile in separation rate while playing 75% of his snaps on the outside. The 6-foot-2 receiver also commanded 10 targets in Week 7 and averaged eight targets in the two games he played with at least a 50% snap share.
Callaway is the primary fantasy wide receiver to target in New Orleans.
Third-year wideout Deonte Harris is the most intriguing player among the ancillary New Orleans Saints receivers. He put together a huge game in the Wild Card round of the playoffs last season — seven catches for 83 yards — and his season-long PFF receiving grade (79.5) ranked 23rd in the league.
since 2019 among 145 qualifying wide receivers.
26th in yards per route run (1.92)
18th in target rate per route run (22.5%)
122nd in yards per route run (1.06)
144th in target rate per route run (10.6%)
— Andrew Erickson™ (@AndrewErickson_) July 9, 2021
Harris also finished seventh in yards after the catch per reception (6.8, min 30 targets) and 24th in yards per route run (1.98).
Harris is also an electric returner (top-eight in punt return average the last two seasons), so there’s plenty to like about him entering Year 3 with the Saints. He ranked near the top of the league in both vacated air yards and targets in 2020. Chasing receivers who have shined as return specialists can be a winning proposition. Tyreek Hill led the league in punt return yards in his rookie season.
With 4.35-second wheels and an impressive yards per catch mark (18.3) during his final year in college, Harris has big-play upside written all over him with Winston at quarterback.
So Deonte Harris might be a little more involved than anyone envisioned.
Regardless of who’s under center…
— Elvin Ryan (@ElvinRyan_FF) August 5, 2021
Just be aware that Harris will face a two-game suspension to open the 2021 season.
Thomas is going to have to fall dramatically in fantasy drafts to be worth taking a flier on. There’s no telling how effective he will be coming off his ankle procedure, and holding a roster spot for up to seven weeks when waiver wire moves need to be made is something no fantasy gamer should have to deal with.
Not to mention, Thomas’ latest cryptic tweet shouldn’t elicit much confidence about him being in a good place with the Saints’ organization after reportedly “ghosting” the team for three months.
What’s Michael Thomas trying to tell us? ???? pic.twitter.com/MgZWaaJ0DK
— PFF (@PFF) August 9, 2021
Simply put, unless Thomas falls significantly behind his new ADP (WR38) — he is borderline untouchable inside the top seven rounds.
Fourth-year wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith has the highest ADP at the position on the team behind Thomas, but he’s shown almost zero progression throughout his three NFL seasons. He had a unique opportunity to step up in Thomas’ place last year but ended the campaign with his worst PFF grade (61.9) to date.
Fantasy gamers are chasing his touchdown production — 16 scores since 2018 — despite the poor efficiency metrics suggesting to stay away. Since 2019, Smith ranks 122nd in yards per route run (1.06) and second-to-last in target rate per route run (10.6%) among 145 qualifying wide receivers.
Meanwhile, Harris — available at the end of every best ball draft — ranks 26th in yards per route run (tied with Terry McLaurin) and 18th in target rate per route run (22.5%) among the same qualifiers.
Don’t be surprised if Callaway or Harris finishes as the most productive wide receiver on the Saints in Thomas’ absence