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 (-250) and average draft position (QB25), Winston is the frontrunner to be under center Week 1, as he should be. This 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 makes Winston an enticing late-round quarterback option (ADP at QB25), as he's just one season removed from a QB3 overall fantasy finish.
The newly upgraded quarterback situation also bodes well for No. 1 wide receiver Michael Thomas.
Contrary to the popular belief that Thomas runs just slants, he’s been one of the best wide receivers on targets of 15-plus air yards. His PFF receiving grade (97.8) on those long passes ranks fourth-best since he entered the NFL. Thomas’ No. 1-ranked catch rate (66.2%) is nearly six percentage points higher than the next best player (Tyreek Hill, 60.4%). And Thomas has dropped just one of his 156 targets of 15-plus yards.
Michael Thomas’ career catch rate (66.2%) on targets 15-plus yards downfield is nearly six percentage points higher than the next highest player (Tyreek Hill, 60.4%)
enough of the Slant Boy slander. ????
Thomas will BALL with Jameis Winston's arm talent this year???? pic.twitter.com/U4Sb6U5xMu
— Andrew Erickson™ (@AndrewErickson_) July 10, 2021
Winston ranks third in pass attempts of 15-plus air yards since 2015, despite not starting last season. The Thomas-Winston pairing has the chance to be deadly in 2021, but Taysom Hill earning the job shouldn’t deter fantasy gamers from Thomas’ Round 3 ADP.
From Weeks 11-14 with Hill under center, Thomas commanded a 33% target share, earned a 90.5 PFF receiving grade and averaged an elite 2.86 yards per route run — a mark that bested his career average (2.45).
Thomas is a screaming value heading into 2021, regardless of who's under center.
RB Alvin Kamara
Alas, the same can’t be said for star running back Alvin Kamara. The quarterback ambiguity has suppressed Thomas’ draft price, but Kamara still requires a top-five overall draft selection. That’s not ideal because Brees’ absence could have a much bigger effect on Kamara’s fantasy output than many realize.
In nine games without Brees over the past two seasons, Kamara averaged 15.9 fantasy points per game. In 20 games with Brees, he averaged 24.3 fantasy points per game.
Just last season, Kamara saw a massive decrease to his target share with Hill under center (13% versus 21%) as a result of the quarterback’s tendency to tuck and run. Having Winston at quarterback won’t be nearly as detrimental for Kamara, but the quarterback’s ability to throw downfield (versus a noodle-armed Brees) could hurt Kamara’s bottom line as a receiver.
And although it’s not nearly discussed as much as the quarterback splits, a healthy Thomas in the lineup also greatly impacts Kamara’s targets. The pass-catching back’s target share fell from 22% to 17% in games played with Thomas.
Kamara’s talent is the driving force behind his ADP, but signs point to him not repeating his fantasy RB1 performance of 2020. No player finished with more fantasy points over expectation last season, which is a dead giveaway that regression is approaching. That’s why he’s not ranked among my top five running backs for 2021.
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.
praying Jameis Winston starts for New Orleans so he can turn 2nd-year TE Adam Trautman into 2nd-year 2018 O.J. Howard – PFF’s second-highest graded tight end (88.9) and crusher of my 2019 fantasy teams pic.twitter.com/xSlztahcmv
— Andrew Erickson™ (@AndrewErickson_) May 6, 2021
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.
— Nick Underhill (@nick_underhill) June 28, 2021
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 Harris finishes as the second-most productive wide receiver on the Saints. He’s the NFL’s best-kept secret.