2020 Fantasy Preview: New Orleans Saints

Corey Saucier continues the 2020 Team Preview series with a fantasy-focused look at the New Orleans Saints.

New Orleans Saints

 

There are only three constants in life; death, taxes, and New Orleans Saints’ skill players putting up gaudy fantasy numbers. With the whole starting crew back at the helm, there’s nothing to suggest that we should expect anything different this season. While the Saints haven’t been able to turn their fantasy production into much playoff success over the past few seasons, there are some pieces on their roster that you will want to reach for if you want to raise your league’s fantasy trophy at the end of the season.

At 41, indeed, QB Drew Brees isn’t getting any younger. He may have lost some zip on his deep ball over the past couple of seasons, but he’s still one of the most accurate quarterbacks to ever play the game, and he should provide QB1 numbers at a decent value. WR Michael Thomas and RB Alvin Kamara are both currently going within the top-6 overall in most formats – especially PPR. It’s hard to oversell either of these guys – as they should both finish as a top-tier player at their respective positions. TE Jared Cook also has a chance to improve on his output from last season with another year’s worth of chemistry to tap into. With the addition of a true WR2 in Emmanuel Sanders, this year’s offense could be even more explosive than it has in years past. Let’s dive into this year’s team and gauge how productive they can potentially be.

  

Quarterback

 

Drew Brees

ADP: 79.1, QB7

We all know that last year wasn’t a typical season for Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints’ offense. Brees missed 5 games due to a torn ligament in his throwing hand, and remarkably the now-departed Teddy Bridgewater won all 5 starts in Brees’ absence. While it’s true that Brees has lost some zip on his deep ball, he still looks as accurate as ever and is poised to contribute mid to low-end QB1 value for the 2020 season.

Brees arguably boasts as quality a stable of weapons as any QB in the league. Adding Sanders to the wide receiver room will only help to take some pressure off of Thomas and the rest of the Saints’ pass-catchers throughout the season. Sanders excels running underneath routes and slants – working outside or in the slot. Brees has proven over the past few seasons that this combination of routes and formations is a successful formula with Thomas, and it’s safe to assume that Sanders will fit in nicely with Sean Payton’s scheme. Boasting arguably the best offensive line in the NFL, the Saints only allowed Brees to be sacked 9 times in his 11 games played last season. The Saints added an interior offensive lineman (Cesar Ruiz, Michigan) in the 1st round of this year’s NFL Draft as well. Brees should have plenty of time in the pocket to go through his progressions and find his open receivers – as he has done so well throughout his entire career.

Brees is one of the oldest QBs in the NFL at 41 years old, but there’s nothing that suggests that his abilities will fall off considerably. With a much-improved defense and solid running game, Brees won’t be putting up his gaudy fantasy numbers of old. That being said, he is still a probable option to finish as a QB1 and should have no problems returning value on his 8th-round ADP. 

 

Best Case Scenario

Brees stays healthy all year and posts around his career averages for another 4,000 yards and 30 touchdown season, finishing as a mid-level QB1.

 

Worst Case Scenario

Brees misses more time due to injury or just completely falls off a cliff as his passes lack the necessary zip. The Saints rely on Kamara and the defense more than ever, and Brees has a high-end QB2 season.

 

2020 Projection: 386 Completions, 528 attempts, 73.1% completions, 4112 passing yards, 32 passing touchdowns

 

Running Back

 

Alvin Kamara

ADP: 4.4, RB4

Let’s just go ahead and say it – last season was a disappointment for Alvin Kamara from a fantasy perspective. He missed time due to a high-ankle sprain suffered in Week 6 against Jacksonville (along with knee and back issues) and never quite looked like himself afterward – he gained 100 or more yards from scrimmage in only 4 of his final 11 games. According to Kamara himself, he played most of last year ‘at about 75%.’ He posted career lows in total yards (1,330), touchdowns (6), and PPR PPG (19.5). 

Even though Kamara finished with his least productive season from a scoring standpoint, he still ended up as a low-end RB1. He was still able to post a respectable 4.7 YPC (ahead of backs like Saquon Barkley and Aaron Jones) and finished with 81 receptions for the 3rd straight year. Going into this season at 100% healthy, Kamara is a strong bounce-back candidate with RB1 overall upside. 

One knock against Kamara’s upside is the fact that he will never be a true ‘bell cow’ running back, and that is true. Sean Payton schemes New Orleans’ offense to exploit mismatches, and while Kamara himself is nearly always a mismatch, there are plenty of talented playmakers alongside him who will command touches. Kamara’s bread-and-butter has always been his insane efficiency and explosiveness – both of which were hampered by his injuries last year. It stands to reason that Kamara should see positive regression in the touchdown column, both rushing and receiving, which would return him to the fantasy dominance that we are used to.

 

Best Case Scenario

Kamara finishes with a McCaffrey-esque 1,000+ rushing and receiving yards and nearly 20 touchdowns as he contends for RB1 overall status.

 

Worst Case Scenario

Kamara gets bitten by the injury bug, yet again, and slips into low-end RB1/high-end RB2 territory.

 

2020 Projection: 202 Carries, 897 rushing yards, 9 rushing touchdowns; 102 targets, 83 receptions, 642 receiving yards, 7 receiving touchdowns

 

Latavius Murray

ADP: 101.9, RB43

In his first season in New Orleans, Latavius Murray showed flashes at times but was ultimately too inconsistent to cement himself as a fixture in most fantasy lineups. In the two games that Kamara missed due to injury (Weeks 7 and 8 vs. Chicago and Arizona respectively), Murray stepped up in a big way – finishing with 32 points against Chicago and 37.7 against Arizona (in PPR formats). In the rest of his 14 regular-season appearances, he failed to break 12.7 PPR points in any of them. Murray averaged 31 touches in the 2 games that Kamara was out last season, and he only averaged 8.4 touches in the 14 games that Kamara also played.

This tells us that we shouldn’t expect this backfield to resemble the 1A + 1B punch we saw from Kamara and Mark Ingram in seasons past (I’m looking at you, 2017). This is a true 1-2 backfield dynamic where we can expect Kamara to receive the bulk of the work and Murray to spell Kamara with more of a complementary role. If Kamara were to miss any time in 2020, Murray should be considered a higher-end handcuff – but Murray’s standalone value tends to hover around the RB3/flex tier. It’s worth noting that Murray earned similar red-zone usage to Kamara in 2019, so Murray may be a threat to poach a touchdown or two away from Kamara in 2020. That being said, there’s no reason to believe that Murray will carve out much more of a role for himself in this Saints’ offense than we saw last season.

 

Best Case Scenario

Murray receives more work due to more Kamara injuries and finishes as a solid RB2. As Brees slows down, more and more work goes to the running game, and Murray takes advantage.

 

Worst Case Scenario

Murray receives fewer than 10 touches a game and offers little fantasy consideration beyond his handcuff value. He’s a wasted roster spot as fantasy managers await an injury that never comes.

 

2020 Projection: 122 carries, 552 rushing yards, 4 rushing touchdowns; 33 targets, 23 receptions, 118 receiving yards, 2 receiving touchdowns

 

Wide Receiver

 

Michael Thomas

ADP: 6.3, WR1

I have to be honest, it’s difficult to find new, exciting ways to express just how dominant Michael Thomas has been throughout his 4-year career – but here’s my attempt to do just that. For starters, Thomas had more receptions (149) last season than any player has ever had in any season in NFL history. Yes, that is actually correct. No player in NFL history has had more catches in a season than Thomas did last year. And even with a record-breaking number of catches and an obscene number of targets (186!), Thomas still led the league in True Catch Rate at 94.9% per FantasyData. In layman’s terms, this means that Thomas caught 95% of the catchable passes thrown his way – which is just outrageously efficient. 

When off-the-charts volume meets off-the-charts efficiency, what do you get? A clear-cut WR1 ADP over all formats, that’s what! Now, I’ll be the first to say, it would be almost silly to expect Thomas to match last year’s productivity or efficiency. Adding Sanders to the mix will almost certainly cut into Thomas’ usage – not to mention a 100% healthy Kamara and the rest of New Orleans’ playmakers. 

One thing is for certain, however – the chemistry between Thomas and Brees has become a force in this league that is nearly impossible to defend. Getting back to Thomas’ insane efficiency and production last season – he accomplished these things while averaging only 3.6 yards of cushion per target (tied for 70th) and only 1.36 yards of separation per target (good for 53rd). So while it’s fair to say that Thomas was not even close to the best wide receiver at getting separation, it’s also clearly fair to say that he was the best at catching the ball regardless. 

Thomas is just entering his physical prime at age 27, and while it isn’t plausible to expect him to break the receptions record in back-to-back years, it’s more than fair to expect him to return value on his ADP and finish near (if not at) the top of the WR rankings at the end of the year. Thomas is possibly the safest pick in 2020 fantasy drafts.

 

Best Case Scenario

Thomas finishes as the WR1 overall while surpassing 2,000 receiving yards. He finds the end zone more often and finally achieves double-digit TD receptions. 

 

Worst Case Scenario

Thomas somehow only catches 100 or so balls and barely breaks 1,000 yards and finishes as a mid to low-end WR1. His relative lack of big play ability hurts him without the insane volume of 2019.

 

2020 Projection: 148 targets, 129 receptions, 1528 receiving yards, 11 receiving touchdowns

 

Emmanuel Sanders

ADP: 99.5, WR39

After a respectable output last year as a member of both the Denver Broncos and the San Francisco 49ers, Emmanuel Sanders finds himself in New Orleans – where he’s sure to benefit from joining up with one of the most accurate quarterbacks to ever play the game in Brees. Sanders will likely steal some targets from Thomas, as well as inherit the vacated targets from the departed Ted Ginn Jr. It will be interesting to see how (and where) Sean Payton chooses to use Sanders. 

There have only been a few seasons where Sanders has lined up primarily at the slot – his first two seasons in the league in Pittsburgh, and his injury-shortened 2018 campaign in Denver. Payton’s idea to cultivate Saints’ 3rd-year receiver Tre’Quan Smith as their primary slot receiver has been less than fruitful so far. Might Payton elect to try Sanders in the slot to start the season? Will Smith be able to step up and start in the slot to leave Thomas and Sanders with the majority of the outside snaps? It is a situation that will be worth monitoring as we start to hear chatter from training camp.  

Wherever Sanders lines up, it’s safe to assume that he will be able to produce numbers on par with his past few seasons. He’ll have the best quarterback throwing to him since Peyton Manning in 2014, a season Sanders finished with a 101/1404/9 stat line. It would be hard to imagine Sanders being so heavily utilized in this Saints’ offense, but somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 targets doesn’t seem unreasonable for him.

 

Best Case Scenario

Sanders finishes as a high to mid-range WR2 as he develops chemistry with Brees almost immediately. A secondary receiving option that was sorely lacking, Sanders blows past 80 targets and puts his injury troubles behind him.

 

Worst Case Scenario

Sanders misses time due to injury and his season ends early. I hate to even mention player injuries at all, but as long as Sanders is healthy, I don’t see him having a finishing any lower than a WR3/WR4. He should be able to produce in this system as long as he’s on the field.

 

2020 Projection: 87 targets, 62 receptions, 758 yards, 6 receiving touchdowns; 11 carries, 88 rushing yards, 1 rushing touchdown

 

Tre’Quan Smith

ADP: 215, WR95

This could likely be a make-or-break season in New Orleans for 2018 3rd round pick Tre’Quan Smith. He’s missed time due to injury in both of his first two seasons and hasn’t been able to carve out a role for himself in this offense quite yet. When you have Michael Thomas as an option to throw to, why would you want to throw to anyone else?

Oftentimes a WR will take a few seasons to adjust to the NFL game, and that is perhaps the case with Smith. Smith has amassed only 46 receptions on 69 targets through his two seasons, and he should be afforded more work with the departure of Ted Ginn, Jr. The addition of Emmanuel Sanders won’t negatively affect Smith much, so long as he’s able to secure the starting slot role. It will also be worth keeping an eye on whether or not Smith has put his ankle injuries behind him fully and can start the season at 100%

 

Best Case Scenario

Smith stays healthy, plays the majority of snaps from the slot and progresses, finishing as a WR4/WR5.

 

Worst Case Scenario

Smith performs much like he has the last couple of seasons, making him irrelevant in redraft leagues.

 

2020 Projection: 48 targets, 26 receptions, 218 yards, 3 receiving touchdowns

 

Tight End

 

Jared Cook

ADP: 110.1, TE11

It was a tale of two seasons for Jared Cook in his first year in New Orleans. It seemed as though the injury to Brees was as damaging to Cook’s fantasy prospects as anyone else’s. Cook failed to find much chemistry with then Saints’ backup QB Teddy Bridgewater, but once Brees returned from his injury (and Cook from his own), Cook went on to catch 7 TDs from Brees in the Saints’ final 7 games. Cook should only develop more chemistry with Brees throughout the offseason – and while Cook may improve on his 43 catches and 705 yards from last season, it’s tough to imagine him finishing with 9 or more TDs again this year. 

 

Best Case Scenario

Cook stays healthy and develops more of a rapport with Brees, finishing as a mid-tier TE1. His touchdowns from 2019 are no fluke, and Brees looks his way a few more times in their second year together.

 

Worst Case Scenario

Cook misses time or cedes work to rookie TE Adam Trautman. Cook regresses on his high touchdown total and gets surpassed by Sanders in the pecking order, finishing as no more than a TE2.

 

2020 Projection: 65 targets, 43 receptions, 672 receiving yards, 6 receiving touchdowns

 

 

Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)

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