Juggernaut Index, No. 2: Saints remain a perfect fantasy machine

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<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/players/5479/" data-ylk="slk:Drew Brees">Drew Brees</a> and Sean Payton have been a pretty decent quarterback-coach combo over the years. Keep investing in the Saints’ offense, fantasy owners. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)
Drew Brees and Sean Payton have been a pretty decent quarterback-coach combo over the years. Keep investing in the Saints’ offense, fantasy owners. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)

The offense of the New Orleans Saints, in the Drew Brees-Sean Payton era, has been all but unstoppable, a ludicrously dominant group. The Saints have ranked either first or second in total yardage in nine of the past twelve years, including the last four. This team has never finished outside the league’s top-six in total yards since Payton was hired in 2006.

Brees, of course, is one of the most prolific and efficient passers the NFL has ever seen. He ranks first all-time in both passing yards per game (282.9) and completion percentage (66.9). This year, early in the season, he’s going to break Peyton Manning’s career passing yardage record — perhaps at home against Washington in Week 5. By the end of 2019, there’s a good chance he’ll have taken Manning’s touchdown record, too. There have been nine individual seasons in NFL history in which a quarterback has passed for over 5000 yards, and Brees has five of them. No other quarterback has more than one.

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You can sort your greatest-of-all-time list any way you like, but you can’t leave Brees’ name out of the mix.

Drew Brees remains a magician

Many fantasy owners, maddeningly, were a bit underwhelmed by the season Brees delivered in 2017. It’s true that his passing volume decreased, as New Orleans established an outstanding multi-back running game. Let’s just please recognize the fact that Brees actually produced one of the best campaigns of his Hall of Fame career last year. He broke the single-season record for completion percentage while also leading the NFL in yards per attempt (8.1). New Orleans ranked fifth in the league in passing (261.8 YPG), which cannot be considered a disappointment by any reasonable standard. Brees himself finished fourth in yardage (4334) and produced the lowest interception rate of his career (1.5). He was indisputably, inarguably great. Hasn’t lost a thing.

But the Saints’ running game, buttressed by an elite O-line, was also among the NFL’s best. New Orleans led the league in rushing scores (23) and ranked second in yards per carry (4.7). Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram both ranked among the top-six fantasy commodities at their position. The Saints achieved a level of run/pass balance this team hasn’t had since the Super Bowl season, and it took a slice out of Brees’ raw passing totals.

It’s important to note, however, that if Brees had simply matched his career TD rate of 5.3 percent (as we should expect him to do), he would have thrown 28-29 touchdown passes. Had that happened, the fantasy community wouldn’t have had any beef with his otherwise brilliant season. Brees should continue to be viewed and drafted as a top-five fantasy QB, but he often falls outside that range. Draft him with total confidence.

Michael Thomas, under-hyped star. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Michael Thomas, under-hyped star. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Michael Thomas is this team’s unchallenged No. 1 receiver

There was a time when the Saints passing game was a spin-the-wheel exercise, but it’s clear who the lead receiver is on this squad. Thomas drew 149 targets last season and 122 the year before. He’s opened his career with back-to-back 1100-yard seasons, catching 14 TD passes in the process. There’s simply no question he’s a WR1 for fantasy purposes, a guy who deserves an early-second round ADP. Thomas is fully capable of producing a season that looks like a prime Jimmy Graham campaign. If you like size/speed/hands combo receivers tied to upper-tier offenses, Thomas is your kinda player.

This team’s second and third most targeted receivers last season were actually Kamara (100) and Ingram (71), so don’t bank on New Orleans delivering another starting-quality fantasy wideout. Ted Ginn has a clear shot at a top-45-ish positional finish, but he’s a boom/bust receiver, difficult to forecast in any given week. He’s not an ideal starter in 10 or 12-team leagues.

Cameron Meredith had the look of an interesting sleeper in mid-summer, but he was outplayed by third-round UCF rookie Tre-Quan Smith in preseason action. Meredith was also sidelined by injury for a portion of camp, and he’s returning from an ACL/MCL tear. Smith is perfectly healthy and coming off a buzzy camp, plus he feasted during preseason play (15-189-1). He offers size (6-foot-2), leaping ability (37.5-inch vert), wingspan and speed (4.49). Smith is a fun prospect, capable of carving out a meaningful role in this receiving corps. He’s a priority player in dynasty and a reasonable late flier in redraft formats.

Ben Watson returns to New Orleans following a 61-catch season for Baltimore, so his name now tops the depth chart at tight end. Watson is ancient by NFL standards (37), but it wouldn’t be much of a shock if he caught 5-6 TD passes in this offense. Tight end is a talent-rich position, of course, making Watson an option only for deep-league gamers.

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/players/30180/" data-ylk="slk:Alvin Kamara">Alvin Kamara</a>’s fantasy setup is just about ideal. Draft and enjoy. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Alvin Kamara’s fantasy setup is just about ideal. Draft and enjoy. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Alvin Kamara should see all the work he can handle

Just so we’re clear, Kamara is not going to continue to average 6.1 yards per carry, as he did last season. No one does stuff like that over multiple years. Jamaal Charles is the NFL’s all-time leader in YPC among backs with over 1000 rush attempts, and his career rate is 5.4. But Kamara is definitely going to see a spike in workload this season, so it’s perfectly fine if he takes a backward step in per-touch efficiency. Mark Ingram’s four-game PED suspension all but guarantees an increase in usage for the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year.

As of this writing, the key running backs on the Saints’ 53-man roster are Kamara, New England castoff Mike Gillislee and diminutive rookie Boston Scott. (Ingram is on the reserve/suspended list to open the season.) Preseason standout Jonathan Williams was a surprise cut. Scott has drawn comparisons to Darren Sproles — both are tiny and elusive — but the team isn’t likely to ask him to fill Ingram’s role. Gillislee is a good bet to see a handful of carries each game, including the occasional touch in goal-to-go situations. He hasn’t caught more than nine passes in any pro season, though, so he shouldn’t be any sort of factor as a receiver.

Kamara, for now, appears to be a lock to see an uptick in touches in the season’s opening month. He can’t possibly add Ingram’s full workload to his own, but the team is going to lean on him. It’s an ideal fantasy setup.

Marshall Faulk and Roger Craig are the only backs in league history to have 1000 rushing and 1000 receiving yards in the same season; it’s not crazy to imagine Kamara making a run at that club in 2018. Kamara delivered 1554 scrimmage yards last season on only 201 offensive touches. He also ranked third at his position in targets (100) and second in receptions (81), so he’s a monster in PPR formats. (Or any format, really.)

Scott Pianowski doesn’t want you to mess around with Ingram anywhere near his ADP (RB24), which is perfectly reasonable. But I’ve been willing to buy when he drops outside the top-60 picks. My feeling is that it’s never easier to manage around a suspension or injury than in September, before the byes. Ingram averaged 18 touches per game in a dynamic offense last season, scoring 12 touchdowns and gaining 1540 scrimmage yards. No one on the current roster (aside from Kamara) is a serious threat to steal a significant percentage of his workload. I don’t expect him to get Snead’d, post-suspension. He remains on the fantasy radar; every player has an appropriate draft price. Ingram shouldn’t need to be eased back into the mix when he’s available. He’s a potential difference-maker in December.

Saints D opens with a friendly schedule

The Superdome has been a defense-optional zone at times, but not last season. New Orleans ranked tenth in the league in scoring defense (20.4), tied for seventh in sacks (42) and tied for ninth in turnovers (25). This is a fantasy-relevant group. Cameron Jordan is a wrecker of game-plans and Marshon Lattimore was a terrific as a rookie. This team faces the Bucs (with Fitz), Browns and Giants in three of the first four weeks, so takeaways should be plentiful.

2017 Offensive Stats & Ranks

Points per game – 28.0 (fourth in NFL)
Pass YPG – 261.8 (5)
Rush YPG – 129.4 (5)
Yards per play – 6.3 (1)
Plays per game – 62.4 (21)

Previous Juggernaut Index entries: 32) Buffalo, 31) Miami, 30) NY Jets, 29) Baltimore, 28) Oakland, 27) Cleveland, 26) Indianapolis, 25) Washington, 24) Chicago, 23) Tennessee, 22) Jacksonville, 21) Dallas, 20) Tampa Bay, 19) Cincinnati, 18) Denver, 17) San Francisco, 16) Arizona, 15) Seattle, 14) Detroit, 13) Carolina, 12) Houston, 11) Philadelphia, 10) Green Bay, 9) Atlanta, 8) Kansas City, 7) NY Giants, 6) LA Chargers, 5) New England, 4) Minnesota, 3) LA Rams, 2) New Orleans

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