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I have tried for days to concoct a way to overstate Michael Thomas’ domination of the Saints’ passing offense.
I have failed. There is no way to overstate it.
The Saints’ passing offense isn’t just centered on Thomas, who will miss the early portion of the regular season while recovering from June ankle surgery, He is the team’s passing offense. He’s accounted for an astounding 32 percent of the Saints’ targets in his 23 regular season games since the start of the 2019 season. Forty-one percent of the team’s air yards belong to Thomas over that stretch -- the highest rate in the league over the past two years. Thomas has 128 -- one hundred and twenty-eight -- more receptions than any other Saints wideout and has accounted for 47.6 percent of the team’s receiving yardage over that span.
Thomas’ early-season absence opens up opportunity unlike any scenario in the league, besides, maybe, Davante Adams missing time for Green Bay.
We’ll soon learn -- maybe this week, maybe not until the middle of August -- how long Thomas will be sidelined. Are we talking a couple weeks? A month? A half season? Saints beat writer Nick Underhill reported last week that Thomas could be out as long as the season’s first six weeks. This sort of guessing game is indeed a dangerous game to play for fantasy managers engaging their galaxy brains and drafting a guy still struggling with an injury he suffered ten months ago. We played the game with Jamaal Charles a while back; it didn’t work out.
That Thomas’ absence will affect every fantasy-relevant member of the New Orleans offense is undeniable. It’s only a matter of how much the injury will alter the fantasy value of his Saints teammates.
I’ve consulted my gut on what the Thomas injury news means for the Saints’ training camp quarterback competition and my gut has reported that Taysom Hill now has a better shot at securing the Week 1 starting gig.
Let my gut explain: Coming into the season with a depressingly depleted wide receiver group, Payton and the team’s coaching staff are likely to revert to a quirkier, more conservative passing attack while keeping the ball on the ground for as long as possible -- something resembling Denver’s Tebow-led offense of yesteryear. And that means putting Hill in the backfield alongside Kamara and Latavius Murray, forcing defenses to defend the pesky read-option with a QB with ample read-option experience and the rare quarterback ability -- and willingness -- to bulldoze oncoming defenders in short yardage situations.
There’s a far better chance Payton goes with a Hill-led offense that won’t involve much targeting of wideouts during Thomas’ absence rather than an offense guided by Jameis Winston, a more traditional pocket passer who is something short of ideal for running a hyper-conservative passing offense.
I’m on record, for better or worse, as saying Kamara -- after the Thomas injury news -- should rival Christian McCaffrey for the first overall pick in PPR formats this summer. No running back in the game will see as much pass-catching opportunity as Kamara for as long as Thomas is recovering from his never-ending ankle issue. Not even CMC.
Probably you’re scoffing. That’s fine. I get it. Drew Brees is retired, you mutter, infuriated by the CMC slander. Kamara won’t get a dozen dump offs like he did with the weak-armed late-career Brees under center. Considering Sean Payton was intent to lean on his superb backfield in the team’s post-Brees offense, this seems like a dangerous assumption. Kamara was second on the team in target share (18 percent) over Taysom Hill’s four late-season starts. While it was a distant second to Thomas’ 33 percent target share with Hill under center, Kamara remained a central part of the New Orleans passing game.
Kamara becomes the team’s No. 1 pass catcher with Thomas out. We saw him vacuum up 25 percent of the team’s targets when Thomas was sidelined for eight weeks in 2020, notching a cool 30.9 PPR points per game. Kamara, headed into Week 10 last year, was fantasy’s RB1 in PPR leagues, 62 points clear of the No. 3 running back, Derrick Henry, and 97 points clear of fantasy’s 12th highest scoring running back. Dalvin Cook was the only back in Kamara’s universe.
Nick Underhill of NewOrleans.com said in the aftermath of the Thomas news that “Kamara should see heavy usage and get touches somewhere in line with what he saw last season.” Instead of playing near the line of scrimmage, serving as a checkdown option for latter day Brees, Underhill said the Saints and their bigger-armed QBs could deploy Kamara more in the slot and as a downfield pass catcher, like he did as a rookie. Kamara in 2020 ran 12.3 percent of his routes from the slot, a far cry from the 22.8 percent slot rate he saw in his 2017 rookie campaign, when he just so happened to notch a career high 10.9 yards per reception. A return to that usage could add much-welcomed big play potential to Kamara’s fantasy outlook -- as if he could be more appealing.
I'm of the controversial opinion that Payton isn't a dummy: He knows what he has in Kamara, the most patient, elusive, explosive open field running back in the league. Tre’Quan Smith -- whom I’ve written about below -- is not going to be force fed in Thomas’ absence. Neither is Adam Trautman in his first year as a pass-catching threat. Kamara is set to resume his domination of the Saints’ passing game for as long as Thomas is working back from his injury.
Trautman could be the quietest beneficiary of Thomas’ absence. With Emmanuel Sanders -- who commanded 22 percent of the team’s targets with Thomas out in 2020 -- signing with Buffalo this offseason, Trautman already had a chance to absorb a chunk of the Saints’ vacated targets. Trautman’s range of outcomes certainly includes serving as the team’s No. 2 pass catcher behind Kamara for as long as Thomas is out.
Trautman, a plus athlete who compares favorably to Dallas Goedert, per PlayerProfiler.com, will serve as the team’s primary pass-catching tight end following the departure of Jared Cook to LA. A Thomas-less New Orleans receiver group means the team heads into 2021 with the NFL’s worst wideout room. Instead of figuring out how much target volume Tre’Quan Smith, mostly used as a situational deep threat in his first two years in New Orleans, will get in Thomas’ absence, fantasy managers would do well to consider Trautman as a later-round option who could easily emerge as an every-week starter in 12-team formats. Thomas sidelined means Kamara is Trautman’s only legit competition for targets.
In his four 2020 starts, Hill targeted tight ends on 16 percent of his attempts. Trautman, for whatever it’s worth, caught five of five targets from Hill for 36 yards. A low-volume New Orleans passing attack led by Hill would necessarily mean fewer looks for Trautman (and every pass catcher), though his appeal lies in his role security and the Grand Canyon-sized hole in the team’s 2020 target distribution.
Murray quietly accounted for 31 percent of the Saints’ rushing attempts in 2020, a mere nine percent less than team leader Kamara. Below is Murray’s opportunity and production in Hill’s four starts, because, remember, we’re assuming Hill heads the Thomas-less New Orleans offense.
Murray had two fewer rushing attempts than Kamara with Hill under center last season. Week 11, if you’ve somehow forgotten, was the Saints’ thumping of the QB-less Broncos. The Saints sat on the ball for three quarters after seizing the lead against a Denver offense that was never going to sniff the end zone -- or the Saints’ half of the field.
Murray’s fantasy production has hinged entirely on positive game script: In 2020, he averaged 11.2 rushing attempts in Saints wins, about double what he averaged in losses. He notched 10 rushes per game in 2019 New Orleans wins, and a measly 5.6 in losses.
Whether the depleted Saints -- whose defense could be quite bad this year -- can stay in games and create the sort of game script necessary for Murray to thrive is a real question. My hairbrained theory that Payton and the Saints will shift to a radically different, run-heavy offense could blunt the effect of game script on Murray’s weekly opportunity. The team is never going to treat Kamara as a traditional workhorse, leaving open the chance Murray will see double-digit touches while Thomas recovers -- and maybe afterward.
Murray, who would be something close to a three-down back should Kamara miss time, should once again be a mainstay on Zero RB rosters in 2021.
Smith is unquestionably the team’s No. 1 wideout with Thomas sidelined. Whether that means much in an offense that could look very different in 2021 is anyone’s guess.
Smith has been efficient with the few targets he saw in the team’s Brees-led offense. Only 23 receivers have a higher fantasy points over expectation than Smith since he entered the NFL in 2017. His strengths -- downfield patterns, mostly -- didn’t mesh with Brees’ limited arm strength over the past few years.
Enter Hill (or Winston) and Smith suddenly has a quarterback with the arm strength to complete the post routes, corner routes, and go routes in which Smith excels (and has since college). Smith, in Thomas’ seven-game absence last season, was third on the Saints with a 14 percent target share -- a number helped by Emmanuel Sanders missing two of those games. He was second only to Sanders in air yards during that span.
If Winston takes the Week 1 starting gig and the Saints try to run the same offense they’d use with Thomas in the lineup, Smith has clear fantasy value as a high-end WR3 with all the big-play upside you could want in a late-round dart throw.
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Note that NFL Network’s Gregg Rosenthal said on a recent Good Football Show that Callaway is the only Saints player he would draft this season. It’s a strong stance. You have to respect it.
Callaway -- quite shockingly for DFS players -- was the team’s WR1 in Week 7 last season without Thomas or Sanders and in the lineup. Running two fewer pass routes than Smith, Callaway drew a team-high ten targets, catching eight for 75 yards. He was deployed primarily as an outside receiver but ran 11 routes from the slot (Smith ran half his routes from the slot that week). Like Smith, Callaway did a lot with a little in his rookie campaign: He caught 21 of 27 targets on the season for 213 yards (10.15 yards per catch). It was encouraging for a rookie who was active for just 11 games.
A plus athlete with an 82nd percentile burst score and an age-19 breakout at Tennessee, Callaway becomes very interesting in deeper formats. Only the most ardent Tre’Quan Smith truther would say Callaway can’t overtake Smith as the team’s No. 1 wideout while Thomas is sidelined.