Welcome to my new series, where I will take a deep dive into each NFL division, looking at what mattered in 2019, which of course shapes what will matter in 2020. This series will provide in-depth, team-by-team analysis on coaching, offensive lines, running games, and passing attacks.
I grabbed my advanced stats and metrics from Player Profiler, Pro Football Focus, Football Outsiders, and Sports Reference.
Watch for updates during Training Camp/Preseason.
New Orleans Saints
Since Drew Brees’ age 37 season in 2016, Sean Payton has slowly started to dial things back. While everyone thinks of the Saints as a run and gun team (they used to be one of the fastest-paced teams in the league), the Saints have actually been one of slowest since 2017. Approximately 100 players per season have been shaved off since Brees turned 38. While pace and overall volume will most likely stay the same, the question is, how will the ratios skew this season? Will it be 57%+ passing? Or regress back to the sub-54% split we saw in 2017 and 2018?
The Saints’ offensive line remained elite in 2019. They ranked first in adjusted line yards and third in adjusted sack rate. It would be tough for this line to get even better. That being said, if there is one position that could use an upgrade during the offseason, that would’ve been LG Andrus Peat. Instead, the Saints decided to cut Larry Warford despite him grading out in the top 15 among guards, according to PFF. The Saints will insert their first round pick, Cesar Ruiz, to fill Warford’s place as they move towards a more athletic offensive line.
A combination of opportunity and injury were a factor in Alvin Kamara’s down 2019 season. The question is, how much did the injury affect the opportunities? Despite the ankle injury that clearly hampered him, Kamara still ranked 5th in targets. (Note: he also had the lowest YPR of his career at just 6.6, which was even lower than Leonard Fournette). Kamara also ranked 3rd in receptions, 7th in juke rate, and 11th in evaded tackles.
Over the course of three seasons, it seems Kamara’s expected TDs have evened out. He overproduced in 2017 and 2018 and then underproduced in 2019. A large factor for the lack of touchdowns was red zone touches. In 2018, Kamara had 72 red zone touches. In 2019, he had just half of that total (36) and also lost 60% of his goal line carries. The Saints’ pass-to-run ratio skewed more heavily on the passing side than in seasons past.
With Kamara entering 2020 fully healthy, a bounce-back campaign (Top 7?) is in order. Payton might want to scale back the workload closer to 2018’s 275 touches instead of the 300+ he was on pace for in 2019 before suffering the injury. The increased workload could have led him to receiving the most big hits in the league.
Brees threw the football just 536 times in 2017, and just 489 times in 2018. In the 10 healthy games Brees played last season, his usage increased (which would have resulted in a near-600 attempt season). Was this a result of Kamara’s injury? The answer could be somewhere in between.
Michael Thomas had a historic season… do not expect that sort of production in 2020. He still remains the projected overall #1 wide receiver, but the gap is much smaller than last season. Can he continue to catch 80%+ of his targets? We can expect a decrease in overall targets for Thomas with a healthy Kamara and Jared Cook. WR Emmanuel Sanders signed to play on the opposite side and he can replicate a lot of what Thomas does, making the two of them pretty much interchangeable.
It’s been a while since Brees has had an actual number two wide receiver and the Saints finally gave him one with the signing of Sanders this offseason. A sharp route runner with pristine hands, Sanders fits the Saints offense really well. Still, it’s plausible to see him producing more of a WR3/bye week fill-in season in 2020 with Kamara and Cook also siphoning targets as secondary options behind Thomas.
Cook served as the home run threat for New Orleans last season as a seam stretcher and tight end that can line up outside. He led the team in yards per reception. He also tied Thomas with 9 TDs. Cook is a shoe-in top 10 tight end with big-play ability giving fantasy teams a winning upside advantage.
The Saints continue to over use Kamara leading to more injuries.
Brees gets hurt for a third consecutive season. (He hurt his shoulder and played through it in 2018.) Fortunately, the Saints have a fantasy-capable backup in Jameis Winston.
With news that Brees has will be heading to NBC when his two-year, $50 million contract is up, the Saints appear to be going all in now. They selected guard Cesar Ruiz in the first round and then traded up for their other three selections. Linebacker was one of the few needs for New Orleans, and they traded up in the third round to select Zack Baun, who many considered a fringe, first-round talent. They then traded three picks for small-school TE prospect Adam Trautman who, at 6’5” and 255 pounds, put up a monster 70-916-14 line in his final season at Dayton.
Dan Quinn returns to Atlanta, hoping to finally turn around the Falcons defense while Dirk Koetter continues to run the offense. Koetter’s offenses have historically moved with pace and are extremely pass heavy. The Falcons passed the ball 684 times in 2019, a 65.4% rate, the highest in the NFL. Even if the defense improves, or the running game gets some better health along the offensive line, you can still expect a minimum 60/40 pass-to-run split from this offense.
The Falcons tried to address offensive line needs in the 2019 draft. However, injuries prevented those dreams from coming true. With better health and Chris Lindstrom/Kaleb McGary entering year two, Atlantas is hoping to field an above-average offensive line in 2020.
After giving back-to-back seasons of 280+ touches to a undersized De’Vonta Freeman, injuries began to mount, which led to a loss in explosion and ranked Freeman outside the top 40 in juke rate, breakaway run rate, and yards created per carry. While the blocking was not great, Freeman was clearly not the player who put up top ten RB numbers in 2015 and 2016. The Falcons cut Freeman in March (with three years left on his contract) and gave a one-year, prove it deal to Todd Gurley.
Gurley, who has a degenerative knee issue, clearly did not have the same burst as in years past. He had his workload in Los Angeles cut down and was barely used in the passing game last season. He was unable to crack 900 yards rushing and ranked 41st in yards after contact (after ranking in the top 10 in 2018). Since this is a one-year deal, maybe Atlanta gives him as much as he can handle, boosting his volume while still providing plenty of scoring opportunities. That could allow him to score double-digit TDs again. Gurley is a mid-low end RB2 with upside if he can capture some of his pre-injury form on an explosive offense.
Going a little unnoticed, the Falcons’ passing game performed with the likes of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season (but with fewer turnovers). As a team, Atlanta threw for over 5,000 yards with 29 TDs and just 15 INTs. Matt Ryan is a safe QB1 who doesn’t require the same sort of high capital investment in fantasy leagues.
WR Julio Jones will turn 32 this season, where wide receivers tend to start seeing a dip in production. While he “looked” good on film and put up counting stats as good as ever, it seemed his consistency or presence on the field was not as strong as in years past. Once Calvin Ridley got hurt, Ryan was forced to pepper Jones over the last three games of the season. Jones was targeted 48 times in that three-game span. He still projects as a top five wide out for 2020.
With TE Austin Hooper and WR Mohamed Sanu now off the team, Ridley steps into a clear number two role instead of a 2A-2B situation. In four games without Sanu, Ridley caught at least five passes for 76 yards in each game (including a game where he left with an injury), while totaling three touchdowns in those games. A voluminous passing game, downgrades to their WR3 and TE, and with an aging Jones possibly showing signs of a slow down, Ridley is primed for a breakout season. Jones and Ridley should form an elite duo this season, with both finishing as WR1’s, a la Chris Godwin and Mike Evans in 2019.
The Falcons allowed Hooper to leave in free agency and then promptly traded a second-round pick for former first-rounder Hayden Hurst. Hooper was more of a possession-style tight end, compiling plenty of counting stats in the second halves of blowout games. Amazingly, 60% of his receptions, 62% of his yardage total, and five of his six touchdowns came in the second half of games last season. Meanwhile, Hurst will provide more of a seam-stretching role at tight end. Koetter has coaxed large fantasy seasons out of his tight ends in the past (Mercedes Lewis, Tony Gonzalez, Cameron Brate, O.J. Howard, and Hooper all come to mind). Hurst is a nice, late-round tight end target with a solid floor and a decent ceiling.
The offensive line remains a mess. Gurley is Devonta Freeman 2.0, resulting in a repeat of the running game’s inability.
Passing game options look fool-proof unless volume is severely impacted by a major turnaround on defense, therefore limiting ceilings.
The Falcons focused on defense in this draft, with four of their six picks being spent on defensive players. While that truly is a need for Atlanta, the problem is they clearly reached in the first round on CB A.J. Terrell (who was Sports Info Solutions’ 15th overall corner). The smarter play would have been either drafting highly-regarded prospect WR Ceedee Lamb, or to trade down and accumulate more draft capital. The Falcons’ draft strategy increased my confidence that they will be playing in shootouts and that the massive passing volume will be in tact for another season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No risk it, no biscuit! Bruce Arians enters his second season as head coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Since leaving Pittsburgh in 2012, Arians’ teams have averaged top 5 in plays per game (66) and his quarterbacks have not thrown for less than 562 attempts. At his core, Arians runs a spread offense with a lot of vertical routes for splash plays. The Bucs ranked #1 in deep attempts per game last season and #1 in intended air yards per pass attempt. Even going back to 2008 in Pittsburgh, Arians’ offenses have never ranked lower than 17th in total passing yards for a season. While there is volume for running backs to put up elite numbers, that seems to be more dependent upon whether his teams are winning or losing. He doesn’t force it.
Tampa Bay’s O-line was average in 2019, ranking 22nd in both adjusted sack rate and adjusted line yards. They were better in pass protection than they were in run blocking last season (considering everyone knew that they wanted to pass early and often). The Bucs ranked in the top 10 in pocket time and ranked middle of the pack in both hurries and QB hits allowed. Run blocking was absolutely an issue as Tampa Bay only averaged 1.8 yards before contact, a bottom 5 figure in the league. While part of that absolutely was on their running backs, Peyton Barber received over 150 carries and averaged just 1.3 yards before contact. The offensive line was a priority in this year’s draft and the Bucs traded up a spot to ensure they were able to select Tristian Wirfs. Wirfs is an extremely athletic tackle who will not only beef up their run blocking, but will also help ensure new quarterback Tom Brady has above-average protection to take those intermediate-to-deep shots Arians likes to call.
Only David Johnson in 2016 has recorded over 220 carries in an Arians offense. Arians does not believe in heavily prioritizing the running back position as far as assets go. Ronald Jones is a capable back, but really struggled in pass protection and is not the best receiving back. In the third round of the NFL draft, Tampa Bay selected Ke’Shawn Vaughn. At 5’10” and 215 pounds, Vaughn has the three-down skil lset that should allow him to stay on the field in all game situations. First, he needs to win the starting running back job out of camp. If he does, a top 20 season could be in the bag, with the potential for a much higher ceiling than that.
Brady leaves the New England Patriots at age 43. While there are some obvious signs that he is not who he once was, there are some numbers that show the presumed decline may be overstated. Last season was the first since 2015 that Brady ranked outside the top 12 in adjusted deep ball percentage (ADB%) and that just so happens to coincide with arguably the worst supporting cast Brady has played with in New England. In 2017, with Brandin Cooks and Rob Gronkowski at his disposal, he ranked 6th in ADB%, and in 2018 (after Cooks was traded and he got nine games out of Josh Gordon), Brady ranked 12th. He now has either the best wide receiver duo he has ever had in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. The issue that should worry people is not his deep ball, but rather how Brady fares when he faces pressure. Once known as a blitz destroyer, Brady has ranked outside the top 20 in adjusted pressure completion percentage the last two seasons, ranking between players like Baker Mayfield/Jameis Winston (2019) and Baker Mayfield and Josh Rosen (2018). That being said, Brady was a top 12 quarterback last season and will likely remain a QB1, albeit with a much higher ceiling and the ability to finish in the top 7. (Let’s face it. It will be tough for TB12 to crack the top 5 without rushing stats.)
With Brady as QB, Evans’ and Godwin’s ceilings are probably not as high as they were with the gunslinging Winston, but the weekly floors should be more stable.
At 6’5″ and 230 pounds, Evans is the NFL’s premier, big-bodied bully outside receiver. In essentially 12 games, he finished as a top 10 WR in 2019, racking up a 67-1,157-8 line. Evans averaged the highest number of deep targets per game, and ranked top 10 in yards per route run as well as red zone target share. He had some wild spike weeks last season, with seven games under 70 yards and three games over 180 yards, but he also scored 6 of his 8 TDs in those three games. With Brady under center, Evans should experience more consistent production from week to week. He should still finish as a WR1, and as mentioned above, his spike weeks may not be as large.
Godwin ran 65% of his snaps out of the slot last season and should experience a much more stable floor than Evans, the same as he did last season when he produced over 70 yards in 8 of the 13.5 games that he played in (while doubling the amount of 100-yard games that Evans had). Godwin ranked top 10 in yards per route run, 3rd in contested catch rate, 3rd in YAC/reception, and had just one drop on 120 targets in 2019. Brady loves his undersized, agile slot receivers; just imagine how much he is going to love a 6’1″ 210-pound, 96th-percentile SPARQ-X slot receiver. Godwin is locked in (at the minimum) as a top 10 WR and should finish on the higher end rather than the lower end of that range.
After a season off, Rob Gronkowski is back. Between his illustrious history with Brady and his elite blocking skills, Gronk will immediately become the Bucs’ top tight end. Brady gets a friendly face to join him in Tampa and one with whom he has obvious chemistry with, especially in light of the COVID-19 situation. In 2018, while he wasn’t the same player we were accustomed to due to a mountain of injuries, Gronk still ranked:
- 12th in targets
- 12th in receptions
- 6th in yards
- 6th in air yards
- 5th in yards/reception
The biggest difference/downfall was his hog rate, which dipped from 9th to 28th. However, with a season off to rest his body and still only 31 (just 6 months older than Travis Kelce), the upside is obviously massive.
O.J. Howard will now be Tampa Bay’s backup tight end. In the long run, however, maybe a season or two behind Gronk will do him some good.
At 43 years old, Brady hits the Peyton Manning cliff and torpedoes the entire offense. Ceilings are capped by Brady not being nearly as turnover prone as Winston and this defense ranked 5th in DVOA last season.
The Buccaneers addressed immediate needs and building blocks for the future in this year’s draft. Wirfs was their first selection; he is arguably the most athletic tackle in the draft and will be an immediate upgrade. In the second round, Tampa Bay selected Antoine Winfield Jr., a safety with ball-hawking ability. Winfield will be added to a defense that was fifth in DVOA last season. After producing in the SEC with arguably the worst offensive line in college football, Vaughn will come in with a chance to win a three-down role in the backfield. His best comparable on PlayerProfiler is Dalvin Cook. Tampa Bay used its fourth round pick to trade for Gronkowski, and they were able to grab fantasy community favorite Tyler Johnson in the fifth round. It’s not impossible to think that Johnson could become the team’s third wide receiver behind Evans and Godwin.
New head coach Matt Rhule will take over the Carolina Panthers as a “team builder” while bringing in wonder boy Joe Brady as his offensive coordinator. Brady spent two seasons as an offensive assistant in New Orleans under Sean Payton and then went to LSU in 2019 where he put together a historical college offense. Under Brady last season, the Tigers emphasized three and four vertical routes, heavily targeting the top two wide receivers (Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase) and running back (Clyde Edwards-Helaire) out in space (very similar to what the Saints do).
The Panthers’ line was a disappointment last season after Matt Paradise and Daryl Williams failed to live up to expectations. They let Williams walk in free agency and Paradise did not look like the same player that he was in Denver. In addition, while Russell Okung is a good player, Carolina traded for him by sending Trai Turner (a superior player) to the Chargers. The Panthers were in position to address their need at offensive line in the draft (picking at number seven), but their defense is a mess and they elected to try and fill a need there instead.
Christian McCaffrey is arguably the best running back in the game right now and ran for over 1,300 yards on 287 carries. He was top 7 in breakaway runs and 3rd in evaded tackles. CMC touched the ball over 400 times in 2019, which usually has not fared well for players the following season.
What separates McCaffrey from other backs is his receiving usage. CMC became the first running back in the NFL with back-to-back 100-reception seasons and he has the third-most receptions among all players over the past three seasons, just behind Michael Thomas and De’Andre Hopkins.
The Panthers signed Teddy Bridgewater to a three-year deal this offseason. While Bridgewater is not a top-half starter in the league, he is better than Kyle Allen. Bridgewater is more of a short-to-intermediate area thrower and can be quick to check down instead of looking to throw to his vertical routes. He was with the Saints when Joe Brady was an assistant there which should help with the transition process.
D.J. Moore is one of the best YAC wide receivers in the game today and perfectly meshes with Bridgewater’s preferred style of play. Moore ranked 16th in yards per route run in 2019 and broke the 11th-most tackles among wide receivers. After a slow start to the season, Moore went on a nine-game stretch before getting hurt where he averaged 10.4 targets and 6.7 receptions for 91 yards per game. That is a Michael Thomas type season prorated over 16 games. Moore remains locked in as a WR1 with a huge upside.
Carolina gave Robby Anderson a two-year contract providing them with a true speed field stretcher on the outside (and familiarity with Rhule, as he played for him at Temple). Anderson’s fantasy stock seems to have taken a large hit with his signing in Carolina (unless Brady can find a way to coach Bridgewater into taking more deep shots down the field).
While Curtis Samuel saw the most unrealized air yards in the NFL last season, the Anderson signign would seem to move Samuel where they can use his runing back agility and playmaking (he was an RB in college) into the slot. They’ll be able to motion him from side-to-side and set him up for some quick jet sweeps out of the backfield.
Check-down Teddy seems like a perfect fit for Moore, McCaffrey and TE Ian Thomas. CMC and Thomas, however, operate in the same areas of the field, most likely limiting Thomas’ ceiling to a TE2 with streamable weeks.
Russell Okung’s injury concerns continue and the offensive line gets worse allowing Bridgewater to take a beating.
The defense looks like one of the bottom five in the NFL. While garbage time is valuable in fantasy, this could also limit Panthers players’ ceilings by limiting time of possession/plays run, a la the 2019 Cardinals.
The Panthers made history by using all seven of their draft picks on defensive players. Carolina addressed their offense in free agency by trading for LT Okung and signing Anderson to round out their WR corps. The front seven of this defense has changed drastically with Luke Keuchly retiring, and DTs Dontari Poe and Gerald McCoy and DE Mario Addison (the team’s sack leader in 2019) leaving via free agency. The Panthers immediately filled those losses with their first two picks, Derrick Brown and Yetur Gross-Matos, and later selected the massive, 330-pound DT Bravvion Roy to help fortify their front seven. Then they addressed their secondary needs after letting James Bradberry pursue greener pastures. One of their second-round picks was used on safety Jeremy Chinn, who garnered some late, first-round/early second-round buzz. Then, with their fourth and fifth round picks, Carolina selected CB Troy Pride to play opposite Donte Jackson (and make up possibly the fastest CB duo in the NFL) and a centerfield-type safety in Kenny Robinson, who PFF graded as the 90th-best overall player in the draft.
Carolina could surprise some people, especially week-to-week, but relying upon so many rookie pieces on defense makes more sense long term than short term.
Things to note for the upcoming 2020 season
- Due to COVID-19, this much-anticipated rookie class could come out of the gates slowly.
- With the possibility of no training camp and fewer practices, veterans will have an edge, especially at wide receiver where typically you see rookie breakouts over the second half of the season (think Deebo Samuel and A.J. Brown in 2019).
- Teams installing new coaching staffs/schemes will be at a disadvantage with less preparation.
- Historical data shows that the average player who misses training camp will miss more regular season games than players who attend camp due to strength and conditioning programs.
Some notes on coaching
- Historically, head coaches have more of an effect on the offensive coordinator than the OC does on the actual offense.
- The amount of plays per game correlates more to the head coach’s history than an offensive coordinator. Historically, these trends tend to be very consistent from season to season.
- In their first seasons, head coaches and offensive coordinators tend to be a little more conservative than in their later years.
- Coaches with rookie quarterbacks tend to pass less than their historical data shows.
Follow Ikey Azar on Twitter @IkeyAzar.