We’re in the thick of the NFL offseason and it’s officially time to start fantasy football prep. I’ll be answering the biggest questions heading into the 2020 season. Click here to read the series of questions answered so far.
The Saints have embraced a new-found run-first philosophy during the twilight of Drew Brees' Hall of Fame career.
This has also coincided with the team having a better defense and continuously lethal offensive line; rush attempts are a result of winning, not the other way around.
However you want to phrase things, Brees is being asked to do less than ever before in recent seasons:
- 2019: 36.9 pass attempts per game
- 2018: 32.6
- 2017: 33.5
- 2016: 42.1
- 2015: 41.8
- 2014: 41.2
- 2013: 40.6
- 2012: 41.9
- 2011: 41.1
- 2010: 41.1
- 2009: 34.3
- 2008: 39.7
- 2007: 40.8
- 2006: 34.6
This strategy has been perfectly fine for business. New Orleans has posted a top-four scoring offense in four consecutive seasons. Still, Brees has finished as fantasy's QB7 in fantasy points per game in back-to-back seasons after perennially functioning as a top-five option at the position.
The 2020 Saints Offense is again looking like a force to be reckoned with. Brees' play hasn't fallen off, but is he still capable of posting top-tier fantasy production? What follows is a breakdown on what to expect from the Saints' long-time franchise QB next season.
Brees is arguably the greatest fantasy QB ever
Brees finished 2019 as the QB21 after missing essentially six games. That leaves him with 15 seasons as a top-10 fantasy QB, which is just one fewer than Peyton Manning's league-best mark of 16-such seasons during the Super Bowl era.
The NFL's all-time passing TD leader trails only Jerry Rice in career PPR fantasy points.
This is what makes Brees' relatively modest performance over the past two seasons somewhat surprising. We're used to him turning in top-three fantasy seasons like clockwork. The man is still operating at an exceptionally high level (per Pro Football Reference and Pro Football Focus) ...
- Completion rate: 74.3% (No. 1 among 32 QBs to start at least 8 games in 2019)
- TD rate: 7.1% (No. 3)
- INT rate: 1.06 (No. 4)
- QB Rating: 116.3 (No. 2)
- Sack rate: 3.1% (No. 1)
- Yards per attempt: 7.88 (No. 10)
- Adjusted yards per attempt: 8.83 (No. 5)
- Deep ball rating: 107.2 (No. 11)
- Under pressure rating: 100.1 (No. 1)
- Kept clean rating: 120.8 (No. 2)
... the only problem is the overall counting numbers just haven't quite been there in recent years.
Part of the reason why Brees is aging so well could be because he's never overly relied on physical traits like arm strength to consistently lead the offense. Overall, Brees has never ranked higher than 16th in deep-ball rate (passes thrown 20-plus yards downfield per attempt, PFF) since joining the Saints in 2006. Last season only Jimmy Garoppolo was more likely to not throw deep.
Luckily, Brees shouldn't have to worry about changing his ways inside of this well-schemed offense ahead of 2020.
This offense is built to magnify Brees' strengths
A closer look at some of Brees' 2019 numbers paints the picture of a QB that was simply willing to take what the defense gives him on a near-mechanical basis:
- Average time to throw: 2.57 seconds (No. 2 quickest among all QBs)
- Intended air yards per throw: 6.7 (No. 4 shortest)
- Aggressiveness (percentage of tight-window throws): 13.8% (No. 7 lowest)
The latter statistic best demonstrates the core philosophy of the Saints Offense. Per Next-Gen Stats, "Aggressiveness tracks the amount of passing attempts a quarterback makes that are into tight coverage, where there is a defender within 1 yard or less of the receiver at the time of completion or incompletion."
This isn't to say Brees isn't capable of making tough throws; he's posted a top-two mark in largest difference between actual and expected completion rate in each of the past three seasons. Rather, it's clear that Brees and the Saints have made an offense crafted around the idea of consistently targeting the open receiver. Brees and Teddy Bridgewater posted nearly identical aggressiveness and deep-ball rates in 2019. Obviously Brees (74% completion rate, 8.8 adjusted yards per attempt) was much better at consistently moving the offense than Bridgewater (68%, 7.5), but either way this offense is designed to attack the underneath areas of the field.
As Brees said himself last November, "It’s all about the efficiency of the passing game and running game and how they complement each other."
Few plays have been more efficient than those targeting Alvin Kamara or Michael Thomas over the past three seasons. Overall, both Kamara (No. 11) and Thomas (No. 14) rank among the league's top-15 players in catch rate among 176 players with at least 100 targets since 2017.
How any mere mortal can cover Kamara on option routes is beyond my comprehension.
The Brees-Kamara-Thomas core has enabled all three players to great heights over the past three seasons. Still, the best could be yet to come in 2020 for the offense as a whole.
The 2020 version of the Saints Offense looks awfully good
Offensive line play can be the difference between a good-and-awful team. The Saints have been a top-five offense in both adjusted line yards per rush and adjusted sack rate in each of the past four seasons. Obviously coach Sean Payton's scheme, Brees' general excellence, and the offense's steady supply of great RBs helps, but the big uglies up front have been the engine of one of the league's top-scoring units. Don't expect much to change in 2020 considering they are one of 10 units returning all five starters from a season ago.
Additionally, the Saints will have Emmanuel Sanders and Jared Cook to compete for the No. 3 pass-game role. Sanders averaged a robust 9.5 yards per target with the 49ers and was a better ball away from scoring the game-winning TD in the Super Bowl, but my money is on him being a better real-life addition than consistent fantasy producer. Cook set career-high marks in yards per reception (16.4), yards per target (10.8) and touchdowns (9) in his first season with the Saints. The 33-year-old TE was dominant during the second half of the season once Brees returned to the lineup, although he ultimately finished with fewer than five targets in 8-of-15 games.
Ah yes, the elephant in the room. The Saints' decision to tender Taysom Hill at a first-round level and bring him back in 2020 surely means we haven't seen the last of his vulture-like involvement in the offense. The usage was fairly ridiculous last season, as the do-it-all QB/RB/WR/TE played double-digit snaps in all but four games.
The good news for Brees is that Hill isn't expected to take him off the field all that often. Yes, Payton likely knows that Hill's big arm is capable of stretching the field in ways that Brees might struggle with at this point in his career. Also yes, Taysom has 15 career pass attempts and never played more than five snaps at QB in a game last season. Hill might find his way onto the field near the goal line, it's usually as a receiver. He didn't even attempt a pass inside the 20-yard line in 2019. Hill is extremely annoying for the fantasy stock of the Saints' skill-position talents, but he really doesn't take opportunities away from Brees, as the Saints basically utilize him as a RB/WR hybrid near the goal line as opposed to a wild-cat QB.
Brees is still plenty capable of turning in a top-10 fantasy season. The question is whether it's worth investing a top-10 pick at the position to find out if he's still capable of turning in a top-five fantasy season. Ultimately, the absence of anything resembling a rushing floor, combined with the likelihood for more condensed pass-game volume, has me passing on Brees with an average draft position inside of the top-10 QBs. I'd much rather roll the dice on a later-round upside pick like Baker Mayfield, Daniel Jones or Matthew Stafford.