Fantasy Football Take-Shopping: Is the crowd right about the Saints offense, or should we be curious?

Throughout the last couple of months, I've realized that I have a bizarre fascination. It's one that, no matter how many podcast co-hosts I've verbally sparred with, no one seems to share. Instantly, that makes me feel I'm wrong and should let it go, but we're still in the take-shopping phase of the fantasy football offseason, so here we are.

You see, I just can’t shake my peculiar fixation with one of the most tedious and sometimes frustrating outfits last year: the New Orleans Saints offense.

If you were to ask a wide range of football fans, I'd bet that very few would guess that New Orleans ranked ninth in points scored last season and fielded a top-15 offense in EPA per play. Despite these impressive statistics, the Saints' offense didn't feel like a successful unit when you watched them play last year. The fact that the Saints almost completely turned over the offensive coaching staff helps underscore that despite those two results, everyone left 2023 feeling like there was meat left on the bone.

It’s that change at the coaching level that has caught my attention.

The departure of long-standing offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael is a significant development. Carmichael, part of Sean Payton’s original Saints coaching staff, was brought into New Orleans 18 years ago. Head coach Dennis Allen and now former offensive line coach Doug Marrone were also part of that staff. Carmichael was the only one who never flew the coup, holding multiple jobs within the Saints organization, including the offensive coordinator title for 15 years.

The 2023 Saints showed that there is a thin line between stability and stagnation. For the first time in almost two decades, New Orleans will have some new offensive ideas.

The group brought in to replace the old guard aligns with the meta of good offensive football in the modern era. Klint Kubiak, son of long-time Shanahan acolyte Gary Kubiak, has offensive coordinator experience in the league and will reprise that role in New Orleans after spending 2023 as the 49ers' passing-game coordinator. Veteran offensive line coach John Benton was with the 49ers from 2017 to 2020 before following some of their promoted coaches to the Jets to serve as the run game coordinator. Another elder Shanahan acolyte, Rick Dennison, was hired as a senior offensive assistant. A couple of creative hires like Keith Williams as the wide receivers coach and Saints legend Jahri Evans as an offensive assistant round out this exciting crew.

The 2023 Saints ran out an offense that still felt made for the super-computer Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees, who ran the unit to perfection for 15 years. It’s a system that doesn’t make life easier on the quarterback, whereas the Shanahan tree has perfected that endeavor.

The change in systems could significantly impact a unit that has talent but left last season feeling like it underperformed. One area of this offense has players who feel specifically ripe for elevation.

The Passing Game

The aerial attack presents my most significant fascination with this offense. So many of the “quarterback easy buttons” made famous by the Shanahan tree were simply not pressed by the 2023 Saints.

Derek Carr ranked dead last among quarterbacks who took 20% of their team's dropbacks in play-action rate at a mere 14.8%, per Pro Football Focus. Pre-snap and at-the-snap motion have become darn-near cheat-code wrinkles to boost passing-game production. According to Fantasy Points Data, New Orleans also ranked dead last in pre-snap and at-the-snap motion last season.

Meanwhile, several play-callers off the Shanahan and/or Sean McVay tree lead the league in these categories and actively make their quarterback’s life easier.

We all know who Derek Carr is; he is not and never has been one of the 10 best quarterbacks in the NFL. He’s not a difference-maker behind center and often made himself a punching bag during his first year with the Saints. However, is he so far off from some of the notable names elevated by this system? I’m not convinced he is. We’ve seen Carr have solid to good seasons within the last five years, and it doesn’t strike me as impossible that he can enjoy such a year in an offense that is destined to help him more than last year’s approach.

If Carr can be elevated to above-average production, the Saints’ underrated receiver talent here can be further maximized.

Chris Olave has been a productive player through two seasons in the NFL. There is little doubt in my mind he can reach a significantly higher ceiling than his 79.5 catches, 1,082.5 yards and 4.5 touchdowns season averages. Olave is a high-level separator who wins at all levels of the route tree. He’s primarily been used as a vertical receiver to this point in his career and few receivers have benefited less than Olave has from layup routes and easy looks. Those are the type of targets this system brings in spades and we already have evidence he’s productive on motion plays.

Olave will require a high draft pick in fantasy this year. He’s likely coming off the board within the top 12 receivers. Everything about this offensive change should be conducive to getting more out of him as a player. He has the skills to do it and is one of my favorite candidates to emerge into the superstar tier of receivers by season’s end.

Rashid Shaheed is the other fascinating receiver on this roster. A big play waiting to happen, Shaheed’s game goes far deeper than just his undeniable speed.

Shaheed shows an ability to win against press coverage, which is critical to his quest to become an every-down receiver. You get reps of him on film playing all three receiver positions. The Shanahan offense and its offshoots require middle-of-the-field separation, which is Shaheed’s specialty. He is also a prime candidate for full-speed motion work before or during the snap. Those plays will get him into favorable coverage looks and open up space for Olave. A win-win.

Olave and Shaheed should be leaps and bounds ahead of the other receivers on the roster and with Juwan Johnson’s offseason injury, there aren’t needle-movers at tight end. There’s a chance we aren’t quite comprehending just what a significant leap Olave is about to take from a target share standpoint. He was at 23.7% last season. I’ll go well over that mark in 2024. If Shaheed pushes toward a 17% mark he will way outkick expectations.

That said, there are some other intriguing, if not lower-pedigree, options across the rest of the depth chart. Cedrick Wilson Jr. is likely the favorite for the WR3 gig because of his experience and reps in a motion-heavy offense with the Dolphins last season. The sleeper I have my eye on is A.T. Perry. The hulking X-receiver prospect went well later in last season’s draft than I expected but did get some playing time as a rookie after Michael Thomas’ injury. Olave can beat press coverage well enough to win out as the X but doesn’t have the frame Perry brings to the table. Plus, if we want someone doing all the fun motion concepts we want to see for Olave and Shaheed, someone has to stick on the line as the boundary receiver. In theory, that’s Perry’s game.

The Running Game

I have clear spots to place my peculiar preoccupation with this offensive change in the wide receiver room. My conviction runs out when we talk about the ground game.

One thing I do believe with some clarity is that some of the lofty target shares typically assigned to running backs in the old offense will be spread out to traditional pass-catchers. Alvin Kamara led all running backs with an 18.1% target share last season. Some of that is due to Carr’s scattered response to pressure leading to full-blown checkdown addiction. It’s also just been in the bones of that offense for years. Typically, offenses under the tree who don’t employ Christian McCaffrey have funneled targets elsewhere.

New Orleans ranked 22nd in rushing success rate last season. It's essentially bringing back the same running back room with, most likely, a worse offensive line for 2024. That doesn’t exactly sound like the makings of a strong rushing ecosystem.

It will be interesting to see what kind of run-game philosophy this staff brings to New Orleans. Traditionally, this tree has been wide-zone-heavy but we’ve seen leaders like Shanahan and McVay lean more toward gap schemes to transform the offenses. Kamara was far more effective on gap runs at 4.23 yards per carry than he was on zone runs at 3.7 yards per carry, per Fantasy Points Data. Second-year sleeper Kendre Miller has certain traits to fit both schemes. If he emerges as a real option in this committee, that could up the interest level in the running back corps.

The Bottom Line

At the end of the day, if no one else finds this team the least bit compelling, I understand. This is ultimately still an operation led by Dennis Allen and Derek Carr. The Saints remain a bit of a “lost between worlds” operation that hasn’t fully moved on from the past and only has a step or two toward the future. Some demons haven’t been exorcised and some long-standing roster debts are still in the process of being paid. The offensive line may be an anchor dragging down the whole scoring unit to the point it’s not even worth discussing.

However, the change in offensive coaching staff did represent a significant shift, as is their clear signal of betting on young talent at wide receiver.

The general consensus is that this is a lifeless offense captained by a mid-level quarterback that’s worth ignoring. Anytime the wisdom of the crowd fully buys into a narrative, it’s at least worth exploring whether the contrarian opinion has any weight. I don’t know if I buy into it completely in this case, but I can at least tell myself a positive story about the receiver talent and philosophical changes on offense.

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