Drew Brees Is a Buy-Low Candidate in Fantasy Football Drafts
As the calendar approaches the month of July, we inch ever closer to the start of NFL training camps, early drafts for seasonal leagues, and as the wider fantasy football community begins to re-engage, we start to hear the rumblings of the beast that is average draft position (ADP) adjustment.
In the meantime, we've got best-ball leagues to draft, and many of today's ADP values will surely vanish in due time. One such bargain swimming in the very deep pool of fantasy quarterbacks is Drew Brees.
Brees has been a model of consistently excellent play -- both in real-life football and in fantasy -- over his 12 seasons with the New Orleans Saints, so how is he suddenly a fantasy value?
Let's dive in.
What Happened in 2017?
With the 67th overall pick of the 2017 NFL Draft, the New Orleans Saints selected running back Alvin Kamara. He was the fifth running back selected, but he was the perfect fit for Sean Payton and the Saints.
After relatively light usage in the first three weeks of the season, offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael unleashed
the Kraken Kamara in Week 4, and he caught all 10 of his targets for 71 yards to go along with 25 yards on 5 carries. He went on to surpass at least 75 yards from scrimmage in 11 of the final 12 games of the season, with the lone exception being a Thursday night game he exited early due to injury.
Not one to be left out of the party, Mark Ingram posted just one game below 50 yards from scrimmage on the entire season, and he notched five games with 100-plus total yards. Together, Kamara and Ingram formed a two-headed monster that simply could not be contained.
At the same time, Michael Thomas had a wildly successful season while the depth at wide receiver was somewhat lacking. Thomas saw a whopping 149 targets, with Ted Ginn Jr. being the second-most targeted wideout with 70 looks. Brandon Coleman was third with 37, and Coby Fleener led the Saints' tight ends with 30 targets. So the passing game was pretty much Thomas and the Saints' backs.
The net result was a sizable decrease in the Saints' drop-back-to-run ratio (1.25) in 2017, while league-average was 1.38. It was the second-lowest passing percentage for the Saints since Brees signed with the team in 2006. The drop in passing attempts, as you'd expect, has a negative impact on his fantasy numbers as his season-long performance resulted in a QB9 ranking, his lowest finish as a Saint and his first outside the top-six passers in his New Orleans tenure.
Brees' 2018 Outlook
While everything seemed to conspire against Brees' fantasy output in 2017, don't expect that to continue in 2018.
The New Orleans Saints went from a 1.74 drop-back-to-run ratio in 2016 to a 1.25 clip in 2017. This wasn't just a significant dip in passing volume from the previous season -- it was the lowest drop-back-per-run ratio for the Saints in eight years.
There were two other seasons (2006 and 2009) during Brees' time in New Orleans in which the Saints had a comparably low drop-back-per-run ratio, and in both instances, the ratio significantly spiked in favor of the passing game the following season.
On a larger scale, for every season from 2006 through 2017 (including all 32 teams), there have only been 41 instances where a team's drop back per run ratio dropped by more than five percent from the previous year. Of those 41 seasons, only six teams either repeated their drop-back-per-run ratio or saw it decline further the following season.
To put that another way, since 2006 85% of teams to see at least a 5% reduction in their drop-back-per-run ratio from the previous season became more pass-heavy the following campaign. The Saints actually reduced their drop-back-per-run ratio by 8% in 2017. In the past 12 years, only one team that had a season with at least an 8% reduction in drop-back-to-run ratio failed to rebound to a more pass-heavy ratio the next year (the 2011-2012 San Francisco 49ers).
You might also notice that in the Saints' other two run-heavy seasons, Brees still managed to finish as QB3 (2006) and QB2 (2009), respectively. As a result, you might be concerned that it was Brees' performance, rather than a lack of volume, affecting his PPR finish in 2017.
But you can squash that idea. Using our in-house Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, we can see just how great Brees was last season despite the lack of fantasy dominance. NEP is the metric we use to track the efficiency of both teams and players with the team side being adjusted for strength of opponent. A three-yard completion on 3rd and 2 is wildly different than a three-yard completion on 3rd and 4, and NEP helps account for that by tracking the expected points players add to their team's total over the course of a season.
Going by NEP, Brees was his usual great self on a per-drop-back basis. Among all passers with at least 200 drop backs last season, he ranked fourth in Passing NEP per drop back (trailing only Tom Brady, Carson Wentz and Philip Rivers).
Drew Brees' 0.24 Passing NEP per drop back in 2017 is identical to his average of 0.24 over his Saints career. To be clear, Brees and average don't belong in a sentence together as the league average NEP per pass for quarterbacks in 2017 was 0.06, which also happens to be the overall quarterback average from 2006 to 2017.
The Saints went a long way toward improving the depth of their offensive skill positions this offseason. They drafted wide receiver Tre'Quan Smith in the third round, whose 2.81 yards per route run were 16th among all draft-eligible wide receivers, per Pro Football Focus. Smith also caught 70.8% of his deep (20-plus yard) targets, second among eligible college wideouts.
New Orleans also made shrewd moves in free agency, signing wide receiver Cameron Meredith and tight end Benjamin Watson. Meredith missed the 2017 season with a torn ACL, but with the Chicago Bears in 2016, he registered a Target NEP per target of 0.68. By comparison, Brandon Coleman's Target NEP per target last season was a meager 0.06.
Watson, meanwhile, continues to defy his age. In his 2017 age-36 season, playing with the Baltimore Ravens, Watson accounted for a Target NEP per target of 0.25, tied for 10th among the 26 tight ends with at least 50 targets.
The most visible roadblock to the Saints relying on the run as frequently as they did last year is the four-game absence of Mark Ingram to start the season.
Among running backs with at least 100 rushes, Ingram was the league's fourth-best back on a per-carry basis, according to NEP. He won't be easy to replace, and the Saints' running back depth behind Ingram -- which included Jonathan Williams, rookie Boston Scott, and Trey Edmunds -- isn't exactly loaded. Scott is a promising prospect, with a 105.2 elusive rating that was good for fourth in the draft class, but it would be optimistic to expect the 5'7" rookie to approximate Ingram's performance out of the gate. The Saints reportedly have no plans to sign a veteran running back with Ingram suspended for the first four weeks, so we could see Kamara featured heavily early on, which may result in a more pass-heavy approach from the Saints.
As with any player, price is a factor.
Here is the current top 12 quarterbacks in ADP, based on data from MyFantasyLeague.com. There are a few quarterbacks that are, justifiably so, going ahead of Brees: Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Tom Brady and Cam Newton. But at their current ADPs, they all require draft capital that would almost certainly be better spent on a running back or wide receiver.
Patrick Mahomes is currently being drafted before Brees, and Mahomes has started exactly one NFL game. He's definitely a promising quarterback, but he's also risky.
Jimmy Garoppolo is being taken more than two full rounds ahead of Brees. There's much to love about Jimmy GQ -- who, per our metrics, was superb in his small sample last year -- but his fantasy point-per-game output during his undefeated six games last season was 14.5. Brees' was 16.4 for his 2017 "down year," and he's put up 20-plus fantasy points per game in five of his past seven seasons.
Jared Goff is being drafted a full round before Brees. Goff edged out Brees last season with 17.0 fantasy points per game, which means his best season from a points-per-game perspective marginally edged out Brees' worst season in the past 10 years.
With the great depth at quarterback, it sets up perfectly to load up on wideouts and running backs early in the draft and wait to take a signal caller until later, especially when you can get a quarterback like Drew Brees in the back half of the eighth round.
As it stands right now, it's rare to have a quarterback with Brees' likely top-10 floor and top-5 ceiling available in the eighth round. When your draft gets to that range, if you haven't yet dipped into the quarterback pool, grab an inflatable chair with cup holders, a frosty beverage, and jump on in.