The New Orleans Saints Backfield Is Already a Fantasy Football Nightmare
Fantasy football is billed by a lot of casual players, outsiders and marketing firms as a way to "act like an NFL general manager" and construct a team without the cost of buying an NFL team or the hard work required to work your way up through the league's front office structure.
But then reality sets in, as you plug Pierre Thomas into your lineup and watch Mark Ingram run for two touchdowns. While Thomas plays well, he doesn't have the big week he could have if you were in charge of the Saints offense.
That's why fantasy football is a game of understanding value and predicting opportunity as much as it is of assessing talent and understanding football. And the aforementioned example is a classic case of an NFL team doing what is best for their offense while giving fantasy football players headaches.
So what have we learned about the New Orleans running game after one week? Let's consider the facts.
Setting the Stage
A Week 1 game against Atlanta was an interesting case study for the New Orleans offense, as they were facing a seemingly improved run defense that finished fourth-worst a year ago according to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics. The Saints were able to run against the Falcons with some degree of success on Sunday, as their backs carried the ball 26 times for 119 yards and three scores.
They were able to run an expected amount of running plays, as their pass-to-run ratio was actually lower on Sunday than it was in 2013, meaning they ran more often in this high-scoring game than they did on average a season ago. So the carries against Atlanta should be fairly representative of what the Saints will do in the average competitive game moving forward.
Mark Ingram led the way with 13, while Pierre Thomas earned 7 and Khiry Robinson had 6. Thomas had six catches on seven targets, while Ingram caught his one target, and Robinson didn't catch his lone target.
But let's dig a bit deeper to consider how these backs will be used this season beyond just number of carries.
The Saints ran 15 plays in the red zone on Sunday, and ran the ball on eight of them. Of those eight carries, four went to Ingram, and two each went to Thomas and Robinson. Thomas was targeted in the passing game in the red zone once, the other backs were not.
And of the Saints 19 red zone rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns, Ingram earned 14 and two, respectively. The big, bruising Alabama product is in his element in the red zone, and his coaches rewarded him with the right to finish off a pair of drives with goal-line work.
However, the fact that two of Robinson's six touches on the day came in the red zone reveals that he, too, is trusted with short-yardage work, and his touchdown reinforced his coaches' faith in his ability.
This is all a stark contrast to last year, when Thomas was the primary short-yardage back, earning the most carries on the team (by quite a margin) on plays with three or fewer yards required for a first down. His 22 red zone carries were more than Ingram (8) and Robinson (5) plus former fullback Jed Collins (4) combined. His role in the running game has apparently been downgraded, despite his continued involvement as a receiver.
A History Lesson
Of course, it's far too early to crown Mark Ingram as the "back to own in fantasy" in New Orleans. He had only two games with more than 10 carries a year ago, and while one was a blowout over the Cowboys (in which he posted a career high 145 rushing yards), the other was a close loss to the Panthers.
Yet, in both cases, Ingram failed to eclipse 25 yards in his following game after seeing a big role, and generally was inefficient and unreliable.
Last season, Ingram trailed Pierre Thomas by a large margin in touches, and in Net Expected Points. Thomas finished the season with a positive Rushing NEP and a Success Rate (a measure of how often a player gains positive NEP) of nearly 50%, while Ingram had a negative NEP and a Success Rate of only 40%.
Robinson's numbers were quite similar to Ingram's, especially on a per-carry basis, where the two were nearly identical. Both had similarly poor Success Rates, as well.
So what have we learned about the Saints backfield? The same things we already knew: it's a headache waiting to happen for fantasy football.
Mark Ingram finished the day with the best rushing metrics, but this is a movie we've seen before, and it doesn't end well.
Robinson also fared well in our metrics, and got goal line work, but his overall volume is too low to be consistently fantasy relevant without carving out a bigger role.
Thomas had 13 touches (one shy of Ingram's 14) and performed on par with his body of work from a season ago, meaning he's the least likely to be "fool's gold" among the backs, but also the one with the least-friendly fantasy football role in a standard scoring league.
Thomas remains a strong PPR play, as his seven targets were fourth on the team, and he was one of only four players to see more than one look in the passing game. But otherwise, the New Orleans backfield is just a set of three lottery tickets for fantasy football.
You can try your luck in the coming weeks with any of the three, and if they are the lucky one to find the end zone, your bet will have paid off. But otherwise, this is a situation to monitor for injuries or obvious shifts in volume, while not making any rash trade or free agent decisions while we await a slightly bigger sample size by which we can judge the trio.