What to Make of the New Orleans Saints' Decision To Reshape Their Offense
These aren’t your father’s New Orleans Saints anymore. Odds are those were the Saints of the 70’s and 80’s, who were pretty terrible.
These aren’t even your New Orleans Saints anymore, the high scoring, pass heavy offense-led team of the past 10 years. The times they are a-changin’. Ron Burgundy had never heard that song, but many now believe Sean Payton has.
From the majority of the roster moves New Orleans has made this offseason, many have speculated a shift to a more run-oriented approach on offense. The Saints traded away Jimmy Graham in exchange for center Max Unger, they re-signed Mark Ingram to a four-year contract, and they also brought in C.J. Spiller as a free agent. They spent their first of two first-round draft picks on offensive lineman Andrus Peat from Stanford, who will either start his career inside or play tackle where he’s projecting long term, which could bump Zach Strief in to guard.
How would such a switch impact the Saints overall?
Up in the Air
A switch to a run heavy offense would be a complete 180 from how the Saints have played during the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era. They’ve been efficiently pass heavy during that time, too. The Oakland Raiders were the most pass heavy team in 2014, but that was mostly due to being behind in a majority of games and needing to catch up. The Saints found themselves behind in more games than they’ve been accustomed to, but they were able to be relatively efficient with their passing regardless.
By our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, the Saints were one of the top passing offenses in the league last season. NEP factors in on-field variables such as down-and-distance in order to compare a team or player's production to historical expectation levels.
During the 2014 season, New Orleans ranked 10th in schedule-adjusted Passing NEP while having the fourth highest pass ratio in the league. To go back to the Raiders for a moment, they were the the 30th best passing offense by Adjusted Passing NEP while throwing the ball the most. But this is what New Orleans has been. The throw the ball and they throw it often. Since 2011, the Saints have not ranked lower than fifth in the league in terms of percentage of pass plays run.
The Saints have been bolstering the interior of their offense this offseason, which should improve the ground game, but they’ll still have some ways to go before implementing Seattle’s offensive game plan. Even if the Saints throw less, they’re probably still going to throw a lot.
On the Ground
The numbers back up why New Orleans might want to rely a bit more on the ground game. The Saints ranked fifth on the ground last season by Adjusted Rushing NEP. This might surprise some, but New Orleans has been very effective running the ball over the past few seasons. The last time the Saints weren’t in the top half of the league in Adjusted Rushing NEP was 2010. Three of those seasons, including 2014, were in the top 10. On a per-play basis, the Saints were even better, ranking in the top 14 each of the past four seasons. In both 2014 and 2011, they ranked fourth.
With Ingram coming off his best season as a pro, 14th among running backs in Rushing NEP per attempt, and the addition of Spiller, New Orleans should be able to effectively use the committee backfield they’ve used during the Payton era.
This isn’t even the first time the Saints have been predicted to rely more on the ground game. Take this quote from Pierre Thomas during an interview in May of 2013: "When we had our first team meeting, [Payton] talked about that. He said we definitely need to get back to that ground game. There's going to be more focus this year on that ground game than any year.” The Saints did rely on the run game a little more in the 2013 season, dropping their pass percentage from 64.5 percent in 2012 to 62.5 percent. That two-percent decrease dropped them from from the fourth most pass heavy team in 2012 to fifth in 2013.
Loss of Weapons
The offseason additions aren’t the only thing suggesting the Saints will be keeping the ball on the ground more in 2015. New Orleans voluntarily traded away two of the three most targeted receivers on the team from 2014. The trades of Graham to Seattle and Kenny Stills to Miami vacated 208 targets from the 2014 offense, 31.5 percent of Brees’ pass attempts last year.
Many of those targets will now go to second-year receiver Brandin Cooks and tight end Josh Hill. Cooks had 69 targets, fourth on the team, in just 10 games played before suffering a season ending thumb injury. Cooks likely won’t have a problem taking on a bigger role in the offense. On a per-game basis, he was the most targeted wide receiver, above Stills and Marques Colston, who finished the year with 100 targets.
Hill is the most interesting piece in this puzzle. Graham was the most targeted player on the Saints last season but wasn’t very efficient in those targets. Graham ranked just 24th among tight ends with at least 30 targets in Reception NEP per target. Graham was eighth in that metric during the 2013 season. New Orleans isn’t crazy enough to believe Hill can be a Graham replacement, but thus far they’ve been on board talking up his on-field ability. During the owner’s meeting late in March, Payton spoke very highly of the third-year tight end and how much they value his versatility on the field.
If the Saints truly do want to rely on running the ball more, it might not even be up to the offense to dictate whether that is a viable option. That could fall on the Rob Ryan-led defense. It is atypical to run the ball while trailing, and if the Saints do not improve their defense -- they ranked last in the league in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play -- then New Orleans might be forced into their passing ways of old.
Oakland didn’t want to be the most pass heavy team last season, but they didn’t have a choice. They were constantly behind and needed to score points.
The good news is that the Saints have also made strides to improve the defense this offseason. Six of their nine draft selections were on the defensive side of the ball, and they also brought in cornerback Brandon Browner and defensive end Anthony Spencer as free agents. Llinebacker Dannell Ellerbe was brought in as part of the Stills trade with Miami. They key to the offense and the pass-run ratio may come down to how these players perform rather than the likes of Ingram, Spiller, and Hill.
In a vacuum, the Saints want to ease the load on Drew Brees as he enters his age-36 season. For that to truly work, New Orleans is going to have to give up a fewer points in that vacuum.