Did the New Orleans Saints Add the Missing Piece to Their Offense?
Over the past couple of years, the New Orleans Saints’ offense has been criticized for its lack of wide receiver options. Luckily for Saints’ fans like me, this area has been addressed by the signing of Emmanuel Sanders back in March — or has it? To answer this question, I dived into play-by-play (PBP) data to explore nearly every pass play from the Saints’ 2019 season. Spoiler: Emmanuel Sanders is just what the Saints need — get excited Who Dat Nation!
In this analysis, I used PBP data provided by Max Horowitz on Kaggle. An overview of the 2019 Saints’ offense showed that they attempted 602 passes (18th most in the league), which is equivalent to 61% of their plays. Interesting, but let’s look at these pass plays more closely. Since conventional statistics like pass yards, pass touchdowns or even passer rating don’t always tell the whole story (see Blake Bortles Is The Tom Brady Of Garbage Time), I focused on what I think is a more informative statistic called Win Probability Added (WPA). In a nutshell, WPA is a metric that measures how much more likely a team is to win a game after a given play. For example, in the loss against the Falcons last year, Drew Brees completed an 18 yard pass late in the 4th quarter when the game was out of hand. This play had WPA = 0%. Compare this to Brees’ 14 yard completion in the second quarter when the game was still competitive. This play had WPA = 4%. A more detailed description of WPA can be found here, but the idea is that WPA will put pass plays in the context of winning games. So, where did the Saints’ pass offense rank in terms of WPA? As shown below, best in the league:
That means no improvements are needed, right? Not quite, and I’ll show you why. Let’s break down pass plays by deep and short passes. Deep passes are balls that traveled at least 15 yards in the air and short is anything under that. The plot below indicates that Saints’ Quarterbacks (QBs) performed better than the league average for both types of passes. For instance, when Brees threw a deep ball, his average WPA was 2.9% compared to the league average of 1.2%. However, Saints’ QBs had deep pass attempts lower than the league average. For example, only about 14% of Brees’ pass attempts went deep while the league average stood at around 19%.
Many critics would point that this is due to Brees’ decline in arm strength, but I’d argue that it’s his lack of weapons. To back this argument, I broke down WPA by receiving options in the plot below. Only three Saints’ players were targeted at least five times for deep passes. Ted Ginn Jr. played the deep threat role with 40% of his targets being deep passes, but didn’t make the most of them based on his below average WPA (1% compared to league average of 1.3%). This makes sense as Ginn had a catch rate of 54%, one of the lowest in the league. Both Thomas and Cook excelled when targeted deep; however, for Thomas, deep targets only made up 11% of his total targets.
Given these findings, it’s clear that the Saints lacked deep pass options. For comparison, I counted the number of players that were targeted at least five times for deep passes on each team:
The Saints ranked at the bottom, which is problematic considering the importance of deep passes. The average WPA per pass attempt is more than three times higher for deep passes compared to short passes (1.2% vs. 0.4%). This indicates that one way the Saints can improve their offense is by adding a pass catcher who excels at deep passing plays. Here’s where Emmanuel Sanders comes in. Let’s take a look at some of the notable, pass-catching free agents that were available this year and where they ranked when targeted for deep passes:
As you can see, Sanders was the top ranking deep threat available in free agency — this is exactly what the Saints need! In all, Sanders is a vast improvement over Ginn (3.3% vs 1% Average WPA per Deep Target) and, in my opinion, the missing piece to the Saints’ offense. With Sanders in the mix, I believe the Saints’ offense will 1) incorporate more deep passes in their playbook 2) better capitalize on these deep pass plays. This should maximize the Saints’ opportunities to win as long as the Saints’ defense can maintain their level of play from last year. I know most Saints’ fans were already excited about this signing, but hopefully this will get you extra pumped for the upcoming season.
My code for this analysis can be found here