Ranking the Saints Wide Receivers

Scott Smith recently told us the good, the bad, and the ugly about Michael Thomas landing with the Saints. Here are some additional insights and thoughts about New Orleans wide receivers for fantasy football purposes.

Sean Payton’s Offense

Using the Projection Machine, I pulled out data for every season since 2000 in which Payton was either the offensive coordinator or head coach.1

Seasons WR TRGPCT CR YPT RECTDRT
2000-2015 WR1 0.2 0.64 8.82 0.06
2006-2015 WR1 0.19 0.66 8.85 0.07
2011-2015 WR1 0.18 0.66 9.16 0.06
WR1 AVE WR1 AVE 0.19 0.65 8.94 0.06
2000-2015 WR2 0.14 0.63 9.04 0.05
2006-2015 WR2 0.13 0.65 9.44 0.05
2011-2015 WR2 0.13 0.69 9.72 0.05
WR2 AVE WR2 AVE 0.13 0.66 9.4 0.05
2000-2015 WR3 0.1 0.63 9.46 0.07
2006-2015 WR3 0.09 0.65 10.04 0.07
2011-2015 WR3 0.09 0.66 9.03 0.07
WR3 AVE WR3 AVE 0.09 0.65 9.51 0.07

The average market share, catch rate, yards per target, and TD rate for Payton’s WR1, WR2, and WR3 have been very consistent over 13,2 10, and five year periods. Going forward we’ll use the average for each position. My takeaway here, bolstered by Ben Gretch’s work, is that regardless of which WR we plug into which role, we can feel fairly confident about that WRs usage.

Fantasy Production

Ultimately this is what we’re concerned with. PPR seasonal production by position:

PLAYER PPR
WR1 AVE 224.10
WR2 AVE 153.4
WR3 AVE 119.2

In terms of positional value, those finishes would have been WR20, WR44, and WR58 last season. Takeaway? The top Payton WR is always relevant, with a handful of overall WR1 seasons, the second WR is borderline relevant, and the third is generally irrelevant for fantasy purposes.

Player Profiles

The Projection Machine also lets us see which WR filled which role in a given season. Although some players have had a consistent presence in Payton’s offenses (like Marques Colston for example), there’s been enough coming and going that we might be able to see if there are any patterns.

PLAYER HT WT FORTY
WR1 AVE 75.3 211.8 4.51
WR2 AVE 71.6 194 4.49
WR3 AVE 72.9 201.4 4.44

Let’s focus on the WR1 for a moment. In eight of 13 seasons, the WR1 was Marques Colston. But in the other five seasons it was someone else (#Analysis). Colston’s a big guy – 77 inches tall, 224 pounds, and he ran a 4.54 40-yard dash. That bumps up the WR1 averages. In the other five seasons, Payton’s WR1 averaged:

PLAYER HT WT 40
NON-COLSTON WR1 72.5 192.4 4.46

We’ll come back to this when we talk about the current WRs on the Saints roster, but for now just note that Payton has plenty of experience running his offense with a small WR1.

The primary question then is which WR will fill which role. Let’s look at the candidates.

The Wide Receivers

WR HT WT 40 2015 POINTS FINISH
COOKS 70 189 4.33 253.8 WR14
SNEAD 71 195 4.62 187 WR31
COLSTON 77 224 4.54 121 WR56
THOMAS 75 212 4.57 N/A N/A

The gap between each WR fits the norm for Payton’s offense, but the individual performances were notable. Brandin Cooks 253.8 PPR points were the third-best season ever for a Payton WR1, trailing only Colston’s 2012 (258.4) and 2007 (284.2) seasons. In Cooks aborted 2014 rookie season, he was on pace for 223 PPR points, which matches Payton’s WR1 average. Willie Snead’s 187 points were the second-best ever for a Payton WR2 (Lance Moore, 205.1 points in 2012). Colston’s campaign, however, was just the ninth best WR3 season, which suggests that it’s this role that the Saints need to replace.

Who’s on First?

Brandin Cooks seems locked in as the WR1. He’s had two very productive seasons in Payton’s offense, and physically he’s very similar to Payton’s previous non-Colston WR1s.

Why not Michael Thomas? It’s fair to say that, of the Saints current receivers, Thomas most closely resembles Marques Colston. But that doesn’t mean he’ll get Colston’s old WR1 job. For one thing, as I just noted, it’s the WR3 role that struggled last year, not the WR1 role. Also, Cooks has two years’ experience in this offense, while Thomas is just a rookie. Third, Cooks may not have a “typical” WR1 physical profile, but he’s more athletic than Thomas. And Payton hasn’t had a problem using a smaller receiver in that role in the past: Amani Toomer (74.5 inches, 197 pounds, 4.48 40) spent three seasons as Payton’s WR1 in New York, and Lance Moore (69 inches, 182 pounds, 4.52 40) spent a year in that role as well in 2008, when Colston missed a lot of time. Finally, there’s just no reason to supplant Cooks. His performance has been great.

If Cooks is locked in as the No. 1 WR, could Thomas battle Snead for No. 2 duties? On the one hand, Snead has no draft pedigree, which would seem to give Thomas an advantage. On the other hand, that hasn’t mattered in the past for Payton’s offense, and Snead looks more like the typical Payton WR2 than Thomas does. Snead was very productive last year as well, so Thomas would have to demonstrate as a rookie that he can exceed the pretty high bar that the veteran Snead has established. I’d even say that if Cooks were injured, Snead would be the one to step into his role, due to their physical similarities and greater experience, not Thomas.

If production really is the only thing that matters for WR prospects, then Thomas is arguably the third best prospect on the Saints roster.

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So could Michael Thomas start out as the Saints WR3? Scott Smith compared Thomas to Brandon LaFell, which I think is a very fair comparison. By “fair” I mean “LaFell is basically a career WR3, so maybe Thomas is too.”

Thomas also resembles one of Payton’s previous WR3s. Here’s a thought to keep you awake at night: What if Payton wasn’t visualizing Colston when he drafted Thomas? What if he was really visualizing Robert Meachem? 

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Meachem was a big, fast, productive prospect…who spent three years as a WR3 while Payton utilized Lance Moore and Devery Henderson ahead of him. Henderson had a lower draft pedigree (pick 50 vs. pick 27) than Meachem, and Moore – like Snead – was an undrafted player from the MAC. Talk about synchronicity. The point? Payton wasn’t afraid to preference “lesser” players over Meachem. I don’t think he’ll hesitate to do the same with Thomas.

I also included Brandon Coleman because I don’t think he can just be dismissed. Let me be clear: I think Michael Thomas is a better prospect than Coleman. But Coleman is arguably as athletic as Thomas, and has more experience. I can see situations, especially early in the season, when a coaching staff might trust Coleman more than Thomas. Maybe that’s a stretch. The Saints might also feel compelled to play Thomas over Coleman just because they invested a second round pick in him. In any case, it’s not like there is *no* competition for the WR3 spot.

Conclusion

In time, perhaps Michael Thomas replaces Marques Colston as the Saints WR1. But Brandin Cooks has that role well in hand for now. There’s also no guarantee that Thomas supplants Willie Snead as the Saints WR2. Snead has performed very well, and more closely fits the template for a Payton WR2. To me, Thomas looks like Robert Meachem, a high profile prospect but a WR3 for Sean Payton.

Circling back to the beginning of the article, if that’s where Thomas fits, then he’ll most likely have no season-long fantasy relevance. The typical Payton WR3 gets under 10 percent of team targets, and falls outside the top 48 PPR WRs. And if Thomas is going to be the WR3, that means Willie Snead is still the WR2, and might be a value pick, if his ADP falls.

  1. 2000 – 2002 NYG, 2006 – 2015 NOS. I included the season he was suspended, because the team, and offense, were still essentially his.  (back)
  2. Payton was not a head coach or coordinator from 2003 to 2005.  (back)

Charles Kleinheksel

Editor and contributor since 2013. Director of Special Projects August 2017. Occasionally found at numberFire, Rotoballer, and FantasyPros.

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