The smartest and most successful teams in the NFL are often able to build around the strengths of their division opponents — finding ways in the draft (and to a lesser extent, in free agency) to take away what their division opponents do best in order to maximize their chances of winning their six most important games of the year. In 2017, the Saints had all the pieces to be a top team, but their defense was consistently letting them down in their most important games, and this had led to three consecutive 7-9 season (with four such seasons in a five year span — something that really should be impossible with Sean Payton and Drew Brees running the show). So with the 11th pick of the first round that year, the Saints drafted 20-year-old cornerback Marshon Lattimore, in the hopes that he could help them shut down Julio Jones, Mike Evans, and (at the time) Devin Funchess // Kelvin Benjamin. The results of this move, of course, have been largely positive, with Lattimore winning defensive rookie of the year that season, and with Julio and Evans posting the following stat lines in this matchup since that point:
We talked in the Lions // Cowboys game about the complexion of that game changing dramatically based on whether or not Stafford plays — and while the “complexion of the game” doesn’t quite change based on whether or not Lattimore plays, the complexion of the fantasy matchup certainly does.
Macro Look, Bucs ::
We’ll start with a macro look at this matchup before moving onto how it shapes up for individual pieces, as the Saints have been one of the stronger defenses in football this year, ranking seventh in DVOA and eighth in adjusted sack rate, while allowing the fifth fewest yards per game (behind only New England, San Francisco, Buffalo, and Denver) and the 11th fewest points per game. The Saints also rank sixth in opponent drive success rate — though it is worth pointing out that this has come as a result of New Orleans ranking fifth in opponent third down conversion rate, rather than as a result of turnovers forced. The Saints are able to get opponents off the field on third down, but only five teams have forced fewer turnovers. This is at least somewhat noteworthy, as the biggest obstacle for success with Jameis Winston under center is turnovers; and while a turnover or two is likely to show up, there is a good chance this does not become a full-on turnover festival.
The Saints have been really strong against running backs this year, allowing the fourth fewest rushing touchdowns to the position and the third fewest rushing yards. Only five teams are allowing fewer receiving yards to enemy backs, and at four total touchdowns allowed to the position, the Saints rank third best in the league after ranking eighth best last year.
Through the air, the Saints (with a willingness to lean on man coverage) are allowing a 5% boost to the league-average aDOT, but they are shaving 5.5% off the league-average catch rate and almost 13% off the league-average YAC/r rate. Only six teams are allowing fewer opponent plays per game than the Saints — so while most of the action through the air against them is flowing to wideouts (in addition to posting solid numbers against pass-catching running backs, New Orleans is facing the fourth fewest tight end targets in the league, one year after facing the eighth fewest), they still rank middle of the pack in all production categories to the position.
Since Week 4, the Saints have allowed 10 points to Dallas, 24 points to Tampa, 6 points to Jacksonville, 25 points to Chicago (with a special teams touchdown), 9 points to Arizona, and 26 points to Atlanta. The Falcons are the only team on that list that has topped their season average in this matchup.
Micro Look, Bucs ::
The Bucs’ backfield has a brutal matchup — and while Ronald Jones saw a surprising eight targets last week, his 11 carries matched what Peyton Barber saw, and his 38 snaps were not even half of the Buccaneers’ team total (83). All indications have this spot still set up as a timeshare (against a team allowing only 60.2 plays per game).
The matchup is also not “great” for the Bucs’ passing attack — though given scoring expectations for the Saints and the oft-explored aggressiveness of the Bucs’ passing offense, there are certainly clear opportunities for this unit to hit. Jameis ranks behind only Matthew Stafford in average intended air yards, and he ranks top 10 in aggressiveness percentage. He has topped 300 yards in six of his last seven games and is tied with Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers for the seventh most passing touchdowns in the league.
Of course, it’s also worth noting two separate things here:
1) The one game in which Jameis failed to top 300 yards in the last two months came against the Saints. That game was at New Orleans, with Lattimore on the field, so things have a chance to set up far better in this spot — but it’s still worth noting. The Saints picked up six sacks in that game and completely controlled the clock, allowing Jameis to throw only 27 times (compared to 54 // 43 // 44 // 48 in four games since). “Controlling the clock” is not something opponents can typically do against the Bucs, and this would typically require teams to run the ball — which has been fairly impossible in this spot. But Michael Thomas has hauled in an otherworldly 83.5% of his targets this season, and with these short-area targets continually connecting, the Saints are able to take their time between plays (29th in pace for the second straight year), put together sustained drives (sixth most plays per drive in the league), and make it difficult for opposing offenses to really get things going. The biggest impediment to the success of the Bucs’ passing attack is not the Saints’ defense. It’s the Saints’ offense.
2) This is a lesser note, but Mike Evans and Chris Godwin combined for only 37.5% of the Bucs’ available targets last week, after combining for 51.2% across their previous five games. I say “lesser note” because it’s highly unlikely that the Bucs suddenly become a spread-the-ball-around team. Christian McCaffrey put up 7 DK points in a game this year. Dalvin Cook disappointed against the Chiefs. Michael Thomas costs $9900 on DK this week and has four games this year under 20 points. Kenny Golladay had his worst games of the season against Minnesota and Philly, and Amari Cooper // Michael Gallup combined for 10.1 DK points against a Jets defense that has allowed four different wideouts to post their best game of the season. Crazy things happen in the NFL (as we often say, there are truly no “sure things”), but there are “surer things than just about everything else,” and the Bucs’ elite wide receiver pair remains in that category in just about any matchup.
If Lattimore plays — as noted the last time these teams came together — Evans can still hit in spite of the tough matchup, but everything will point toward Godwin (especially as the Saints are so solid against tight ends, and O.J. Howard is unlikely to see the seven targets he saw last week). Godwin soaked up 125 of the 204 available receiving yards on the Bucs the last time these teams played and will line up well for solid production again. Godwin also scored six touchdowns through the first five weeks and has not scored in four games since then. Evans has 14 red zone targets (second in the league) to Godwin’s nine, but his edge inside the 10 is only eight to six, and both guys can produce in the paint.
If Lattimore misses, both wideouts are on the table — though there will be very real potential for Jameis to finish around 35 pass attempts (27 earlier this year in this matchup // 38 last year // 28 for Fitzpatrick last year), which would set out expectations for around 16 to 18 combined looks for Evans/Godwin if we played out this slate a hundred times — removing some of the certainty these guys typically have.
When The Saints Have The Ball ::
Given the deeper elements we needed to dig into on the Tampa side of the ball, that individual team writeup is as long as most of the full-game writeups in the NFL Edge. Fortunately for those of you short on breath, the Saints’ side of this game is one of the easiest spots to break down on the slate.
Only nine teams are allowing more opponent plays per game than the Bucs, and only one team is facing a higher opponent pass play rate, as it has proven to be fairly futile to try to run on this team. This has led to no team in football facing more pass attempts per game than the 41(!) the Bucs are facing. The vast majority of NFL teams are not even close.
As noted last week (…as much as you might get pushback from most of the fantasy community for saying this — as I’m sure you can travel all over the place this week and hear how horrendous the Tampa secondary is), this team has been slightly below-average on a per-pass basis. They’re allowing an aDOT increase of 11%, but by barely beating the league-average catch rate and shaving almost 7% off the league-average YAC/r rate, they rank just below the middle of the pack in yards allowed per pass attempt. And yet(!), 41 pass attempts per game against a below-average unit tends to pile up production, with the Bucs allowing the fourth most wide receiver catches, the second most wide receiver yards, the most wide receiver touchdowns, the fourth most tight end catches, the second most tight end yards, and the third most tight end touchdowns. (Whew.) The Bucs are allowing 210.4 wide receiver yards per game and 77.2 tight end yards per game (while tightening things up even further by allowing the third fewest receiving yards to running backs, at 28.4 per game).
Recent wide receiver targets for the Saints ::
>> Ted Ginn :: 5 // 3 // 3
>> Tre’Quan Smith :: DNP // DNP // 2
>> Austin Carr :: 2 // 2 // DNP
>> Deonte Harris :: 0 // 2 // 0
>> Michael Thomas :: 11 // 11 // 14
I certainly didn’t think I would say this when I looked at pricing this week, but good on DK for pricing him up to such outlandish levels.
Jared Cook also has target counts in his last three healthy games of 6 (vs Bucs) // 3 // 10. He’s not the focal point that Thomas is, but he’s also in an excellent spot.
JM’s Interpretation ::
It feels appropriately weird to move past Alvin Kamara in a “backfield overview” manner (something that’s usually reserved only for obvious backfield fades), but it probably goes without saying that the likeliest scenario doesn’t have Kamara (or Latavius Murray) coming close to paying off the price tag in Week 11. Kamara is a talent-over-matchup play in the most difficult matchup in the league.
Thomas costs the DK equivalent of $8.45k on FantasyDraft and $7.5k on FanDuel, so while he plays an inherently volatile position, the rules of wide receiver volatility don’t really apply to his never-seen-before role (double-digits in all but two games this year). Thomas can be best viewed as a running back for the way he is used, with 89+ yards in all but one game (that game being the contest against Seattle in which the Seahawks had no answers for Alvin Kamara and the Saints leaned on him instead of Thomas), and although he has only four touchdowns, there are only five players with more red zone targets. The biggest risk for Thomas is the Bucs deciding to sell out to force the Saints to win with “anyone else” — but even in that scenario, this no-name secondary is unlikely to be able to hang with him all game. I have no idea what I’ll do with Thomas at his DK price (no player at that price is a “must play,” as they need 40+ points for it to truly hurt that you missed out — and no matter how good a player is, 40 is never “likely”), but he should land as a rock-solid Tier 2 play this week (the same tier out of which Christian Kirk emerged last week), and if the savings show up to make him a strong piece from an overall roster construction standpoint, he’ll obviously be very much in play.
Cook is sure to wind up in Tier 3, while Drew Brees (always a strange Tier 1 piece given how much volume he needs in this short-area attack to hit for yardage) should see enough volume to battle for Tier 1 position even after his dud last week.
On the Bucs’ side, the matchup tilts toward the air, and the aerial attack tilts toward the wideouts — with the biggest concern being that the Saints could control this game and limit Jameis’ pass attempts. Godwin can climb toward priority placement if Lattimore plays, while both guys will be very much on the table if Lattimore misses — albeit with volume concerns for this offense as a whole likely making this the rare scenario in which these guys would be more “high-Tier-3” than “true Tier 1.”