SAINTS // VIKINGS OVERVIEW
This game will be a blast for the Showdown slate, and like last week, it appears to be a “FantasyDraft Special,” where those of us who made it to Round 2 of the One Week Season Survivor contest (along with the rest of us who are hunting overlay and rake-free H2Hs and softer player pools on FantasyDraft) will end up wanting to rework our “Main Slate” DraftKings roster to account for the good stuff in play later in the day. Saints // Vikings gives us a rematch of one of the most memorable playoff games in recent history, with a red hot 5-1 Saints team taking on a 4-2-1 Vikings squad that has turned things around of late. It is highly likely that one of these two teams will have a first-round bye in this year’s playoffs, and this game will go a long way toward deciding which team that will be.
Offense has been the name of the game for the Saints, as they rank second in the league in points per game and sixth in the league in yards per game (Minnesota ranks 14th and 13th), while New Orleans has given up the sixth most points per game. (It should be noted that the Saints rank only 16th in yards allowed per game — and if they ever figure out how to clean up their red zone defense (30th in red zone touchdown rate allowed), they will become a middling unit, rather than a unit we should go out of our way to pick on.) New Orleans ranks first in drive success rate on offense — and while Drew Brees has a lengthy history of playing better at home, he also has a lengthy history of playing better indoors, and this game will be played in the friendly conditions of U.S. Bank Stadium.
For their part, the Vikings have been turning things around on defense of late, allowing recent point totals of 21, 17, and 17 (two of those games came vs Arizona and the Jets, but the other came at Philly). The Vikings’ pass rush has been coming together (10th in adjusted sack rate), and their run defense has continued to look solid (fourth in yards allowed per carry). The one big issue for the Vikings has been on the back end — and this issue will be exacerbated in Week 8 with Xavier Rhodes expected to miss.
SAINTS PASS OFFENSE
While the Saints prefer to lean run-heavy these days (19th in pass play rate on the season; 28th over their last three games) — an approach that is further emphasized when Mark Ingram is on the field — it is the passing attack that is likeliest to find success in this spot. New Orleans ranks fourth in pass offense DVOA and sixth in run offense DVOA, creating a “strength on strength” matchup for their run game, and a “strength on weakness” matchup for their passing attack.
After his scorching hot start to the season (40 targets through the first three games, with an obviously unsustainable 95% catch rate), Michael Thomas has slowed down significantly the last three games for the Saints, with 15 total catches on 18 total targets. Thomas had only two games all of last year under eight targets (with only one game all year north of 11 targets), and even with passing volume trickling down for Brees once again, Thomas should be locked into the same eight to 11 looks he was seeing last year. As always, it is worth noting that Thomas has an aDOT of only 6.9 this year — putting him alongside names like Danny Amendola, Randall Cobb, Jarius Wright, and Chester Rogers — so he needs touchdowns or big volume to really bust out for a big game (he topped 100 yards only twice last year). But he is a high-floor play, and the red zone usage is there, with Thomas ranking fourth in the NFL in targets inside the 20.
Alvin Kamara is the other core piece of this passing attack, with the most red zone targets in the NFL — though it has been concerning to see his targets drop to four and two in a pair of games since Ingram returned. The four-target game came in a blowout of Washington, but his two-target game came last week in a back-and-forth affair against a Ravens team that is tough to beat on the ground. Only four teams have allowed fewer running back receptions than the Ravens…and only five teams have allowed fewer running back receptions than the Vikings — so there should be at least some concerns that Kamara’s low-reception usage repeats in this spot. (Obviously, Kamara still possesses upside with his carries, and he punched in a touchdown from the two-yard-line last week — reminding us that both Kamara and Ingram were used near the goal line last season. Optimally, you hope he sees a spike in targets this week if rostering him, but he still has an outside shot at hitting without the aerial looks.)
Ingram once again soaked up a healthy number of touches last week, piling up 14 touches in a close game one week after seeing 18 touches in a blowout. This matchup is not too different from the tough spot in which Ingram struggled last week (12 carries for 32 yards against a Ravens team that ranks fifth in fewest yards allowed per carry; Minnesota ranks fourth), and he will need a long play or a multi-touchdown game to make a dent. Minnesota has allowed only one rushing touchdown to running backs, and they are one of only two teams in the league that has not yet allowed a run play of 20+ yards.
On the flip side of that, Minnesota has allowed the third most pass plays of 20+ yards, and they are tied with five other teams (including the Saints) for most pass plays of 40+ yards. Enter Tre’Quan Smith, who has seen target counts of three and six since Ted Ginn was lost for the year, on a 71.6% snap rate. With Brees throwing only 59 passes across those two games, there is room for Smith to see five to seven looks in this spot if the Saints lean on the pass a bit more heavily. Smith has plenty of “bust” to his game, but his downfield speed and deep ball role keep “boom” on his side as well.
This offense wraps up with Ben Watson (recent target counts of 6 // 3 // 4 // 6) and Cameron Meredith (a disappointing 25.4% snap rate last week, with zero targets — an outlier, perhaps, but he is deep down the pecking order right now). Last week, the NFL Edge mentioned (but failed to really highlight) the fact that the matchup vs the Ravens set up well for Watson — as I stated in that spot that Watson’s volume wouldn’t match up to Njoku’s, and that Njoku was the tight end against whom we should be judging other plays in Week 7. This was true, but it passed up the opportunity to roster Watson as a cheap FLEX play who posted a solid game (6-43-1). Without the touchdown, that line would have been far less useful, but that’s often the name of the game at the lower end of the price range. The Vikings are tied with the Ravens for the sixth most receptions allowed to the position, and only three teams have allowed more yards. Nothing is guaranteed in this many-mouthed offense, but Watson shapes up nicely for another five or six looks.
The Vikings also have a tough matchup on the ground, as the Saints have given up the fewest yards per carry in the NFL, and no team has allowed fewer rushing yards per game. Teams are all but abandoning the run against this team (17.3 running back rush attempts faced per game) — an approach that makes sense, as New Orleans is much more attackable through the air. This week, it will once again be Latavius Murray carrying the load for Minnesota — with two touchdowns last week keeping his glossy stat lines going, but with him failing to crack 70 rushing yards for the sixth time in seven games. Against a New Orleans team that has allowed 3.1 yards per carry and only two rushes all year of 20+ yards, Murray will need big volume or another multi-touchdown game to be a difference-maker. Consider him a yardage-and-touchdown back in a difficult matchup.
We’ll start with Thielen, who is running 61% of his routes out of the slot and will see plenty of coverage liability P.J. Williams. Not that matchup matters much for Thielen — who is one of the best route runners in football, and whose connection with Kirk Cousins has been sublime — but Williams ranks 96th in receptions allowed per coverage snap, while allowing a 73.9% completion rate on passes into his coverage. Thielen has double-digit targets and at least 100 yards receiving in all seven games this year (an NFL record), and the Saints are ill-equipped to slow him down on the interior of the defense.
Pro Football Focus believes that newly-acquired Eli Apple will shadow Diggs (rather than Marshon Lattimore — who has sometimes struggled to contain shiftier receivers), but either way, there are very few corners who match up well in man coverage vs Diggs — and since New Orleans plays plenty of man coverage, this plays to his favor. Diggs saw only four targets against the stingy perimeter defense of the Cardinals two weeks ago and then saw usage primarily within five yards of the line of scrimmage last week in a windy game at the Meadowlands (eight catches for only 33 yards, on 14 targets — with four targets of 15+ yards (including two of 40+ yards) that all fell incomplete). New Orleans is tied with the Vikings (along with a few others) for most pass plays of 40+ yards allowed. This is a good rebound spot for Diggs.
Kyle Rudolph and Laquon Treadwell clean up the scraps in this passing attack. Rudolph has four to six targets in five consecutive games — with a max of 57 yards. He’s a touchdown-dependent option against a Saints team that has allowed the fewest tight end receptions in the league. Treadwell continues to run into three to four receptions (he has exactly that number in five straight games), but he has yet to top 47 yards, and he has only one touchdown all year — with almost none of his looks being schemed looks.
Surprisingly, Thielen is the only play that really pops out on the main slate, with Kirk Cousins and Diggs always worth rolling onto the same roster as him if you want to try to capture all the upside from this passing attack at once. The Vikings project to score three touchdowns through the air in this spot, and the likeliest scenario has all three of these landing on Thielen and Diggs.
On the Showdown slate, touchdown and YOLO shots can be taken on Rudolph and Treadwell, respectively. There is obviously a case to be made for Latavius as a touchdown-dependent play as well on the Showdown, though his floor clocks in pretty low in this spot.
The Saints should score three or four touchdowns of their own while producing decent yardage, but there isn’t much in this spot that points to predictable blowups from any individual players. Thomas will carry a solid floor with all the targets he’ll see, but because he sees these targets so close to the line of scrimmage, he’ll need a touchdown or two to justify his price. Same goes for Kamara — who has monster upside in any matchup, but whose floor is still not reflected in his price. Hopefully he gets more involved in the pass game in this one — even with the Vikings’ defense ranking near the top of the league in fewest receptions allowed to the running back position. Ingram will need a multi-touchdown game to carry weight; Smith will need to connect on the deep passes he will see in order to be a “boom” instead of the “bust” that his limited volume leaves him at risk of being; and Watson should post a solid yardage game, but with his volume capped, he’ll need a touchdown in order to really pay off. Meredith is a wildcard. Brees should have one of the stronger games on the Showdown, but he’s unlikely to hold up to some of the other plays available on the full weekend (or the full Sunday) slate.