Drew Brees Wasn’t Who You Thought He Was in 2018

By Warren Sharp

{This article contains excerpts from the Amazon bestseller, Warren Sharp’s 2018 Football Preview. Get a copy of the 252-page full color book from Amazon or the PDF here.}

*Get a FREE copy of Warren’s 2018 Football Preview best seller by joining Sharp Football Analysis for the 2018 Season – Get on Board NOW*

Why did the Saints make a run to the playoffs for the first time in 4 years, while posting their first winning season since 2013?  There were two stories that came out of New Orleans last year as reasons for the success of the 2017 Saints.  The first was the run-game production (fueled by exciting rookie RB Alvin Kamara), and the second was the great performance of a young defense.  Drew Brees and his tremendous season took a back seat.

That’s right, I said tremendous season.

Oh, you didn’t think he had a good year?

You must be a “cumulative” stats person.

Some 100% fantasy football people focus only on the scoreboard of their weekly leagues, and think that it defines the quality of a player.

Brees-the-Fantasy-QB: 2017 Season

If you’re one of these people, you probably are focused on things like Brees passing for only 4,334 yards, his lowest total since his last year in San Diego in 2005.

You also probably noticed his 386 completions, his lowest total since 2009.

And you really probably hated his 23 total TDs, his lowest total since 2003.

The reality is, if you’re a 100% fantasy football person, you probably didn’t like the way Brees’ season went down, because the team ran in so many TDs.

After expecting Brees to repeat his 2016 totals of 5,208 yards and 37 TDs, his 4,334 yards and 23 TDs were probably disappointing.

But we’re talking about Brees the NFL QB.  Not Brees the fantasy QB.

Brees-the-NFL-QB: 2017 Season

The fact is, Brees had a tremendous 2017 season:

  • His 8.1 yards per attempt was his highest since 2011.
  • His 1.5% interception rate was a career best.
  • His 72% completion rate was a career best and set the NFL record.
  • His 3.6% sack percentage was his best since 2011.
  • His 103.9 passer rating was his best since 2013.

Looking at more advanced stats, Brees’ 51% passing success rate was #1 in the league.  His 56% success rate on early downs was likewise #1 in the league.  He averaged 8.4 YPA on early down passes, which was #1 in the league (minimum 200 attempts).

The first argument against Brees will be the impact his dynamic RBs provided him in the passing game.

But guess what?

On non-RB passes, Brees still produced a 56% success rate, #1 in the NFL.  His 8.8 YPA on non-RB passes was #2 in the NFL.

The second argument against Brees in 2017 will be the depth of target, as it wasn’t as deep as it had been in prior years (on account of all the RB-targets).

But guess what?

On deep passes (15+ yards downfield), Brees recorded an absolutely stunning 57% success rate.  No other QB was even in that neighborhood.  For comparison, Brady was 45%, Wilson was 40%, Rivers was 42%, Roethlisberger was 36%, Goff was 41%… I think you get the picture.

Brees posted 16.2 yards per attempt on deep passes, his highest since 2011.  Brees posted a 101.9 passer rating on deep passes, his best since 2013.

Brees didn’t contribute pure volume to the Saints in 2017.

Instead he contributed pure, unabashed efficiency.  And it was a sight to see.

While Brees was incredible in 2017, let’s dive deeper into the Saints offense as a whole to get a better understanding of the context surrounding his season and what we can expect in 2018.

The Saints Run Game

Let’s discuss that incredible run game. It ranked as the most efficient and fifth-most explosive rushing offense in the NFL. And the Saints achieved that ranking despite having their primary run blockers, offensive lineman and tight ends, as the ninth- and seventh-most injured units in the league, respectively.

But this run game was not as different as their 2016 run game as you may think, except for their explosiveness, which was phenomenal.

The 2016 Saints rushing attack produced a 53% success rate on runs, better than the team’s 49% success rate in 2017.

But thanks to increased explosiveness, the 2017 Saints gained 4.8 yards per carry instead of 2016’s 4.3.

From a volume perspective, the 2016 Saints had more red-zone rushes (88) than the 2017 Saints (73).

Even though the Saints were more run-heavy in 2017, that perhaps surprising volume decrease in the red zone when compared to 2016 was likely due to better third-down production back in 2016, which allowed for more red zone trips (64 in 2016 vs. 52 in 2017) as well as fewer breakaway rushing touchdowns.

The Saints Offensive Line

The Saints offensive line fell apart in 2017, ranking as the ninth-most injured unit in the NFL.

They were one of four teams along with the Giants, Bears, and Cardinals to start a unique offensive line in every single game but the only team of the four to post a winning record.

It started in the offseason, when starting LT Terron Armstead tore his labrum in June. The Saints avoided placing him on the PUP list before Week 1, which meant he didn’t automatically miss the first six games, but he would still end up missing the first four. They also lost starting RT Zach Strief in Week 1 and ended up playing most of Week 1 and all of Weeks 2-3 without two of their starting offensive linemen. Strief was lost for the season in Week 4, so the Saints made rookie Ryan Ramczyk the full-time starting right tackle. Every single starting offensive lineman missed at least two games except for C Max Unger, who played every snap. In total, Armstead missed six games, exited several others early, and played through injury in yet multiple others. LG Andrus Peat missed two games and spent time moving all around the line to fill in for other injured members. And RG Larry Warford missed two games as well.

Knowing they were in a bind with their offensive line in June with Armstead’s injury and seeing as how it only got worse right out of the gate in Week 1, it’s understandable that the Saints wouldn’t want to subject Brees to as many attempts as he had in prior years.

More Context

In one-score games, the Saints moved from 63% passes in 2016 (second-most in the NFL) to 59% in 2017 (11th-most), but they were still above the league average of 57%.

Context is king in the NFL. It’s imperative to know exactly what you’re looking at.

In 2017, the Saints led at halftime by double digits in six games. In 2016, they did so in just two games.

So, let’s look only at the first half when analyzing the biggest change in the Saints offense from 2016 to 2017.

The biggest change in their pass rate was on first down.

In the first half of games in 2016, the Saints passed on 56% of first downs (fourth-most), but in 2017 that number dropped to 46% (11th-most run heavy).

On second down, they actually passed more often in 2017 (63%) than in 2016 (61%).

On third down, they passed much more often in 2017 (84%) than in 2016 (74%).

Here’s a question:

Why would a more run-dominant 2017 Saints pass more often on second down than their 2016 counterpart, and exceptionally more on third down?

The answer is simple: Rushing gains fewer yards per play than passing.

In 2017, a more run-heavy Saints team faced an average of 7.6 yards to go on second down. That number was 7.4 yards to go in 2016.

And on third down, the 2017 Saints faced an average of 6.8 yards to go, a substantial increase from 6.2 in 2016.

Essentially, Drew Brees is so good and so accurate a quarterback that even with as brilliant of a run game as the Saints had in 2017, which gained 4.8 YPC, they were that much less efficient with their productivity than when Brees dropped back to pass.

While there are other benefits added for running the ball, the Saints offense gained fewer yards per play and thus had more yards to go after a first down run.

What were the ramifications of the Saints becoming so run-heavy on first down in 2017?

This great offense of 2017 ranked just No. 22 in third-down conversion rate (37%) as opposed to No. 1 in 2016 (49%) because they had more yards to go in 2017 (as well as having better receivers in 2016 than 2017, which I’ll cover now).

The Saints Wide Receivers

In addition to the reasons just described in detail as to why the Saints ran the ball more often last season, another equally key reason was their receiving talent.

The 2016 Saints featured a great threesome of wide receivers in Brandin Cooks, Michael Thomas, and Willie Snead. The team also had a healthy and moderately successful tight end in Coby Fleener.

In 2016, all four of these players played on at least 58% of the team’s offensive snaps, drew at least 80 targets, and caught at least 50 passes.

In 2016, the Saints used 11 personnel (three wide receivers, one running back, one tight end) 62% of the time, and even though the 2016 Saints had a great run game (third-best in the NFL), they saw the value in passing the ball often thanks to Brees and those receivers.

Last season, however, the Saints traded Cooks, and while they brought in WR Ted Ginn (who was incredible statistically), they didn’t get close to similar production from Snead and Fleener, who both missed time in camp with injuries.

On Sept. 1, Snead was hit with a three-game suspension for substance abuse, preceding missed games and practice limitations with a hamstring injury that lingered until Week 8, though he was barely even used in that game; instead, the Saints opted to use WR Brandon Coleman (48 snaps vs. four for Snead).

While this was ongoing, Fleener was used much less than in 2016 and then suffered a concussion in Week 12 and was lost for the remainder of the year.  Snead’s usage increased when Fleener was out, but in terms of the big picture, Fleener and Snead were no-shows.

As such, instead of having four wide receivers and/or tight ends drawing 80+ targets and catching 50+ passes like they did in 2016, the 2017 Saints had just one draw 80 targets (Thomas, 149) and two catch 50+ passes (Thomas, 104; Ginn, 53).

2018 Outlook

The Saints offensive line is healthier now than at this point last season.  The Saints will be without their more traditional grinding RB Mark Ingram the first four weeks of the season.  The Saints run game is also projected to face a much stiffer slate of opposing run defenses in 2018 as compared to 2017.  Meanwhile, the Saints receiving corps will be better, thanks to personnel additions.

This offseason, the Saints had the excellent fortune of acquiring WR Cameron Meredith, formerly of the Bears. Most casual observers don’t know about Meredith, as the Bears were bad and didn’t pass often in 2016 before Meredith tore his ACL in the 2017 preseason. Even though he played alongside WR Alshon Jeffrey in Chicago in 2016, Meredith was the Bears’ most successful wide receiver (56%) and delivered their highest yards per target (9.2).

New Orleans also added back Ben Watson at tight end, a player who caught 74 passes for them in 2015 before heading to Baltimore for two seasons.

I see the Saints returning to more 11 personnel in 2018.

In fact, I think there could be a substantial shift.

As such, I’m higher on Brees than most. If the team’s offensive line can stay healthier than 2017, the offense will be incredible.

But they will need to be.

I have the Saints facing a top-five schedule of defenses, including the largest shift in difficulty from 2016 of any team.

The hype isn’t around Drew Brees this offseason in the fantasy community like it has been in year’s past.  The perception is, because of his lack of counting stats and his age, he’s in a state of decline.

Age is nothing we can change.

But the perception of his lack of counting stats is not an indication of Brees’ performance nor efficiency.  It was a sign of his situation last season – his injured offensive line, the lack of talent at receiver and their injuries, and the sudden improvement from a young defense.

In 2018, Brees should have more production because:

  1. A healthier offensive line
  2. More talent at receiver
  3. Will likely use more 11 personnel
  4. Their rushing attack faces more difficult run defenses
  5. Mark Ingram’s suspension could mean less reliance on 1st & 10 rushing
  6. Less 1st & 10 rushing would likely mean a better 3rd down conversion rate than their #22 rank in 2017
  7. A better 3rd down conversion rate would mean a better chance of red zone trips
  8. More red zone trips means more touchdowns passes from Brees
  9. Their defense plays a more difficult schedule of opposing offenses

It’s more than possible that Brees’ arm is called upon more in 2018 than it was in 2017.

And then what of all of that efficiency that Brees put on display for the analytics geeks in the room but hid from the counting-stats cavemen?

With efficiency on repeat and volume turned up, the result will be more counting stats.  And that will result in happier fantasy players.

Detroit Could Wipe Away Massive Inefficiency and Predictability in 2018 with This Improvement

By Warren Sharp

{This article contains excerpts from the Amazon bestseller, Warren Sharp’s 2018 Football Preview. Get a copy of the 252-page full color book from Amazon or the PDF here.}

All graphics from Sharp Football Stats, a free-to-use visualized data website.

The NFL is a passing league.  The smartest teams know you pass to get the lead and run to maintain the lead.  Should it matter if you have the NFL’s worst rushing attack?  If it’s all about passing, certainly teams can win without rushing well.

Enter the Detroit Lions, the worst rushing offense of the past 5 years.

That is not hyperbole.  The Lions are literally #32 of 32 teams since 2013.  From both an efficiency perspective as well as per an average yardage perspective.  In efficiency, they’ve never ranked better than 25th. Beginning with most recent, Detroit finished third worst, eighth worst, sixth worst, fourth worst, and sixth worst in rushing efficiency over the last half decade.  In terms of average yardage, they have averaged 3.71 yards per carry the past 5 years, the worst in the NFL.

What are the implications and ramifications of being such a bad run team?

With the NFL’s worst run game, the Lions have had to become the most pass heavy team in the NFL.  Over those 5 years, they are the only team to pass the ball on over 61% of their play calls.  While being pass heavy doesn’t sound like a bad thing in the modern NFL, it is bad if you’re terrible when you need to run, and choose not to run when it’s most advantageous to do so.

Because there are certain situations when rushing is more efficient than passing.  Short yardage situations and red zone situations are two of the most valuable times to run the football.

Implications in Short Yardage Situations

League-wide last year, rushing on third or fourth and short yielded a 68% success rate, substantially better than passing (53% success rate).  So naturally, teams choose to run the ball more in these situations.  The league average was 56% run.  [Truthfully, teams should run the ball more often in short yardage situations than they do.]

But because the Lions were such a terrible rushing team, they had to go much more pass heavy, it screwed their play balance.  No team passed more often in short yardage situations than the Lions.  Instead of 56% run, like the league average, Detroit was 40% run.

Short Yardage Performance 2

Rushing is far more likely to convert a first down in these situations than is passing.  And as a result of doing the lesser efficient play type (passes) more often, coupled with the horrible rushing production when they did choose to run, the Lions were dead last in first down conversion rate on 3rd or 4th and short the past 2 years.

As the below graphic shows, while the league average was a 62% conversion rate on 3rd or 4th and short plays the last two years, Detroit converted only 49%, the worst rate in the NFL.  From a yards per play standpoint, the Lions gained just 2.6 yards per play, nearly 2 yards per play worse than the 4.5 yards per play league average.

Short Yardage Performance

Those are the situations where the run game really hurts you.  And the consequences of being the NFL’s worst short yardage team are grave.

It means more failed conversions, more punts, fewer points, less time of possession and every other negative that comes with the territory.

The tangible impact of short yardage failures was abundant.

The 2017 Lions failed to convert a fourth-and-short play in the third quarter against the Steelers and lost by five points. They failed to convert a fourth-and-short against the Panthers and lost by three points.

On third down, Detroit failed on 22 third-and-short attempts in 2017. Four of them came against the Falcons, a game they lost by four points. Three more occurred against Carolina, two against the Steelers, and one against the Vikings, a game they lost by seven points. Detroit failed on four third-and-short tries against the Bengals and lost by nine points.

Most of these were one-score losses where a single third- or fourth-and-short conversion could have turned that loss into a win.

Implications Inside the Red Zone

Because the Lions were so terrible rushing the football, they apparently felt almost obligated to pass the ball when they ventured into the red zone.  They were the most pass-heavy team inside the red zone, with a 66% pass rate the last two years, 11% above average and 4% above any other team.

Short Yardage Performance 3

Unfortunately, these passes were not successful, in part because they were too predictable.  Last year, the Lions were successful on just 31% of their red zone passes, 6th worst in the NFL.  But when they ran the ball, they produced a 48% success rate (2% above league average), 12th best in the NFL.  And yet fearing their run game, they passed the ball twice as often as they ran it, feeding more and more into their inefficiency.

League-wide the last two years, red zone rushes are 9% more successful (48%) than red zone passes (39%).  But teams still pass the ball 55% of the time. [Truthfully, teams should run the ball more often in the red zone than they do.]

The Lions were completely skewed with their play calling due to lack of faith in their run game.  Their run game was more successful, but due to witnessed inconsistency, they passed the ball way too often, way above average, and it was highly detrimental.

2018 Changes

HC Matt Patricia and GM Bob Quinn set out to improve their run game this offseason. They drafted first-round LG Frank Ragnow and traded up for second-round RB Kerryon Johnson.

In his first preseason game, Johnson gained 4.9 YPC and that’s with a massive run wiped out due to a holding penalty.  He also gained 8.3 YPA on 5 total targets.

The Lions also have LeGarrette Blount and receiving back Theo Riddick.  Ameer Abdullah may be the odd man out when the team cuts down to 53, but the only reason is that this RB corps is stacked with contributors, leaving the Lions in much better shape than in years past.

On the down side, the Lions will be facing the NFL’s 2nd most difficult schedule of run defenses in 2018 by my projections.  But that shouldn’t limit the optimism of the changes in store for Detroit in 2018.

By being a better run team, Detroit should find the following benefits in 2018:

  1. Not have to be the most pass-heavy team in short yardage situations.
  2. Convert more first downs in short yardage situations, and thus
  3. Punt the ball less.
  4. Turn those conversions into more yardage and
  5. More trips to the red zone.
  6. Not have to be the most pass-heavy team in the red zone.
  7. Call less predictable pass plays in the red zone.
  8. Produce a better success rate on all red zone plays.
  9. Score more points.
  10. Give the opposing offense less time of possession.
  11. Keep the Lions defense fresher when they do enter the game.
  12. Force opposing offenses to be more predictable when playing from behind in the second half, making it easier on the Lions defense.

If this year’s Lions can establish improved run-game efficiency, they will get more trips to the red zone and should be more confident in calling more run plays when in the red zone, further raising their ceiling and increasing their point totals.

Playing less predictable is more important now than it has ever been in the NFL, and the Lions were playing with handcuffs the last 5 years, being the NFL’s worst run team and the most run-adverse team.  Without those handcuffs in 2018, it won’t just be the offense whose efficiency increases, the defense will find themselves in more favorable situations as well.

This is still a pass-first league, but it cannot be overstated how much a bad short-yardage run game can impact overall performance, as can too much passing in the red zone.  We’ll get to witness the changes in Detroit first-hand this season, and I’m looking forward to it.

Check out the 2018 Football Preview book now at Amazon or in PDF to see more ways for the Lions to improve their efficiency, dive into my outlook for their 2018 season, and to check out the player Evan Silva thinks has the best fantasy outlook in 2018.

“There are so many preseason NFL previews available that offer fans insight into the season, however, few dig as deep as Warren Sharp’s Football Preview, with a unique view of what really matters during the season.  Sharp’s detailed approach is a must read for any football fan–and it’s one of my main summer reads.”

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