Since coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees rolled in to the Big Easy in 2006, the New Orleans Saints have had one of the league's most productive offenses, and a historically good passing attack. The Saints remain near the top of the league in passing, but in 2018 have shown the ability to beat opponents even when Brees and Co. are held in check. With half of their regular season games completed and the 7-1 Saints sitting at the top of the league's offensive rankings, here are my midseason grades for Sean Payton's explosive offense.
On Monday, October 8, 2018, in a primetime game against the Washington Redskins, Brees completed a 62 yard touchdown pass down the right sideline to wideout Tre'quan Smith. The pass moved Brees past Peyton Manning as the NFL's all-time passing yardage leader, one of the most hallowed records in professional sports. It was also not only a microcosm of the excellence that Brees has had throughout his 18-yr. career, but the high level of play he has continued to maintain in the 2018 season. He has completed over 76% of his 279 throws, on pace to shatter his own single season record for completion percentage. Brees has 2,336 passing yards at the midway point, well on pace for his 13th straight season of over 4,000 yards through the air. Perhaps the most incredible statistic Brees has produced so far this year is 18-1, as in 18 touchdown passes against only one interception. He breaks down defenses with computer-like efficiency, has among the best footwork of any quarterback that has ever played, and still has the arm strength to get the ball to the right spot. One underrated aspect of Brees' game is his heart, something on display as he has almost willed his squad to a victory through sheer will at times this season. Brees may not have to throw for 400 yards each game for the Saints to win consistently anymore, but he has shown the ability to still do it when needed.
Quarterback grade = A
The Saints were expected to struggle a bit with their offensive balance over the first four games, due to a suspension of Pro Bowl running back Mark Ingram. Second year back Alvin Kamara stepped up and showed another element of his versatility however, by showing that he can capably pick up tough yardage between the tackles. Kamara has rushed for a team high 490 yards on 111 carries, averaging 4.4 yards per carry, and has one 100 yard rushing game this season. He is still at his best off tackle and in the open field, where his elusiveness makes him one of the league's most dangerous weapons, but Kamara has proven that he can hold up as an interior runner. Kamara is arguably the NFL's best dual threat, and is second on the team in pass targets (66), catches (51), and receiving yards (427) while having over 100 yards receiving in two games. He has 12 offensive touchdowns, 9 rushing, 3 receiving, and has scored twice on 2-pt. conversions. Wide receiver Michael Thomas has established himself as one of the best wideouts in the league, but Kamara is the player that opposing defenses construct their game plans around. Ingram has not had the production since his return that he has over the previous few seasons, but is still an extremely important part of the Saints offense. He has 50 carries for 181 yards and two touchdowns thus far, while adding 8 catches for 62 yards receiving. Ingram is also an excellent pass blocker, outstanding at blitz pickup to allow Brees extra time. Ingram is only 553 yards and 3 rushing touchdowns away from passing Deuce McAllister as the Saints all-time leader in both categories. Despite the fact that Kamara is still getting the bulk of the rushes, Ingram has been featured more in the fourth quarter of victories against Baltimore and Minnesota, and will undoubtedly be a big part of the offense through the final half of the season. Quarterback Taysom Hill has been used in a large number of goal line and short yardage packages this year, and has added another versatile element to the Saints diverse offense. Hill has rushed for 133 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries, and also completed a long pass to Thomas on the opening drive against the Vikings. He has run with power inside, and has the speed to threaten defenses along the outside and in the open field. More importantly, Hill's presence has been able to slant some of the defensive focus off Kamara in a number of situations. Fullback Zach Line has been a human bulldozer for the backs, flattening linebackers that get in his path and clearing holes onto the second level.
Running back grade = B
Michael Thomas gets an A+ grade by himself, but the rest of the team's receiving corps continues to struggle with consistent production. Thomas, a third year pro, set league records for receptions early in the year, and broke a 39-yr. old franchise record with 211 receiving yards in last week's win over the Rams. He has three games of over 100 yards receiving, and has caught 70 passes for 880 yards and five scores, on pace to set several more team receiving records this season. Veteran Ted Ginn Jr. was placed on injured reserve after four games, but could return before the end of the season. In his absence, rookie 3rd round pick Tre'quan Smith has caught 12 balls for 214 yards and 3 touchdowns, and looks much more comfortable in the offense with each week. Smith seems the most likely to step up as a complimentary threat to Thomas, Kamara and Ingram, which would be vital down the stretch. Offseason acquisition Cameron Meredith could be the team's biggest disappointment over the first half of the season. Meredith, who missed 2017 while with the Bears after injuring his knee, doesn't look fully recovered from the injury, and has been slow to pick up the offense. The team has brought in veteran wideouts Dez Bryant, Brandon Marshall, and Kamar Aiken for tryouts, possibly looking to add to Brees' arsenal of weapons.
Wide receiver grade = B-
37-yr. old Benjamin Watson continues to be a valuable asset to the New Orleans offense even in his 14th NFL season. Watson is third on the team behind Thomas and Kamara in receptions (26) and receiving yards (292) while catching 2 touchdowns. Brees trusts Watson in key situations, and the veteran tight end still has the athleticism to make plays down the field. Sixth year tight end Josh Hill is on pace to have his best year as a receiver. Hill has 10 catches for 134 yards and a score so far, and both he and Watson are outstanding blockers that are essentially an extension of the offensive line in some packages. While Hill doesn't present a downfield threat like Watson can, third string Dan Arnold has shown the ability to do just that. Arnold has just two receptions for 35 yards so far, but is earning more snaps and could be a factor down the stretch if unaccounted for by defenses.
Tight end grade = C+
New Orleans boasts the best two offensive tackles in football at the moment. Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk have held some of the NFL's best edge rushers at bay, and are incredible at setting the edge for the Saints running game. Inside, center Max Unger and guards Larry Warford and Andrus Peat shut down the opponent's interior pass rush and open up holes for the Saints inside rushing attack. Peat struggled with injuries early this year, but seems to be back on track. With Peat out of the lineup, Cameron Tom stepped in and was able to give the offense some solid play, but questions about the team's depth here remain. The line has allowed Brees to be sacked just nine times, and has allowed him plenty of time to pass against even top defensive lines like Los Angeles, Minnesota, Baltimore, and Washington, allowing only three sacks combined. Armstead, Ramczyk, and Warford are playing at an All-Pro level, and are mauling opponents, allowing New Orleans to physically take over most games this season.
Offensive line grade = A
The Saints are averaging 34.9 points per game, second best in the league. Although their rushing average is a bit off last year, 129 yards on the ground in 2017 compared to 112 this year, that number figures to go up with Ingram back at full strength. Brees is as effective as he's ever been, and he has two nearly unstoppable weapons in Thomas and Kamara, along with a promising target in Tre'Quan Smith. The team loves to use it's running backs in the passing game, and Ingram is extremely effective as a receiver as well. New Orleans leads the league with 14 rushing touchdowns, and convert over 71% of their red zone opportunities. What sets these Saints apart is that they are imposing their will on the opposition, setting a physical tone early in games with one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. The absence of consistent complimentary threats outside of Kamara, Thomas, and Ingram are still a concern, but this team has shown so far that it has the offensive balance, versatility, and physicality to defeat defenses in any style of game.
First half offensive M.V.P.= Brees
First half offensive grade= B+
What is your mid-term grade for the Saints offense?
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