The New Orleans Saints have finished in the NFL’s top ten in third down conversions each season since 2017. During that time, wide receiver Michael Thomas has brought in 75 first downs on third down catches, tied for third most in the NFL despite missing a large portion of the 2020 season.
Without Thomas on the field, or not entirely himself when he was, the Saints had to look elsewhere to help extend drives. So who was the most reliable option when it came to converting on third down?
The most conversions by a skill position player, unsurprisingly, were provided by running back Alvin Kamara. Kamara had a very successful 2020 season despite missing the final game due to COVID-19 testing and a violation of protocols. But his 13 third down conversions topped the Saints roster outside the quarterback position, which we’ll get to in a moment.
If we split up rushing and receiving, though, we can take a look at more players that stood out in this phase of the game. Of the Saints’ 93 conversions, 55 were through the air and 38 via the run game.
The leader in catches resulting in a third down conversion was tight end and Saints fan punching bag Jared Cook. He was targeted 20 times on third down coming up with 14 catches and 12 conversions. Despite Kamara only converting five times though the air, he was targeted more than any other Saints pass catcher in those situations with 24 targets.
In the run game, Kamara’s conversions come in second place among running backs. Running-mate Latavius Murray lead the backs with 11 rushing first downs on 12 attempts. Murray was remarkably efficient at that rate and also added an additional conversion through the air on just five third down receptions.
By sheer count, Alvin Kamara may have put up the most conversions, but Latavius Murray’s 92% success rate on third down carries is very impressive.
Without a doubt, and to no one’s surprise, the player that contributed to the most third down conversions is Drew Brees. The quarterback threw for 37 and ran for an additional three. Not bad for a guy in his 40’s. But you’d expect that from the future Hall of Famer that touches the ball every play for which he’s in. However, Taysom Hill put up some impressive third down numbers when called upon.
Hill was 29/34 passing with 263 yards and 17 first downs on third down attempts while also running for 12. Hill lead the team in rushing first downs with that total. I tend to think that the assumption that the Saints and Sean Payton are trying to change their offense to a dual-threat QB system is a bit of an exaggeration. But a focus on mobility (drawing a line of differentiation between dual-threat and mobile) packs in its benefits and here they are on full display.
Hill converted 50% of his rushing attempts on third downs into a fresh set of downs and added three touchdowns (same as Latavius Murray). He converted at the exact same rate in the passing game, but with no touchdowns. Surprisingly, not much contribution from him as a pass-catcher. He caught all four of his targets for 24 yards, but no first downs.
The impressive part of Hill’s performance in this framework was his reliability as a passer. He had an 85.3% completion percentage in these situations and exceeded Brees in yards per attempt by more than half a yard and first down percentage by nearly 20%. However, Hill was sacked six time and threw an interception on far fewer dropbacks than Brees.
Third down is, without a doubt, a critical moment in every NFL drive. The quarterbacks have to be consistent in order to be successful. Taysom Hill did a great job in this area of the game. His versatility as a passer and runner helps in all yard-to-go situations. As a passer, he averaged 7.7 yards per third down attempt, giving him viability as a third and long threat, and as a runner her averaged 3.08 yards per third down run, making him a viable option on third and short situations. (Though he didn’t come close to scraping Kamara and Murray at 5.0 and 4.5 yards per third down carry respectively.)
Latavius Murray makes an excellent claim as the Saints’ most reliable third down and short option, but without Michael Thomas and without Drew Brees, I’d feel comfortable saying that Taysom Hill was the most reliable option when called upon for third downs in 2020. You could certainly see the missing juice from both of these players, Hill and Murray, in the playoff loss against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Who do you think was most reliable? Let us know in the comments. Make sure you follow Canal Street Chronicles on Twitter at @SaintsCSC , “Like” us on Facebook at Canal Street Chronicles, and make sure you’re subscribed to our new YouTube channel. As always, you can follow me on Twitter @RossJacksonNOLA and subscribe to my daily Saints podcast, Locked On Saints and checkout the Locked On Saints YouTube channel.