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Where the New Orleans Saints will need help without Michael Thomas

All-Pro WR Michael Thomas has been a reliable target for the Saints on the most pivotal of downs. While he’s out, someone will need to step up.

New Orleans Saints v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The easy answer is “in the passing game” but thanks to advanced metrics, we can key in on certain game situations where the New Orleans Saints will be looking for someone to produce in All-Pro wide receiver Michael Thomas’ stead while he is out for what is expected to be up to five games.

New Orleans Saints v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The New Orleans Saints were the best team in the NFL on first downs in 2020 according to Football Outsiders. Their DVOA metric measures the efficiency of a team on a play-by-play basis taking several factors into account including down, distance, field position, opposing team, and much more. The result is then compared to a league average to provide either a positive number (better than average) or a negative figure (below league average).

While no metric or analytic tells the entire story, DVOA is one of my favorites to use when it comes to measuring where teams excel, struggle, or are simply adequate in certain situations.

On first down in 2020, the Saints were the cream of the crop. Producing at the 6th best rate on first down passes and the third best rate on the ground.

Back in 2019, the team also ranked atop the rest on first downs. With a seventh-ranked rush offense and a top-ranked passing offense to open drives and fresh sets of downs. A whopping 65.6% DVOA on first down passes in 2019 as compared to 36.3% in 2020.

Not a significant drop, but a noticeable one. Another noticeable drop came on third downs, particularly in the third and “mid” range. Football Outsiders defines the mid range as 3-6 yards to go.

2019: 3rd/4th Down and Mid - 9th in the NFL 10.7
2020: 3rd/4th Down and Mid - 23rd in the NFL -23.2

According to Sharp Football Stats (who defines the mid range as 4-7 yards) a big playcalling tendency that changed for New Orleans from 2019 to 2020 was throwing to Michael Thomas in those third and mid situations. Thomas was, of course, unavailable for nine games in 2020. No big surprise on the drop off.

New Orleans went from being a top-ten offense in successful play percentage as well as DVOA on those third downs relying on throws to Michael Thomas about 30% of the time to a bottom-ten team in those same situations only able to throw his way on about 17% of the time in 2020.

Sharp also shows a 46% success percentage when targeting Thomas on those throws in 2020 against 59% in 2019. So, even the quality of the fewer targets he was able to receive was down, likely also having to do with his high-ankle sprain which denied his ability to cut and break cleanly from defenders.

With Thomas expected to miss the beginning of the season in 2021, the Saints will need to figure out another option on third and mid the same way they did on third and long in 2020.

On those plays, targets went from Michael Thomas to Tre’Quan Smith to the tune of a 57% successful play rate.

Ideally, once Michael Thomas is back and available after his surgery, he won’t be as limited as he was trying to work his way back in 2020. Allowing him to impact the game at his usually dominant rate.

The good news for the Saints is that regardless of which receivers take the field, they’ll have one of the game’s best playcallers on the sideline scheming pass-catchers open on first and 10, third and mid, and otherwise.

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