The Saints need to figure out how to use all of their weapons this summer.
It’s a nice change from last year when Michael Thomas was lining up all over the field, and Ted Ginn Jr. was the only other high-powered receiver Drew Brees had to target. But after signing Cam Meredith and Tre’Quan Smith during the offseason, this offense has to figure out how to use all four of its receivers, assuming those two players are ready to contribute.
The solution might seem simple. If you have four receivers you want to get snaps, then drop all four on the field and let Brees pick his poison. But that isn’t how it works. While New Orleans could use more four-receiver sets, this is also a running team, and overdosing on something that would limit that aspect of offense wouldn't make sense.
“It just depends on what we’re trying to do that week,” coach Sean Payton said. “It limits you in the running game a little bit without a tight end, but it’s not to say that we haven’t had packages with four guys. Usually, we’d attach maybe a running back or tight end, but it can change week to week.”
It was a seldom-used package for New Orleans last season. Brees only attempted 26 passes with four receivers on the field, completing 16 for 148 yards, according to Sports Info Solutions. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that 14 of those attempts came on third down, and all four attempts on second down came when needing 7 or more yards.
As Payton said, it was a week-to-week thing. All of the attempts came in seven games. There was something about division foes that seemed to appeal to the coaching staff. The Saints attempted 10 passes with four receivers on the field against Carolina last season, and nine against the Falcons, with seven of those coming in a Week 16 game.
The numbers didn’t change much when New Orleans featured Thomas, a productive Willie Snead and Brandin Cooks as the headliners at receiver in 2016. Brees attempted 34 passes with four receivers on the field and completed 28 of his attempts for 270 yards.
The Saints only attempted four runs with four receivers on the field last season, all to Alvin Kamara, and gained 87 yards. But that success rate is a little misleading since 74 of those yards came on one run against the Los Angeles Rams during Week 12 on an off-tackle play to the right side.
The year before, the Saints had one designed run with four receivers on the field. Mark Ingram carried the ball both times for a total of 2 yards.
One thought was if left tackle Terron Armstead, who brings a level of speed and athleticism to the field that few offensive linemen possess, is healthy, then it could allow New Orleans some more ability to sneak in a couple more runs without a tight end on the field. But Payton threw water on that idea.
“It really has nothing to do with Terron,” Payton said. “Defensively, they can deploy in a way where you just lose a number. Certainly, they can do that if you bring a tight end in the game, but there’s just certain things you’re limited to doing when you just have four receivers and a back.”
So, unless the Saints use four receivers in their two-minute offense instead of the typical three-receiver sets, which could make sense since those are typically obvious passing situations, there is unlikely to be a drastic uptick in those packages. Nor should there be. As long as New Orleans has a potent running game, the offense should continue to work off of the running backs as much as possible.
The summer will decide how everyone fits into the offense. One interesting change could be how often Thomas lines up in the slot next season. With Snead proving ineffective last year, Thomas played more than 100 snaps from the inside and received some favorable matchups from the slot. The addition of Meredith, who proved equally adept playing inside and outside, could mean Thomas sees fewer plays there next season — or it is possible those players could be interchangable to some degree.
The fit of Smith could be more interesting. The rookie out of Central Florida did a little bit of everything in college last season. The offense he is coming from relied heavily on screens with downfield passes thrown in.
Smith provided a high level of value in both aspects, mainly by being a strong blocker and getting deep. He proved adept on go, post, seam, deep crossing and corner routes the past two seasons, which makes him an obvious candidate to run some deeper routes, which is one of the things Ginn, who caught 75.7 percent of the passes thrown to him last season, does well.
Smith also could play a role in who makes the team as the fifth receiver, if New Orleans chooses to keep one. His blocking ability could change some things the team looks for from that spot.
But one thing is sure: Payton has a lot of weapons, and a lot of different ways he can use them. He just has to figure out the best ways to cause issues for defensive coordinators.