With a lot of roster turnover, how do the Saints stack up?
Welcome to our new weekly series previewing each Green Bay Packers opponent with a focus on the numbers. With the season just starting, it will obviously be a look back at the 2020 numbers, but with so much roster turnover in the Packers’ week one opponents, what can we take from that?
Let’s dive into the Packers’ matchup with the Drew Brees-less New Orleans Saints.
The Packers finished last season first in EPA-per-play, first in offensive DVOA, first in EPA-per-dropback, first in passing DVOA, fourth in EPA-per-rush, and fifth in rushing DVOA. The unit was amazing in almost every way. Their offensive line lapped the field in pass block win-rate and finished fifth in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards, which attempts to quantify a unit’s run blocking. Nearly the entire group returns this year, although David Bakhtiari will miss at least the first six games. The Packers will kick Elgton Jenkins out to left tackle, and he has performed extremely well regardless of whether he has played tackle or guard in his career so far. Additionally, right tackle Billy Turner was a standout performer in pass block win rate last year. The biggest questions will come on the interior with Lucas Patrick, rookie Jason Myers, and rookie Royce Newman. Thankfully, the Saints will be without David Oneymata at defensive tackle. Sure-handed running back Jamaal Williams is now in Detroit and Green Bay added Randall Cobb as a slot receiver. If the interior offensive line can be even okay, this offense should continue to roll.
This unit is the big question mark. Mike Pettine is out and Joe Barry is in. We saw far more two-high looks this pre-season and we also saw heavier personnel than we saw from Pettine’s extremely dime-heavy looks. The Packers will be reliant on the young secondary players Jaire Alexander and Darnell Savage to lead the unit on the back end alongside steady veteran Adrian Amos. They will look to get stronger production from their front four this year as well after a very disappointing 2020 from Preston Smith. Za’Darius Smith will also look to bounce back from a lower pressure season, but his availability for this game is in doubt with a back injury. Kenny Clark is one to watch as New Orleans’ interior offensive line is not as strong as their tackles.
The Saints were a solid but unspectacular unit in 2020, ranking 12th in EPA-per-play. Their offense almost became a caricature of itself though, with Drew Brees’ average depth of target (aDOT) being third-lowest in the league at just 6.3 yards. That will change in 2021 as they turn the keys over to Jameis Winston, who in 2019 was second in the league in aDOT at 10.5. I doubt Winston will be quite as aggressive under Sean Payton as he was under Bruce Arians, but this will be a different offense.
The big storyline outside of quarterback is just how depleted the Saints’ receiving corps is. Gone are Emmanuel Sanders and Jared Cook, and star receiving Michael Thomas will miss several weeks as he recovers from off-season surgery. The Saints number one receiver is likely Marquez Callaway, who finished 2020 with a 0.1% DVOA last year on just 27 targets. As a result, running back Alvin Kamara’s usage may reach Christian McCaffrey levels this year. His rushing DVOA ranked third in the league last year and he ranked first in receiving DYAR among all running backs while being targeted 107 times. The next closest running back was the Colts’ Nyhiem Hines at 76. I’d expect that number to be significantly higher this year, assuming he is healthy. Expect plenty of Alvin Kamara in your life on Sunday. Taysom Hill may get some snaps, but they’ll likely be in that typical gadget role.
Unlike the teams of the early 2010s, the latest iterations of the Saints have actually been defense-first teams. The Saints defense ranked fourth in EPA-per-play and was particularly stingy in run defense at -0.146. Their passing defense was no slouch either at 0.01. While this unit did not have quite as much turnover, there were some losses. Edge rusher Trey Hendrickson left for Cincinnati in free agency and Janoris Jenkins was a cap casualty. Defensive tackle David Onyemata, who ranked third on the team in sacks last year with 6.5, will be suspended for this game, so New Orleans is a little weaker in the middle. Aaron Rodgers will likely be looking to pick on whichever corner ends up starting opposite of Marshon Lattimore, as the depth at the position is far weaker than in recent years.
It will be interesting to see how the Packers defense looks against the Saints offense, as that is my big X-factor for the game. Green Bay’s offense should be able to score well enough against a Saints unit that is less talented than in recent years. If Jameis Winston provides Green Bay with a turnover or two, it should set up nicely for a 1-0 start.