Saints new ‘big 3’ at WR set to revitalize passing attack:

All offseason the New Orleans Saints have been open about wanting to address and bolster their wide receiver one. Inherently, this was on the horizon with the expected return of All-Pro receiver Michael Thomas. However, New Orleans wisely did not rely on just his return to aid what was considered a big need for the team. They also selected Ohio State wide receiver Chris Olave in the first-round and most recently signed veteran wideout Jarvis Landry. The signing of Landry is one that was met with much excitement due to his Louisiana roots, but is also a clear benefit to the team when it comes to his leadership and experience on the field.

To help gather information on how Landry might fit together in the Saints’ offense in 2022, I watch each snap of his three most run routes (slant, hitch, and out) in 2020 and 2021. Since he had an abbreviated and injury-riddled 2021, I went back an extra season.

I then went through the Saints’ 2021 receiving group to find similar routes, patterns, and concepts. This allowed me to evaluate the receiver’s route-running, their spacing relative to other receivers, and ability to finish plays. What this shows us is that a lot of what the Saints young pass-catchers struggled with last year, should not be an issue for the revamped wideout room. Let’s explore:

Spacing:

AP Photo / Gerald Herbert:

There were a few concerns with the New Orleans receiver corps last season. Separation and drops dominated the general perception, and rightfully so. However, another important piece to the efficiency of any passing offense is spacing. Spacing refers to the relation of two route-runners in regards to distance. For instance, a smash concept will ask an inside receiver to run a corner route (similar to a post, but breaking outside instead of inside) while the outside receiver runs a hitch (or curl), coming back to the quarterback.

If the player running hitch route gets too much depth or his release drifts inside, it can cause congested passing lanes, group defenders in a targeted area, and even risk collisions between the receivers. This is observable in the early goings of the New Orleans 2021 passing game, but can only be found about a handful of times in Landry’s tape over the last two seasons, rarely being on his accord.

With Landry’s veteran experience and precision, this issue should be quelled quite a bit. Especially when accompanied by Thomas, one of the NFL’s most talented route-runners and Olave, this year best in that area among his draft class. The Saints’ new three-headed monster at receiver should provide cleaner, more comfortable passing lanes and options for quarterback Jameis Winston in 2022.

Breaks:

AP Photo / Gerald Herbert:

Going in and out of breaks is pivotal to creating separation for a wide receiver. Many players around the NFL are lauded for their ability to come out of breaks cleanly after selling the defensive back in on a different route. Stephon Diggs, Justin Jefferson, and Cooper Kupp to name a few.

One of the most important parts of a wideout’s break is his hip control. Turning hips, chopping hands, and staying in frame allow a runner to have more complete control of their bodies, ability to change direction and set up their opponent’s leverage.

At the absolute basics, a receiver wants to sell a defensive back on a go route or fade first and foremost. Regardless of the release package a player deploys, usually his first goal is to drive upfield and force the cornerback defending him to commit his hips upfield. Obviously there are some exceptions like a diamond release which tries to force a defender with inside leverage to commit outside before the route-runner makes his cut back to the center of the field. But fundamentally, the goal is the same. Force a back to commit to one route and then make your move.

Being able to sink his hips and get low allows for greater body control at the point at which the receiver wants to change direction. But more importantly, staying low through the break provides the explosion necessary to create separation at the break, or when the player changes direction. (Kind of like crouching before jumping.) Thomas is one of the best when it comes to carrying that explosion through his cut in order to naturally separate from the defender. Olave is a magician when it comes to flipping his hips, and Landry’s attention to detail allows him dictate and take advantage of a defender’s leverage.

This was an early issue for Saints receivers in 2021. Often times pad levels would come up early getting into the break, signaling a coming change of direction which allowed cornerbacks to sit on routes as opposed to committing early. Other times hip levels would come up before or as the receiver was changing direction, note: allowing them to explode out of their break and separate. Deonte Harty and Marquez Callaway both showed development in these areas throughout the season, however. Particularly Harty.

While the maturation process was evident and yielded greater results as the season went on, getting three polished receivers at the top of the wide receiver depth chart will expedite the Saints’ ability to produce in the passing game early.

Finishing plays:

AP Photo / Gregory Payan:

This one was simple to see. Whether it was concentration drops, defender contact, or otherwise, drops plagued New Orleans last year. According to Pro-Football-Reference, 10 Saints receivers combined for 30 drops on 394 regular season targets. That’s a drop rate of 7.6%.

Since PFR started tracking the stat in 2018, Thomas has never seen a season rate higher than 3.2%, Landry saw 7.4% in 2018, but since has not exceeded 5.9%. While Olave saw a 7.7% rate in 2021, his career number at Ohio State is only 5.1%.

Physicality after the catch will be another benefit that comes with adding Landry to the mix. His 5.0 yards after catch per reception in 2021 would have made him third amongst Saints wideouts with more than 20 targets. According to Reception Perception, Landry went down on first contact less than half of the catches he was considered “in space”, displaying his willingness to fight through contact.

Lastly, Landry’s 66.7% contested catch rate (8 catches on 12 targets) would also have placed him second amongst New Orleans pass-catchers of any position with three or more contested catch opportunities. Only Harty’s 75% rate (3 of 4) would have topped him. This will be further aided by the return of Thomas and his 60.7% rate and Olave who is coming off of 10 catches on 16 such targets in 2021. Reception Perception clocked Olave, despite questions around his frame, as the second most productive contested catch receiver in this year class behind USC’s Drake London.

The Saints’ newly assembled wide receiver room should bring them great benefit in 2022 after a lowly 2021 which was compounded by injuries across multiple positions. Uncharacteristically, New Orleans ranked last in the NFL in passing yards last season. It’s easy to see why, based on numbers and tape, that ranking should be much higher in 2022 with the additions of Landry and Olave as well as the return of Thomas.

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