Underrated Game-Breaker: Pierre Thomas
Drew Brees has eclipsed the 5,000-yard plateau in three consecutive seasons, a streak that has continually seen a running back produce quality fantasy numbers. In fact, despite a crowded backfield and a pass-first offense, the Saints lead back has averaged 1,096 yards and eight touchdowns over the last three years.
You may have heard that Darren Sproles has moved on, leaving Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas to pick up the slack in an explosive offense that has been known to be good to fantasy owners, and while I feel that both will benefit from an increased role, Thomas is the statistical favorite to produce a big time fantasy season.
In 2013, it was Thomas, not Sproles or any other versatile back, who led the position in receptions, quite the accomplishment given his spot on the roster. He caught a league-high 91.7 percent of passes thrown his way by Brees, upping his career catch percentage to an absurd 84.9 percent.
He has proven himself a more than capable pass catcher, but his ability to run the ball is often overlooked. He averages 4.6 yards per carry for his career and is scoring at a greater rate, once every 27.7 carries over his last six seasons, than Alfred Morris. That’s a nice skill set for a player projected to see an increase in workload, especially when you consider that he has the rare combination of experience (eight professional seasons) and limited hits taken (fewer than 1,100 career touches).
Is Mark Ingram (decreasing touch rate in every professional season) really a concern to take serious carries from him? His 4.9 yards per carry in 2013 may look like an improvement, but subtract his 14-carry 145-yard performance against the historically porous Cowboys defense, and you’ll notice that his YPC were actually worse (3.77) than his career average entering this season (3.87). I’m not pulling the plug on the former Heisman Trophy winner, but what has he done to earn an extended role in this offense?
Thomas was on the field for the majority of snaps last year, and that was with Darren Sproles on the roster. He was used as a blocker in 19.6% of his snaps, a figure that should decline dramatically this season as his offensive responsibility increases. He averaged 2.3 yards per offensive non-blocking snap, a tip of the hat to the potency of this New Orleans attack.
Let’s say his production stays the same (for the record, I believe it’ll increase) but he is used as an offensive weapon on half of those snaps in which he blocked last season, a reasonable baseline projection given the fact that they lost a player in Sproles who was used as an offensive threat in 92.3 percent of his snaps last year.
If he replicates his efficiency from last season, that would mean a 1,192-yard six-touchdown campaign, numbers that aren’t very different than Alfred Morris’ 2013 (1,353 yards and seven touchdowns), and he’s being viewed as a fringe RB1 this year. Again, that projection is NOT adjusting for an increase in touches; it is simply adjusting how he is used given an identical snap count. It would seem reasonable to assume that Thomas will be on the field more and used as a weapon much more, as he projects as the lead back in New Orleans.
Other Underrated Game-Breakers: