December 8, 2021


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Legends of DVOA: Drew Brees’ Bombers

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Drew Brees has had many, many memorable weapons over the years: some bona fide superstars (most recently Michael Thomas), homegrown heroes who rose from nowhere (Marques Colston, Pierre Thomas), erratic but breathtaking talents with outsized reputations (Jimmy Graham, Reggie Bush, Jeremy Shockey), some unique all-purpose players (Darren Sproles, Alvin Kamara, and yes, Taysom Hill), and a few guys who might have slipped your mind until you read this sentence (Deuce McAllister, Brandin Cooks before he began wandering the league).

And then there were Brees’ Bombers: designated deep threats such as Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem and others. They didn’t catch many passes. They often wore the “disappointment” label, and not just because they gave fantasy owners fits. Yet Henderson led the NFL in DVOA twice, Meachem would finish in the top five twice, and a pair of their more recent successors would sneak to the top of the leaderboard by becoming the targets for Brees’ very occasional shots downfield.

This is the story of a narrowly defined role in an outstanding offense led by a Hall of Fame quarterback, and also of the men who filled that role.

A Sort of Domecoming

Devery Henderson was a Louisiana high school state champion in the 100- and 200-meter sprints who attended LSU on a track and field scholarship. He walked on to the Tigers football program, started his career at running back, and moved to wide receiver as a junior. He caught 23 passes as a junior, including the famous “Bluegrass Miracle“—a last-second 75-yard tip-drill catch-and-run after Kentucky head coach Guy Morris had already been congratulated with a Gatorade shower.

Henderson caught 53 passes for 861 yards and 11 touchdowns in his senior year for the 13-1 Tigers while teammate Michael Clayton went 78-1,179-10. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Clayton 15th overall in 2004, while Larry Fitzgerald, Roy Williams, and Reggie Williams were selected among the top 10 picks. The Saints selected Henderson 50th overall. It was a deep receiver class.

It’s easy to forget how irrelevant the Saints were at the start of this century. Jim Mora’s teams, with their Dome Patrol linebacker corps, began fading after the 1992 season. Mike Ditka arrived in 1997, bringing the Saints lots of headlines and Ricky Williams, plus a coaching style and personnel philosophy that was a decade out of date and left the roster gutted. Jim Haslett replaced Ditka, led the Saints on a fluky worst-to-first playoff run in 2000, then fell back to .500 immediately and stayed there, finishing between 9-7 and 7-9 for four forgettable years.

Henderson joined an offense led by Aaron Brooks, who was exciting but turnover-prone. Donté Stallworth and Joe Horn made the Saints strong at wide receiver, Deuce McAllister at running back, but Haslett’s defenses were mostly dreadful after 2000. The Saints had no real identity.

Henderson engaged in a contentious holdout from his rookie training camp. He found himself deep in the doghouse when he eventually signed and was activated for just one game as a rookie. College teammate Clayton, meanwhile, caught 80 passes in his first season with the Bucs. The Saints signed free agent Az-Zahir Hakim to challenge Henderson for the No. 3 receiver role, and despite pulling a hamstring in the preseason, Hakim opened the season ahead of Henderson on the depth chart.

Then came Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans and the surrounding communities were devastated. The Superdome became an overcrowded emergency shelter. The Saints played home games in the San Antonio and at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge. They practiced in the Alamodome parking lot and on high school fields. The vagabond Saints finished 3-13. Henderson caught 22 passes as the No. 4 receiver behind Stallworth, Horn, and Hakim, but few were paying attention to the Saints on the field. The real question was whether the franchise would return to New Orleans at all.

The Saints marched back home, of course. Sean Payton replaced Jim Haslett as their head coach. Heisman Trophy-winner Reggie Bush came aboard with the second overall pick. (Yes, the award was later “vacated.” Whatever.) At quarterback, the Saints caught a break when Miami Dolphins doctors advised their team against signing the young free agent with the bum shoulder who was about to lose his job to third-year prospect Philip Rivers. With Drew Brees in the fold, the Saints completed one of the most dramatic makeovers in pro football history, even as their home city and region still reeled from the devastation of Katrina.

The Brees-led Saints went 2-0 in a pair of road games to start the 2006 season. Then came a triumphant return to the Superdome. Green Day and U2 performed before the game. A national audience tuned in seeking signs of a return to “normalcy.” The Atlanta Falcons played like they knew they were mere jobbers for the evening. Steve Gleason’s blocked-punt safety set the tone for an unforgettable night, but Henderson scored the first touchdown of the 23-3 Saints victory on a gorgeous reverse: Brees-to-Bush-to-Henderson, with Brees lead-blocking on the 11-yard score.

Henderson would then miss the next three games with an injury. He would catch just 32 passes while getting upstaged by a hotshot rookie: not Bush (who did collect 1,367 scrimmage yards), but seventh-rounder Marques Colston, who exploded with 70 catches for 1,038 yards. Colston’s preseason emergence resulted in Stallworth getting traded to the Eagles, but Colston, Horn, and Bush were all targeted more often than Henderson.

Yet it was Henderson who led the NFL in 2006 with a DVOA of 39.1%, higher than teammates Colston and Horn, higher than Marvin Harrison, Larry Fitzgerald, Terrell Owens, or anyone else.

Maximum Impact

DVOA is essentially a rate stat, and even the most sophisticated rate stats can be skewed a bit by smaller sample sizes. The top five wide receivers in DVOA in 2020 (Will Fuller, Julio Jones, Rashard Higgins, Nelson Agholor, and Chris Godwin) were all targeted less than 100 times in a year when 42 total players were targeted 100 times or more.

We could increase the minimum threshold for the DVOA leaderboard here at Football Outsiders from 50 targets to 75 or 100, but we would risk losing important information by doing so. Fuller started 11 games last year and was an important free-agent acquisition this year. Relegating him to the “backups” section of our leaderboards would defeat one of the purposes of DVOA: highlighting elements of a player’s/team’s performance that cannot be easily spotted in the raw data.

Henderson was targeted just 54 times when he led the NFL in DVOA in 2006 and just 56 times when he led the league again in 2008. He also led the league in yards per reception in both seasons, with 23.3 and 24.8, respectively. He averaged 13.8 yards per target in 2006, 2.7 more yards than the No. 2 receiver in the league: his teammate Horn. In 2008, he averaged a whopping 14.2 yards per target; Steve Smith finished second in the NFL at 11.0. When you average 13 or 14 yards per appearance in the play-by-play, advanced metrics are bound to love you.

Henderson was Brees’ designated deep threat in those seasons, as the yards per target make obvious and anyone who remembers that era can confirm. Brees’ arm was not spectacular even in his prime, but the presence of Colston and many others allowed him to pick his shots downfield. Payton also drew up a variety of play-action bombs, often with Brees rolling out, that gave Henderson and others time to get deep and Brees plenty of space to step into his throws.

Play-action bombs can be most effective on first down, when both offenses and defenses are programmed to think about remaining “on schedule” with 6- to 8-yard gains, not a big play. Henderson caught 10 of 22 first-down passes for 261 yards (26.1 yards per catch) on first downs in 2016, 11-of-21 for 360 yards (a whopping 32.7 yards per catch) in 2018.

That said, Henderson truly earned his DVOA crowns on third downs. Henderson converted 10 third downs on 14 targets and averaged 22.2 yards per catch on third downs in 2006. He converted 11 of 15 third down targets in 2008, averaging 25.6 yards per catch. Colston was a third-down machine from the day he entered the league (a stunning 24 conversions as a rookie), but Henderson made the most of his targets.

DVOA for receivers is also a situational stat, and of course it’s greatly impacted by the quarterback. Colston and others handled most of the possession chores for the late-2000s Saints. Bush and other running backs worked underneath. Henderson worked deep. We didn’t have average depth of target numbers for his prime seasons, but it clearly hovered in the “way, way, WAY downfield” range.

A DVOA trophy in Football Outsiders’ fledgling years did nothing for Henderson’s reputation as a disappointment, however. He was not a crafty route runner and dropped more than his share of passes. The Saints were looking for more consistency and flexibility than Henderson was offering, so they doubled down on deep threats in the 2007 draft.

Dueling Deep Threats

Robert Meachem was a football and basketball star in high school in Oklahoma who outraged Sooners fans by choosing to play football at Tennessee instead of remaining in state. His early college career was wiped out by a knee injury and he earned a reputation for mixing big catches with big drops in his first two seasons on the field. He came into his own in his redshirt junior season, going 71-1,298-11 with 18.3 yards per catch. He ran a 4.39s 40-yard dash at 6-foot-2 and 212 pounds at the 2007 combine, and the Saints drafted him 27th overall.

Meachem showed up for rookie camp out of shape. He sprained a left ankle, then needed surgery to clean up an old injury to his right knee. He was unimpressive when he finally returned to the field and ended up inactive for the entire 2007 season. It was a missed opportunity: by November, Henderson had dropped eight passes and was losing playing time to David Patten, while Bush was proving to be less than advertised as an all-purpose weapon. With no big-play threat, the 2007 Saints fell to 7-9 after a playoff appearance the previous year. Brees finished just 10th in the NFL in DVOA. He would never finish that low in the rankings again.

Meachem was still in the doghouse in 2008. He was activated for the first time when Colston suffered an injury in the season opener. But it was Lance Moore, a former undrafted rookie who bubbled up from the special teams, who would become Brees’ favorite target in Colston’s absence. Meachem and Henderson ended up sharing the deep threat role, combining for 44-1,082-6 with 24.5 yards per catch. While Henderson again led the NFL in DVOA among qualifiers, Meachem led the league among non-qualifiers (10 to 49 targets) with a downright silly 64.8%. For a pair of disappointments, they were sure making the most of their targets.

The 2007-2008 Saints didn’t make the playoffs, but they were amassing an overwhelming arsenal of weapons. The sturdy Colston and shifty Moore complemented each other and the deep threats well. Undrafted rookie Pierre Thomas and Broncos castoff Mike Bell began siphoning touches from Bush, who was beginning to look like a better concept than a player. Former Pro Bowl tight end Jeremy Shockey joined the team in 2008. A great offensive line coalesced around guard Jahri Evans.

With an offense that was suddenly unstoppable, the Saints won 13 regular season games in 2009 and defeated Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV. It was Meachem’s turn to sneak to the top of the DVOA rankings, finishing second to Vincent Jackson of the San Diego Chargers. Colston finished sixth that year, Henderson just 24th.

Like Henderson in 2006 and 2008, Meachem proved lethal on first-down deep shots, going 15-2938 with 19.5 yards per catch on 25 targets. Meachem also led the league in yards per target with 11.3; Colston finished 10th at 10.0 and Henderson 12th at 9.7. For perspective’s sake, Randy Moss led all of Tom Brady’s Patriots receivers at 9.2 yards per target, while Reggie Wayne led Peyton Manning’s Colts targets with 8.5. What Brees, Payton, and the Saints did in 2009 was truly unique. And Henderson and Meachem were a huge part of it.

Deeper and Deeper

Meachem and Henderson would split the deep-threat role for the Saints again in 2010 and 2011. Meachem finished fourth in the NFL in DVOA in 2010. The Saints recorded their highest offensive DVOA in history in 2011 (33.5%), higher even than in the 2009 Super Bowl season. Colston finished fifth in DVOA that season, Meachem ninth, Moore 10th, and Henderson 20th. Jimmy Graham, in his second NFL season, finished ninth among tight ends.

Then the aughts version of Brees’ band began to break up. Meachem signed a four-year, $25.5-million contract with the Chargers after the 2011 season. It was a hefty deal for the time, and the Chargers quickly regretted it. Meachem caught just 14 passes for the Chargers and was cut before the start of the 2013 season. He returned to the Saints for two more uneventful years.

Henderson remained with the Saints in 2012, then signed with Washington late in free agency in 2013. He was released early in training camp. The one-time contract holdout with a reputation for costly drops lasted nine years in New Orleans and ended his Saints career as a respected veteran and one of the few players on the roster with memories of the Katrina era and the pre-Payton, not-so-good old days.

With Henderson gone and Meachem fading, fifth-round rookie Kenny Stills took over as Brees’ designated deep threat in 2013. Stills caught 32 of 50 targets for 641 yards, 20.0 yards per reception, and five touchdowns as a rookie. It was a very Henderson-like stat line, right down to his yards-per-target: a league-leading 12.8, 2 yards higher than second-place Doug Baldwin. Stills ended up leading the NFL in DVOA with precisely the minimum number of qualifying targets. He finished third in DVOA in 2014 before moving on to the Dolphins.

Veteran speedster Ted Ginn would arrive in 2017 to become Brees’ deep threat. Ginn was perfect for the role: no receiver in recent history was more likely to beat his defender by 5 yards but let a sure touchdown bounce off his hands. Ginn mostly held onto the ball in 2017, producing a 53-787-4 stat line on 70 targets that year. It was a Meachem-like stat line, and Ginn finished second in DVOA.

By 2018, Brees’ arm was fading, Ginn’s hands turned back into granite, and Payton’s offense became increasingly tailored to Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, and an even higher-percentage short passing game than the one Brees had orchestrated a decade earlier. Deep shots became more and more of a rarity, though they did not disappear completely: rookie Tre’Quan Smith finished eighth in DVOA among non-qualifiers in 2018 in a role somewhat reminiscent of the one Henderson and Meachem once shared.

Consistently Inconsistent

Henderson now runs a youth football camp in Louisiana. Meachem became a high school football coach in New Orleans in 2019. Colston founded a professional developmental services company, was involved in the CBD business for a while, and announced in 2020 that he was joining the New Orleans University faculty as an adjunct professor. Moore is a Saints analyst for a New Orleans television network. If the Saints receivers ever want to have a reunion, no one will have to drive very far.

Kenny Stills has been trapped in Adam Gase and Bill O’Brien offenses since leaving New Orleans. He is a free agent at press time. Ginn was released by the Chicago Bears after playing sparingly last year; he’s likely to retire. Michael Clayton, Henderson’s LSU teammate who appeared poised for superstardom after his rookie season, was never able to follow up on his early success. He now runs a charitable foundation and has covered the NFL internationally for Sky Sports.

It’s undeniable that Brees’ Bombers were critical to the Saints’ success over the years. It’s also clear that the role itself mattered more than the player. Brees’ deep threats were a little like Tom Brady’s slot receivers: anyone who fit the mold was likely to have success in the role, even if he dropped a pass here or there. But while Brady’s fan favorites posted gaudy reception totals and became the subjects of ill-conceived Hall of Fame debates, Henderson, Meachem, and the others were considered third fiddles in their best seasons and disappointments in their worst.

I cannot help but wonder, looking back on what Henderson, Meachem, and others did for the Saints a decade or so ago, what Brees might have accomplished with someone such as Santonio Holmes, Mike Wallace, or DeSean Jackson in the designated deep threat role. It’s easy to imagine a 50-touchdown season in 2011, and perhaps another Super Bowl appearance, if Brees’ best downfield receiver was a little more reliable. Then again, Holmes, Wallace, and Jackson each earned reputations for being less-than reliable in various ways. That’s the nature of being a vertical-threat receiver. Those who can get open on deep routes and do much more become superstars. Those who can get open on deep routes but little else can become frustrated teases, even in a system that allows them to focus on what they do best.

If they are remembered at all by non-Saints fans, Henderson and Meachem are afterthoughts for a great team, or as a pair of guys who torpedoed your fantasy team by scoring 50-yard touchdowns on your bench, then going without a catch when you started them. DVOA rehabilitates their legacies a bit. It also reminds us that Brees was, in his own way, a great deep passer, and that Payton was a brilliant game-planner who knew just when to stop rope-a-doping defenses with a million short passes and wallop them with a haymaker.

Finally, Henderson and Stills’ DVOA crowns, and Meachem’s and Ginn’s top-five finishes, remind us that while intricate high-percentage short passes are great, there’s nothing better for an offense than a long touchdown. It’s even OK to drop a few of them if you can get open for lots of them. Deep threats can appear to be inconsistent because they sometimes vanish from the stat sheet when defenses scheme to erase them. Yet Brees consistently helped his deep threats reach the top of the DVOA lists for a decade. It’s a great example of how advanced metrics can shed new light on teams, tactics, and, in this case, some under-appreciated players.

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