When the New Orleans Saints traded up in the 2022 NFL Draft to select Chris Olave, there were plenty of ‘experts’ who questioned the move. Those same experts cited cost (to trade), other needs on the roster, and even Olave’s perceived skill/talent/upside as reasons not to move up and burn additional draft assets on a player who finished third on his college team in both receptions and receiving yards as a senior (their words, not mine).
And while this former Buckeye certainly did not change the direction of the Saints’ franchise in one year, he was able to make the NFL transition look easy and establish himself as the team’s No. 1 pass catcher. Not bad for a rookie.
While Olave’s real-life draft value can and likely will be debated for years to come, there is no questioning the fact that he made (and currently does make) New Orleans a better team. He quickly developed into their most reliable playmaker, and by the end of his rookie campaign, was the only consistent performer on an otherwise putrid offense. And I do mean putrid.
Because the Saints’ second-leading rusher last season was Taysom Hill, a former college quarterback who is currently listed as a tight end. Their second-leading receiver (yardage) was Juwan Johnson, a former college wide receiver who is currently listed as... a tight end! This team essentially just rolled out 11 guys who claimed to have experience somewhere on offense and hoped for the best. But Olave was the lone bright spot. And now he will need to be prioritized. Featured. Force fed, even.
New Orleans was also missing Michael Thomas for most of the 2022 season, a player who would have acted as an on-field mentor to Olave. The two share more than a few things in common – high school in California, played at Ohio State, drafted by the Saints, etc. – so if the former is finally healthy, I would expect the latter to get even more help and advice from his older Buckeye brethren.
However, Thomas is not the only other Buckeye in New Orleans. The two receivers are joined by Marshon Lattimore, Bradley Roby, Nick Vannett, Pete Werner, and Jerron Cage, creating Ohio State South or the OSU Louisiana campus. With the added benefit of extreme familiarity, Olave should feel more comfortable than most as he grows into a starring role. Speaking of, let’s talk fantasy football.
What round are you drafting Chris Olave? pic.twitter.com/QlckgzB9h5— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) July 10, 2023
Even in a below-average NFL offense, Olave will still be required to earn and fight for touches in 2023. Because in addition to Thomas at WR and the versatile duo of Hill and Johnson at TE, New Orleans also has one of the best dual-threat running backs in the NFL. Prior to 2021, Alvin Kamara averaged 80+ receptions per season out of the backfield. His production has dipped considerably since, but he is still just 28 years old. And new Saints QB Derek Carr will check down if necessary.
If Kamara (who is also facing a possible suspension) falls off in a major way, New Orleans has plenty of backfield reinforcements. Jamaal Williams was signed to form a ‘thunder and lightning’ duo with Kamara, but is more than capable of shouldering an entire load. All he did last season was score 17 TD, good for second in the entire league. Rookie RB Kendre Miller should also be involved, fresh off a college career that saw him rush for 2,410 yards and 26 TD on only 361 carries.
Why then, with added competition, do I expect Olave to be even more productive in 2023? And become a potential top-10 WR, in both real life and fantasy football? Well, I could probably give you a dozen reasons. But other than the fact that I am an Ohio State homer, let’s just go over a few.
First and foremost, Thomas and Kamara are likely on the back nine of their respective primes, if not completely past it/them. Those two, along with retired QB Drew Brees, used to be the engine that made this Saints offense go. But Thomas might be a shell of his former self after three straight seasons marred by injury. He has barely played since setting multiple NFL receiving records in 2019.
And Kamara, forced to do much of the heavy lifting in Thomas and Brees’ absence(s), has taken a beating as the focal point of opposing defenses. He also faces potential discipline from the league for an off-field incident that occurred way back in 2021. Olave was brought in to supplement Thomas and Kamara, but has already sped right past them to become the top skill guy in New Orleans.
So the Saints do have other weapons besides Olave. But those weapons are not nearly as potent as they once were. Additionally, the QB play is not what it once was. Some might like the theoretical upside of Carr, but he is not Drew Brees. He is, however, an upgrade over Jameis Winston and/or Andy Dalton, the QBs who were throwing to Olave last season. Say what you will about Carr’s game, but we’re talking about a four-time Pro Bowler with over 35,000 career passing yards.
That ain’t nothin’, if you know what I mean. Olave should benefit from playing with a guy who has not been passed around the league like a hot potato.
The Saints' offense just hasn't been the same without Sean Payton or Drew Brees.— The Athletic NFL (@TheAthleticNFL) July 10, 2023
Will Derek Carr change things?@LarryHolder examines how Carr could impact the fantasy stock of New Orleans' skill players, headlined by Chris Olave.https://t.co/4zRgeLBnaf
As for the all-time receiving TD leader at Ohio State, he boasts all the tools necessary to become an elite NFL wideout, in both real life and fantasy football. Olave had arguably the best footwork and separation skills of any receiver in the 2021 draft, and those skills absolutely translated to the next level. He was able to create space consistently as a rookie, despite being the focus of opposing defenses.
Olave also showed off high-end NFL speed, which was unfortunately negated by Dalton’s inability to throw deep (28.2 deep ball completion percentage). And while drops are bound to happen with any wideout, the former Buckeye kept them to a minimum in 2022.
According to several metrics, Olave was a top-15 player at his position as a rookie, but he ranked just 64th out of 97 qualified WRs in passer rating on balls thrown his way. This is a fancy way of saying that he performed like a borderline elite WR but was saddled with poor QB play. And he still finished with over 1,000 yards (!), becoming 1 of only 11 rookie WRs to do so since 2011. While he did not find the end zone very often, Olave’s four TD should be considered an anomaly for the volume he saw, leaving plenty of room for positive (TD) regression in 2023.
Olave’s current ADP is right around No. 30, and he is projected as a top-15, top-20 player at his position. That ADP sounds right to me, but I think his value takes a bit of a hit in PPR formats. However, an increase in TD should make up for any volume lost to teammates. So if the Saints’ primary weapon is available in the third round, I would still suggest pouncing on him before it’s too late. Olave is bound to find the endzone more often, and his efficiency should improve with better QB play.
If he simply matches last year’s target volume, he will finish as a strong WR1. Pick up the OSU record-breaker with confidence, and watch what he and his fellow Buckeyes can do in The Big Easy.