OFFSEASON REVIEW: New Orleans Saints
By Thomas Willoughby
As one season ends and another one begins, 32 NFL franchises put 2020 firmly in the rear view mirror and gear up for another tilt at the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The hard work starts here, and for many has already begun; general managers and head coaches are finalising their staff and looking ahead to turning their rosters into potential challengers.
In this series we identify the key components that go into building a winning team, and what each franchise needs to do to be in the mix come the playoffs next January. We continue our team by team offseason review with a look at the New Orleans Saints.
For the New Orleans Saints, 2020 was their attempt at re-enacting “The Last Dance”. Their legendary signal-caller was back on the horse for one more go at a title. Malcolm Jenkins, who made his name in New Orleans, returned in free agency after 6 years, and Emmanuel Sanders was added as a true compliment to Michael Thomas. The Saints had everything they needed to see Drew Brees’ career off the right way.
For a while, it looked like they would achieve that lofty goal. Statement wins over Tampa Bay early on set the tone for what they hoped to achieve in 2020. Brees suffered a rib injury mid-way through the season, that saw him miss 3 games, but Taysom Hill barely missed a beat. The Saints finished the season 12-4, enough to secure the 2nd seed in the NFC.
While the Saints dispatched the Bears with relative ease in the wild card round (21-9), things would turn sour a week later. At the third attempt, Tom Brady’s Buccaneers would see off the Saints, thanks in no small part to a pure stinker from Brees. The Saints would lose 30-20. The house lights came on before the last dance was over.
For most, a season like the 2020 New Orleans Saints had would be considered a major win. A promising platform to build off in 2021. For the Saints, however, it couldn’t have ended any worse. As we’ll discuss, they enter a period of uncertainty. One that could last a while.
Fortunately for the Saints, that period of uncertainty doesn’t extend to the staff set up. They enter 2021 with only three notable departures, of which two of which are on the coaching side of things. Tight ends coach, and assistant head coach, Dan Campbell leaves New Orleans after four years to take the top job in Detroit. Joe Lombardi, the grandson of Vince Lombardi, vacates the quarterbacks coach position he’s held since 2016 to coordinate the offense of the Los Angeles Chargers.
From the front office, director of pro scouting, Terry Fontenot, has taken up the General Manager position with the Atlanta Falcons. Seldom do you see anyone cross the Falcons/Saints divide, and it’ll certainly be interesting to see who comes out on top from that particular transaction. Given how highly Fontenot has been thought of in New Orleans, you wouldn’t be surprised if the Saints are adversely affected somewhat.
Aside from those choice names, the Saints retain the core nucleus of their coaching and front office group. Sean Payton will still call offensive plays, Dennis Allen will still coach the defense, and Micky Loomis will still make whatever moves are necessary to field a competitive side. They’re in good hands in that regard.
State Of The Roster
This is where things start to get a little dicey for the New Orleans Saints. For the first time since 2005, they head into a new season with question marks over the quarterback position. At 42 years old, it’s widely accepted that Drew Brees will be calling time on his career, despite recently restructuring his contract. With the only other recognised quarterback under contract currently being Taysom Hill, it’s easy to see why expectations are being adjusted heading into 2021.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. A solid draft strategy over the past few years has given the Saints one of the best offensive line situations in football. With some further growth from Marcus Davenport, their defensive line, too, has plenty to envy. And let’s not forget about the secondary as a whole, which is capable of hanging with the best.
There’s plenty of talent still on the books in New Orleans. The problem is, they kind of don’t have any money.
Salary Cap & Cut Candidates
At the time of writing, the New Orleans Saints currently sit on -$70.7 in cap space. That is, to put it bluntly, a bad situation to be in. Years of kicking the problem down the road in the quest for a second Super Bowl title have finally come back to haunt them. Given the likely suppression of the salary cap in 2020, the chickens couldn’t have come home to roost at a worse time.
It’s not a simple situation to work their way out of, but it’s definitely not impossible. Restructures to the likes of Michael Thomas and Cam Jordan would at least offer some form of relief. Moving on from the aforementioned Sanders could inject a further $6.5m into the coffers. It’s not much, but every little helps.
A seemingly unlikely move would be the release of Taysom Hill. Sean Payton’s favourite multi-use tool would free up around $5m in cap room, and, unless he’s going to be starting in 2021, that would be a conversation worth having. Do not be surprised to see a huge name or two moved on from New Orleans in the coming weeks and months.
More worrying, for the Saints, is how they approach free agency. They have a total of eighteen names heading to free agency, and a great many of them are actual contributors. Given the financial situation they find themselves in, it would be difficult to keep anyone around. Micky Loomis is something of a wizard, however, so, again, it’s not impossible.
When Jameis Winston was brought into New Orleans last season, it appeared he was being groomed to replace Brees when the time game. While he wasn’t afforded that role during Brees’ missed games in 2020, it’s not out of the question for New Orleans to extend an offer to him.
Trey Hendrickson registered 13.5 sacks in 2020, and it would be more difficult to keep him around. Having the season he had will certainly increase his value, and you can expect him to test the market. Similarly, Alex Anzelone proved to be a valuable contributor throughout his time in New Orleans, but will likely work in a new environment in 2021.
It goes without saying that the Saints need to address the quarterback position. Drew Brees has been great for them over the past 15 years, but it was clear, even in 2019, that time was very much against him. With no obvious long term replacement heading onto free agency, they may be forced to settle for a Jameis Winston type, and look to the draft for a potential heir.
They will also need to add a tight end, with Jared Cook set to hit free agency himself. Only Josh Hill and Adam Trautman occupy those positions currently, so don’t be surprised to see them look to the draft to fill that role long term also.
Speaking of the draft, the Saints head into the 2021 draft with only 4 picks. Repeated breaches of COVID protocol saw the removal of their 7th rounder, and a mid-season trade for Kwon Alexander lost them their 5th. That “period of uncertainty” is certainly navigatable, but it’ll take every ounce of talent within Loomis and Payton to do so.