The New Orleans Saints enter the 2021 NFL season as four-time defending champions of the NFC South and with a reshuffled roster. New Orleans topped eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay for the division title with a 12-4 record, but the Buccaneers got the last laugh, beating the Saints in the Superdome in the Divisional Round on their way to winning the Lombardi Trophy.
Since that 30-20 loss, franchise cornerstone and future Hall of Famer Drew Brees retired and numerous other players departed in free agency. Head coach Sean Payton tabbed Jameis Winston as Brees' replacement, and they are tasked with pushing the right buttons to keep New Orleans in the playoff hunt.
So what does 2021 hold for the Saints? Athlon asked a couple of its NFL experts to offer their take on how New Orleans' season will play out.
New Orleans Saints: Game-by-Game Predictions for 2021
John La Fleur (@FBConnoisseur)
Too many of the 2020 Saints are missing from this year's squad. This season will test head coach Sean Payton more than any season since his debut in New Orleans in 2006.
Some key contributors have permanently departed. Future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees now works for NBC. Emmanuel Sanders, the team's second-leading wide receiver left for Buffalo. Trey Hendrickson, a defensive end with 13.5 sacks, the second-highest total in the NFL, bolted for Cincinnati.
Some current and vital players will miss part of the season. Starting defensive tackle David Onyemata will be suspended for six games for violating the league's PED policy. Kicker Wil Lutz (abdominal injury) and leading wide receiver Michael Thomas (ankle injury) are both expected to miss multiple games.
Payton will rotate Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill in a multitude of formations and plays. Both will frequently appear on the field, with Hill lining up at every position eligible to catch a forward pass at some point. New Orleans' offense will resemble a scrappy sandlot team: heavy on creativity but short on talent. Nevertheless, they will manage to grab the final NFC Wild Card berth.
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR)
It's a new era in New Orleans, but the changes go well beyond the retirement of Drew Brees. I am very curious to see how Jameis Winston does with another chance to start and equally interested to see how Sean Payton's approach and play-calling will change because of the difference in skillset between the two quarterbacks. But my concerns with the Saints have more to do with the lack of depth behind the starters. A bunch of guys left in the offseason, and to date, there haven't been any splashy additions or replacements. The end result is a much different-looking roster than the one that has won the past four NFC South titles. Forget about keeping up with defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay, New Orleans is going to have to battle just to get into the playoffs, and the Saints' margin of error is thinner than it has been in years.
Ben Weinrib (@benweinrib)
The Saints have sneaky potential because the dirty secret is that Drew Brees wasn't very good last year. His lack of arm strength limited what the Saints have been able to do for a while now. Jameis Winston has his obvious flaws, but he's one of the most talented quarterbacks in the league. With a more simple offense, he could do some real damage. And don't discount what Lasik eye surgery could do if he truly couldn't see well in his infamous 30-interception season with the Buccaneers.
I'm buying Winston, especially in fantasy, but the rest of the team is fairly concerning. New Orleans has been using salary cap magic to continually bring in star after star, but the bill finally appears to have come due. I don’t think this defense can keep up with the rest of the NFC contenders, and the Saints will have a brutal first-place schedule to deal with — in addition to losing at least one home game at the start of the year due to Hurricane Ida.