For the last 15 years, the New Orleans Saints were able to enjoy the thing that eludes most NFL franchises: stability. But time catches up with everybody, and the Saints are no different. A team that hung its hat on having the same head coach, general manager and quarterback in place since 2006 has undergone its most substantial turnover in a long time this offseason.
New Orleans will have to prove it can win without future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees, who announced his retirement in March after wrapping up his 20th NFL season, the final 15 of which were spent with the Saints. His departure was one of many.
The front office lost one of its top executives in former pro personnel director Terry Fontenot, now the rival Atlanta Falcons’ general manager. Brees’ longtime quarterbacks coach, Joe Lombardi, is now the Chargers’ offensive coordinator. Former tight ends coach and assistant head coach Dan Campbell is now the head coach in Detroit, and he took secondary coach Aaron Glenn with him to serve as his defensive coordinator.
The Saints were already in a bind with relation to the salary cap, and then a pandemic hit, slashing NFL revenues. New Orleans had to clear nearly $100 million in salary cap charges from its books this offseason. That meant a lot of good players had to be shown the door. Change was everywhere, and it was all dramatic. But there are still reasons for optimism — so long as things go right.
The day after Brees retired, the team announced it was re-signing quarterback Jameis Winston to an incentive-laden one-year deal. Winston barely played in 2020. His most extensive playing time came in relief of Brees in the second half of a win against the San Francisco 49ers. His lone touchdown pass in a Saints uniform came on a trick play — a double pass in the Saints’ playoff loss to Winston’s old team, the Buccaneers. But the Saints are interested in what Winston will look like as the starter. At the same time, head coach Sean Payton has reiterated many times over that Winston will need to compete with Taysom Hill for the right to succeed Brees.
Who starts at quarterback, of course, is the biggest question the Saints face this season. It might be the most important question the Saints have had to answer since they signed Brees back in 2006. The answer could shape the future of the franchise.
Whoever lines up behind center should have a strong supporting cast. The Saints managed to remain fairly well stocked on offense despite the turnover this offseason.
Alvin Kamara is coming off the best year of what has been a marvelous career to this point. The 28-year-old, who has been a Pro Bowler each of his first four seasons, is inching closer to his first 1,000-yard rushing season while still maintaining his versatility as a pass-catcher. There may not be a better dual-threat offensive player in football, though division rival Christian McCaffrey may beg to differ.
Kamara’s underrated running mate, Latavius Murray, is back for his third season in a Saints uniform. There was some thought he could be a cap casualty this offseason, but Payton values Murray not only as a change-of-pace runner, but also as a viable starting option in case Kamara is injured.
New Orleans was banking on a return to form from Michael Thomas, who suffered an ankle sprain in Week 1 that derailed his season, but he is expected to miss the start of the season after undergoing surgery in June to repair torn ligaments in his ankle. The projected four-month recovery timetable could have Thomas sidelined until after the team's Week 6 bye. When he returns, the hope is that Thomas will look a lot more like he did in his first four seasons — when he averaged 118 catches, 1,378 yards and eight TDs — than he did in seven largely ineffective games last year.
In Thomas' absence, the Saints are confident in youngsters Tre’Quan Smith, Marquez Callaway, Deonte Harris and Adam Trautman. All are 25 or younger, but none has truly had a breakout season yet.
Perhaps the greatest gift the Saints could hand their new starting quarterback was keeping their offensive line intact. New Orleans has top-tier players at both tackle positions (Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk) and center (Erik McCoy), a three-time Pro Bowler at left guard (Andrus Peat) and a 2020 first-rounder at right guard (Cesar Ruiz).
The Saints have steadily improved under Dennis Allen, but he will have his work cut out for him as he enters his seventh season as defensive coordinator. Gone are the top pass rusher (Trey Hendrickson), two key rotational pieces at defensive tackle (Malcom Brown and Sheldon Rankins), a playmaking linebacker (Kwon Alexander) and one of the NFL’s better cover corners (Janoris Jenkins). The only position group that did not lose an impact player was safety, where the team will bring back starters Malcolm Jenkins and Marcus Williams to go along with Mr. Do-Everything C.J. Gardner-Johnson. All three of those players are coming off strong 2020 campaigns.
New Orleans still has stars on the defensive side of the ball, but it also has mostly unknown quantities next to them.
Even in a down year, defensive end Cameron Jordan recorded 7.5 sacks (snapping a streak of three straight years with 12 or more). The search for consistent production opposite Jordan continues. The Saints will likely pair him with one of three high-upside young rush ends in Marcus Davenport, Carl Granderson and 2021 first-rounder Payton Turner. They also added Tanoh Kpassagnon in free agency.
Veteran Demario Davis put up his fourth consecutive 100-plus-tackle season, continuing to demonstrate that he’s one of the NFL’s premier off-ball linebackers. Lining up next to him will likely be some combination of 2021 second-rounder Pete Werner and 2020 third-rounder Zack Baun, who started three games last season as a rookie.
The biggest question mark for the Saints defensively going into 2021 is at one of the cornerback spots. Marshon Lattimore is a stud, but who is going to play opposite him on the boundary? P.J. Williams has been solid, but he’s exploitable on the outside. His value lies more in his versatility. Patrick Robinson's decision to retire after the start of training camp adds to the urgency to find a new veteran option unless the Saints believe that third-round pick Paulson Adebo out of Stanford is ready to start right away.
The most shocking loss of a long-tenured Saints player may not have actually been Brees, but punter Thomas Morstead, whom the Saints released this spring after 12 decorated seasons. New Orleans will almost certainly hand its punting duties to Blake Gillikin, whom it kept on its initial 53-man roster last season before stashing him on injured reserve for the rest of 2020. Kicker Wil Lutz hit the first extended rough patch of his career last season, a five-week stretch during which he made just two of the six field goals he attempted, but he closed the season by making five of his final six attempts.
Harris remains one of the NFL’s most electric return men when he’s healthy, and the Saints have an excellent No. 2 option in Callaway.
In recent seasons, the Saints have had a Super Bowl or bust mentality. This year is all about answering those big questions that shape the future.
The 2021 season marks a whole new world for the Saints. They held on to most of their foundational players from their recent run of success, but the roster-wide depth they’ve relied upon so heavily these last two seasons especially took a big hit. It would not be surprising to see the Saints at or near the top of the NFC heap, nor would it be surprising to see them miss the playoffs entirely.