With the announcement that All-Pro WR Michael Thomas will miss at least the first portion of the season after ankle surgery, the New Orleans Saints have another humongous roster question to address.
The Saints already had a major question at cornerback after the offseason release of Janoris Jenkins and the possible suspension of Marshon Lattimore.
Last week, DT David Onyemata was suspended for six games, leaving several former undrafted and inexperienced players to fill the void.
Of course, the major question surrounding New Orleans this offseason is at the quarterback position. Future Hall of Famer Drew Brees retired, leaving Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill to compete for the starting job.
Both Winston and Hill come with major questions about ball security and decision-making. They’ll now have to cope without the league's most productive receiver.
Michael Thomas averaged 118 receptions and 1,378 yards over his first four NFL seasons. Last year's ankle injury limited him to only seven games and left him limited on the field when he did suit up. In Thomas' absence, the Saints passing attack slipped to 19th in the league.
Second-year wideout Marquez Callaway and All-Pro kick returner Deonte Harris were already expected to take on bigger roles in 2021.
Tre'Quan Smith enters his fourth season as the most experienced receiver on the roster. Smith has been inconsistent, at best, over his first three years.
Rookie seventh-round choice Kawaan Baker will also be battling for a roster spot, along with second-year undrafted wideouts Jalen McCleskey and Juwan Johnson and third-year pro Lil'Jordan Humphrey.
Wanting to surround their new quarterback with as many weapons as possible, New Orleans is expected to explore the free-agent market for experienced wideouts.
The Saints will also watch the waiver wire closely after the August 31 cut-down period. Here are some receivers currently available as free agents.
(age and previous team in parentheses)
DEDE WESTBROOK (27 - JAGUARS)
Westbrook was a fourth-round pick by Jacksonville in the 2017 NFL Draft. He caught 27 passes for 339 yards and a score in five games as a rookie.
Westbrook took on a much bigger role for the Jaguars in 2018 and 2019. He caught 66 passes in each season for a combined 1,377 yards and 8 touchdowns.
A torn ACL ended his year after just one game in 2020.
An accomplished kick returner, Westbrook is an excellent runner in the open field. He’s a quick athlete who has the route-running ability to get separation underneath.
Westbrook has reliable hands in traffic and is a physical player despite his size. If healthy, he has the perfect style for a diverse New Orleans passing attack.
KENNY STILLS (29 - BILLS)
Stills started his career with the Saints, coming to the team as a fifth-round selection in the 2013 draft. He played two years in New Orleans, gathering 95 receptions for 1,572 yards and 8 scores.
Traded to Miami after the 2014 season, Stills averaged 41 catches for 611 yards and caught 24 touchdowns for the Dolphins in four years.
Stills was traded to Houston in 2019 and caught 40 passes for 561 yards and 4 touchdowns.
After playing 10 games and catching 11 passes for 144 yards with the Texans last season, Stills was released. He spent the rest of the year on Buffalo's practice squad.
Stills is a deadly deep threat who knows the New Orleans offense and Sean Payton's style well. He’s improved his route precision over his career but is at his best when taking the top off a defense.
GOLDEN TATE (33 - GIANTS)
Tate has 695 receptions for 8,278 yards and 46 touchdowns over an accomplished 11-year career.
He’s an outstanding route runner with an excellent understanding of opposing coverages.
Tate's best days were with the Seahawks between 2010 and 2013 and Detroit from 2014 to 2018. He had three 1,000-yard campaigns and four seasons with at least 90 receptions with the Lions.
Tate has played the last two seasons with the Giants and had 35 receptions for 388 yards for their struggling offense in 2020.
He has visited several teams this offseason but is said to be asking for starting receiver money.
Golden Tate has a similar style to Emmanuel Sanders, who was the Saints top wideout last year in Thomas' absence. He’s an experienced route runner who the Saints may spend the money for upgrading an inexperienced unit with Thomas sidelined.
ALSHON JEFFERY (31 - EAGLES)
Jeffery was a second-round choice of the Chicago Bears in the 2012 NFL Draft. He had his best production in Chicago, catching 304 passes for 4,549 yards and 26 touchdowns in five years while breaking the 1,000-yard barrier twice.
Jeffery signed with Philadelphia in 2017, where he was one of the leading receivers on the Eagles Super Bowl LII championship squad. In four seasons with the Eagles, he had 171 receptions for 2,237 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Injuries have nagged Jeffery in recent years, causing him to miss 15 games in the last two seasons.
Jeffery is a big possession receiver but has struggled with drops over the last few campaigns. He’s caught 57.4% of his targets.
If he can prove he can be a reliable pass catcher and stay healthy, Alshon Jeffery has the size that Sean Payton prefers in his wide receivers.
New Orleans has approximately $11.3 million dollars in available salary-cap space. The team may pursue a veteran free-agent cornerback, bring back veteran LB Kwon Alexander, or even sign a defensive tackle.
The uncertainty surrounding Michael Thomas and the inexperience of the rest of the unit raises even more questions as the Saints head into training camp.
New Orleans may now have no choice but to add a veteran free-agent receiver to its roster for the start of the season.
Follow Bob Rose on Facebook and Twitter @bobbyr2613.
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