The official start to the 2021 NFL business year officially begins at 4 PM ET on Wednesday, March 17 with the opening of the free-agent signing period. Teams and player representatives could start negotiations for unrestricted free agents at noon today, so plenty of unofficial agreements will be reached over the next two days.
The New Orleans Saints have had a flurry of activity themselves over the last two weeks to get below the $182M salary cap before starting the signing period. Veteran stars like CB Janoris Jenkins, LB Kwon Alexander, DT Malcom Brown, WR Emmanuel Sanders, P Thomas Morstead, and G Nick Easton have been released because of expensive contracts.
Several other players have agreed to restructure their existing deals to create more cap space, with contract extensions for OT Ryan Ramczyk and CB Marshon Lattimore next on the team's priority list. The Saints already re-signed running backs Ty Montgomery, Dwayne Washington, defensive back J.T. Gray, and offensive lineman James Hurst, along with adding voidable years to quarterback Tayom Hill's contract.
With still little cap room to speak of, we shouldn't expect a great deal of activity from the Saints during free agency. They also won't be signing any high-priced free agents, where most of the early flurry of activity exists. Here are five positions to watch closest regarding the Saints during free agency, with a couple of players that I think could wind up in a New Orleans uniform.
CORNERBACK - GAREON CONLEY
I believe New Orleans will address this position somewhere in the first two rounds of the draft, where several blue-chip prospects will be available. They could also look to bring in a free agent at the position, and former Houston Texans CB Gareon Conley would be a great fit.
The 25-Yr old Conley is a former teammate of Marshon Lattimore at Ohio State and was the 24th overall selection of the 2017 draft. After struggling with Oakland over his first two seasons, he was traded to the Texans, where he surrendered less than 53% completion percentage when targeted in 2019. Conley missed the 2020 season with an ankle injury but is much more effective in man coverage than zones.
Other names to watch:
- William Jackson III (27 - Bengals)
- Casey Hayward (31 - Chargers)
- Kevin King (26 - Packers)
If the Saints pay out a higher salary, it will be on Jackson, one of the top corners available, or a proven veteran like Hayward. King, like Conley, is a former high draft choice looking to revitalize his career and might be available at a cheaper rate.
DEFENSIVE TACKLE - JALEEL JOHNSON
The release of Malcom Brown and the likely free-agent defection of DT Sheldon Rankins makes interior depth a concern. They already have a top interior pass rusher with David Onyemata and two promising young players in Shy Tuttle and Malcolm Roach, but could use a run-stopper to replace Brown.
Enter Johnson, a 26-Yr old 4th round pick in 2017 by the Vikings. Johnson was one of the few bright spots on an abysmal Minnesota defense last year. He has just 5.5 career sacks and 11 QB pressures but has shown improved pass rush in the previous two seasons.
Johnson's value would be against the run, where his strength and 6’3” 316-Lb frame could tie up blockers and create disruption inside. It's still possible that the underrated Brown could be brought back on a lesser salary, but Johnson could be viewed as a viable replacement.
Other names to watch:
- Larry Ogunjobi (27 - Browns)
- Rakeem Nunez-Roches (28 - Buccaneers)
Ogunjobi is better as a three-technique tackle, same as Onyemata, and could get a big offer on the market that the Saints are unwilling to match. He’s an explosive defender that was used out of position by Cleveland last year. Nunez-Roches was part of a stifling Tampa Bay run defense the last two seasons. He was a capable injury replacement for Vita Vea inside and would provide terrific depth.
LINEBACKER - KWON ALEXANDER
Alexander helped elevate the New Orleans defense to elite status after a mid-season trade. He ruptured his Achilles late in the year, putting his status for the start of next season in question. Alexander was released because of a pending $13 million cap hit, but both he and the Saints have shown mutual interest in his return.
Other names to watch:
- Denzel Perryman (28 - Chargers)
- De'Vondre Campbell (28 - Cardinals)
- Raekwon McMillan (25 - Raiders)
- Reuben Foster (27 - Redskins)
- Avery Williamson (28 - Steelers)
With the release of Alexander and probable loss of Alex Anzalone in free agency, this defense needs an athletic running mate to go along with All-Pro LB Demario Davis. It could be addressed early in the draft, but this is another spot the team could spend money if unable to bring back Alexander.
Perryman, Foster, and McMillan would come at a cost, but all are capable three-down starters while the Saints continue to develop second-year LB Zack Baun. Campbell is outstanding in pass coverage, while Williamson is an instinctive run defender. Both players would come cheaper, but are experienced starters.
TIGHT END - GERALD EVERETT
New Orleans moved up in the 3rd round of last Spring's draft to select Trautman with an eye on him being the starter in 2021. However, after moving on from Jared Cook and Josh Hill's release, the team needs another option with Trautman at the position.
The 26-Yr old Everett was underused in his four-year career with the Rams, but still had 78 receptions for 825 yards and 3 touchdowns over the last two seasons. He is a capable blocker who is effective as a receiver in motion, from the slot, or off the line of scrimmage.
Other names to watch:
- Trey Burton (29 - Colts)
- Jesse James (26 - Lions)
Few affordable duel tight ends will be available, especially with Trautman being penciled into the starting role. Burton and James are capable intermediate receivers that have starting experience as decent blockers.
WIDE RECEIVER - JOSH REYNOLDS
Poaching another salary cap-strapped NFC rival (Rams), Reynolds would be a terrific addition to Sean Payton's offense after being underused for four seasons with Los Angeles. A versatile receiver from the slot or outside, the 25-Yr old Reynolds is outstanding on crossing patterns and an underrated deep threat. He had a career-high 52 receptions for 618 yards in 2020, and 79% of his 113 career receptions have resulted in a 1st down or touchdown.
Other names to watch:
- Demarcus Robinson (26 - Chiefs)
- Dede Westbrook (27 - Jaguars)
- Breshad Perriman (27 - Jets)
Robinson, like Reynolds, was overshadowed by a deep corps of weapons in Kansas City but is deadly in the open field with the ball. Westbrook is a respected wideout that had poor quarterback play in Jacksonville. Perriman had the best season of his career two years ago in Tampa Bay, with Jameis Winston at quarterback.
The Saints won't spend heavily here, with the emergence of young wideouts Deonte Harris and Marquez Callaway along with the presence of All-Pro WR Michael Thomas.
QUARTERBACK - JAMEIS WINSTON
The retirement of legendary quarterback Drew Brees is finally official. New Orleans has reportedly been in heavy negotiations with the 27-Yr old Winston for a contract extension that will make him the team's starter in 2021.
Remember that neither Demario Davis nor Malcom Brown were household names when signed as free agents by the Saints. Yet both have been instrumental to the team's success over the last three seasons.
New Orleans will not spend heavily during free agency and may not be active during the first few days of the signing period. The team will undoubtedly add players to bolster their depth and contribute to one of the NFL's most talented rosters.
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