The New Orleans Saints face a myriad of crucial offseason decisions this offseason. New Orleans could be as much as $97 million dollars over the projected NFL salary cap for 2021. General Manager Mickey Loomis and his front office staff are geniuses at maneuvering the cap to put a competitive team on the field, but the Saints are still likely going to part ways with some important players this offseason.
Head Coach Sean Payton, Loomis, and the New Orleans scouting departments led by Jeff Ireland and Terry Fontenot have done a magnificent job putting together the NFL's deepest team. That depth played a key factor this season, as the Saints overcame several injuries to win the NFC South for the fourth consecutive year.
The Saints will have 19 unrestricted free agents this offseason, with other players under existing contracts at risk for release because of salary cap issues. Here are several players who played secondary roles this season that will be counted on for bigger contributions in 2021.
ZACK BAUN, LINEBACKER
New Orleans traded up in the 3rd round of the 2020 NFL Draft and selected Baun out of Wisconsin, where he mostly played defensive end. He basically had a ‘‘redshirt’’ season while learning the nuances of the NFL linebacker position. Baun was a valuable special teams contributor and saw more defensive snaps later in the year, finishing with one tackle for loss and 12 total stops.
The Saints drafted Baun with an eye on 2021 as a potential starter. Linebackers Alex Anzalone and Craig Robertson are both unrestricted free agents, while LB Kwon Alexander could be a cap casualty and is unlikely to be ready for the season opener because of an Achilles injury. Baun is a terrific pass rusher along the edge, an excellent tackler, and has the athleticism necessary to excel in coverage once he learns the position.
CARL GRANDERSON, DEFENSIVE END
Lost in the surprising season from DE Trey Hendrickson was the progress that Granderson made in his second year with the Saints. Undrafted out of Wyoming in 2019, Granderson has shown exciting potential over his first two seasons. He had 5 sacks, 9 QB hits, 10 pressures, and 3 tackles for loss while playing an average of less than 29% of the team’s defensive snaps.
A long athlete with outstanding burst along the edge, Granderson has developed into a terrific pass rusher with good strength at the point of attack against the run. Hendrickson is an unrestricted free agent that will receive a huge payday after his breakout campaign. Veteran DE Cam Jordan has been a staple of the defense for a decade, but has an extremely high cap number and comes off a down year. The Saints could target a defensive end in the upcoming draft, but Granderson is a proven contributor who will play a much bigger role in 2021.
DEONTE HARRIS, WIDE RECEIVER
Harris was an undrafted rookie from little-known Assumption College in 2019 that earned All-Pro recognition as a kick returner as a rookie. With injuries battering the receiving corps this past season, Harris became a bigger part of the offense after catching just 7 passes as a rookie. A neck injury limited him to just nine games, but Harris caught 20 passes for 186 yards and added 7 receptions for 83 yards in a Wild Card win over Chicago.
The 5’6” Harris is the NFL's best kick returner and an invaluable weapon in that capacity. His stature and value on special teams might prevent heavy usage at wideout, but he has shown tremendous development as a receiver. Look for Sean Payton to use Harris more offensively in 2021 to take advantage of his explosive open field skills.
CESAR RUIZ, GUARD/CENTER
The Saints spent the 24th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft to select Ruiz out of Michigan to fortify an offensive interior that had struggled down the stretch in 2019. He was beaten out by Nick Easton, who had a terrific year, as the starting right guard, but still started nine games and appeared in 15 because of various injuries.
Ruiz distinguished himself well as a run blocker but was inconsistent in pass protection. He’s a smart player with nimble feet and excellent upper body strength. Easton suffered 3 concussions this season and could be a potential cap cut. Ruiz, who played predominantly center in college, could slide into that spot while the Saints move Erik McCoy over to right guard.
ADAM TRAUTMAN, TIGHT END
The Saints traded all four of their Day 3 draft choices to move back into the 3rd round to select Trautman out of Dayton last spring. He immediately impressed coaches with his blocking ability but wasn't a big part of the offense as a receiver. Trautman caught 15 passes for 171 yards and a touchdown in 15 games of action, earning more snaps down the stretch of the year.
New Orleans thought highly enough of Trautman to trade four draft picks to get him, most likely as a projected starter for 2021. Tight end Jared Cook is an unrestricted free agent with a huge price tag and is coming off a disappointing season. Trautman has the skills of an every-down player, with excellent hands and the athleticism to make plays down the field.
SHY TUTTLE & MALCOLM ROACH, DEFENSIVE TACKLE
The Saints had the deepest rotation of defensive tackles in the NFL this season. That luxury was because of excellent talent evaluations that brought in David Onyemata as a 4th round draft choice and undrafted contributors such as Shy Tuttle and Malcolm Roach. Tuttle has had several impressive moments in each of his first two seasons after going undrafted out of Tennessee. Roach defied odds by not only cracking a deep defensive line as an undrafted rookie from Texas but appeared in nine games with 2 tackles for loss and 4 QB pressures.
Onyemata has developed into a star and one of the team’s most important defensive players, but former 1st round choice DT Sheldon Rankins is an unrestricted free agent. The team is unlikely to make re-signing Rankins a top priority because of its depth here, the salary that Rankins' talent is going to demand, and concerns at other positions. Additionally, DT Malcom Brown will count for a $6.5 million dollar cap hit in 2021 that could make him a cap casualty, despite his elite run-stuffing skills.
The New Orleans Saints have several difficult roster decisions to make this offseason. Despite a potential departure of some major contributors, this team will still be competitive because of outstanding depth that has already played a role in the team's success that now looks to take a major step forward.