New Orleans will be forced to make significant changes with some offensive personnel at key positions this offseason. It will be critical for them to locate and invest in the offense during the draft process.
Saints News Network's intern, Sam Lucio, explores the team's options.
In the Sean Payton and Drew Brees era, the New Orleans Saints have been well known for having one of the best offenses in the NFL year in and year out. According to Pro Football Focus, the 2020-21 season was no different as the Saints finished in the top half of the league at 11th overall with a 79.8 offensive rating. Despite the offense ranking as one of the best in the league and scored the 5th most points overall, the front office should still prioritize offense in the upcoming NFL draft due to cap restrictions, pending free agents, and a handful of questions heading into the future.
A NEED FOR DEPTH
While it's no secret that Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas are generational talents that opposing teams are well aware are on the field, the Saints need to provide help for their All-Pros.
In the 2020-21 season, Kamara was the team’s leading rusher (932 yards) and the leading receiver (756 yards.) Michael Thomas was limited to 7 regular-season games in 2020 after a record-setting season in 2019 where he hauled in a new single-season NFL record 149 receptions. Kamara and Thomas's dominance is truly remarkable, but the Saints’ reliance on the duo can make the team predictable and allows defenses to focus more heavily on them.
Wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith showed flashes. As a whole, he has fallen short as a consistent second option. Deonte Harris and Marquez Callaway's promising talents still have a ways to go before being given a more prominent role in the offense.
GM Mickey Loomis attempted to fix these problems by signing veteran receiver Emmanuel Sanders in free agency. Sanders' addition to the lineup added a new dimension to the team. Unfortunately, several circumstances attributed to the decline in New Orleans passing offense. Pro Football Focus (PFF) ranked the Saints 20th in the passing offense for 2020. In comparison, they were 2nd by PFF in 2019.
The significant drop in pass grade could be explained by the fact that Thomas and Sanders both missed multiple games due to injuries, COVID-19, and discipline (Thomas). Fractured ribs and a collapsed lung sidelined Drew Brees for four games.
Although Sanders became more comfortable in the Saints offense toward the end of 2020, the offense must locate additional weapons. The second receiver position opposite Thomas has been an issue for the past several seasons and could again become a more significant issue if Sanders does not return for 2021.
The Saints are projected to be more than $100 million over the salary cap heading into the 2021 offseason. The overage will cause numerous issues for filling out the roster.
Their most notable offensive free agents will be tight end Jared Cook. New Orleans signed Cook during the 2019 free agency period. In 2019, he finished with 43 receptions for 705 yards and 9 touchdowns which earned him a Pro Bowl selection. The next season, Cook took regressed in his production by managing 504 receiving yards, 7 touchdowns, and o1 costly fumble in the playoffs in an overall disappointing season.
New Orleans is unlikely to re-sign Cook as his production has dropped. His market value, potential asking price, and Saints strained salary cap may prevent both parties from agreeing on terms. Another reason why re-signing Cook doesn't bode well for the veteran tight end is the rise of rookie tight end Adam Trautman. Sean Payton may turn to the Dayton product to have a more prominent role in the Saints offense for 2021.
In the quest to get under the salary cap, two potential roster casualties point to running back Latavius Murray and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders.
Releasing Murray would free approximately $2.5 million in cap space, and cutting Sanders would shave another $4 million. Both players played productive roles in the offense, and though releasing them could be unlikely. GM Mickey Loomis and VP of Football Administration Khai Harley may restructure both players' contracts. Nevertheless, the Saints should invest for the future in these positions with cheaper personnel options in the draft.
THE NEXT PLAY
The one caveat is that Coach Payton may not rely heavily on a rookie player unless they demonstrate great potential during mini-camps and OTA sessions. Examples are Marques Colston and Alvin Kamara. Last year, the NFL shelved rookie camps, mini-camps, OTAs because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The sessions could return in 2021 with new modified COVID-19 restrictions and improvements, thus allowing additional player evaluation to occur this offseason.
The Saints will face many difficult decisions heading into the 2021 season, mostly surrounding the salary cap and which players they will keep or let go either in free agency or by releasing/waivers.
The offense has always been a bright spot for the Saints under Sean Payton. Yet, the likely retirement of Drew Brees will cause the front office to consider retooling the unit.
Quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, and the offensive line are points of concern in this draft process.
If Brees' retirement is imminent, Payton should consider surrounding his new starting quarterback with upgraded weapons on offense. The battle in the NFC South will be fierce and highly contentious.
For the Saints to remain as Super Bowl contenders, they must either hit bullseyes in the draft or come-up with a way to find or keep talent via free agency.
*The article was written by Saints News Network intern Sam Lucio.