Throughout most of his career with the New Orleans Saints, QB Drew Brees made average receivers look good and good receivers look great. Seventh-round draft choice WR Marques Colston and undrafted wideout Lance Moore turned out to be diamonds in the rough. For the most part, Brees elevated receiving corps with his elite accuracy and timing.
In the waning years of his career, Brees' physical abilities declined little, but just enough that he needed more talented receivers to work with.
2014 first-round WR Brandin Cooks and star TE Jimmy Graham each had a couple outstanding seasons while with the Saints. However, both would ultimately be traded away with little done to replace their production.
New Orleans spent a second-round choice in the 2016 NFL Draft on WR Michael Thomas out of Ohio State. Thomas developed into the league's best wideout, shattering several NFL records for productivity in his first four seasons.
When opposing teams managed to contain Thomas, the team's passing attack faltered because of the lack of weapons around him.
Thomas was limited by a severe ankle injury in 2020 that even caused him to miss nine games. Without the star receiver and because of injuries and a decline in Brees’ abilities, the New Orleans passing game often sputtered.
The team's inability to add competent pass catchers around Thomas and RB Alvin Kamara has hampered them over the previous three years and crippled the offense so far this season.
Thomas will miss at least the first six games this season after ankle surgery. Former first-overall draft pick Jameis Winston has replaced the retired Brees at quarterback. It’s been only two games, but the Saints are an appalling 32nd ranked in passing yardage and total offense. Unheard of during the Sean Payton era.
WHY THE EARLY SEASON STRUGGLES?
Winston and the Offensive Line
Winston was decisive with his decisions in an opening week win over Green Bay. He threw for just 148 yards on 20 attempts, but tossed five touchdown passes and didn't make any mistakes. During last week's loss at Carolina he completed only 50% of his passes totaling 111 yards with no touchdowns and two ugly interceptions.
The 27-year-old Winston deserves fair share of the blame for last week's result, but he received little help from his offensive line. Carolina pressured Winston 11 times and sacked him four times, keeping him under duress throughout the game.
Winston's offensive line got him pummeled last week, but the quarterback will have to show that he can avoid turnovers going forward.
Another major reason for the team's early struggles has been the abysmal performance of the pass catchers.
The Saints leading receiver is RB Alvin Kamara, who has seven catches for only 33 yards. That Kamara is the leading receiver isn't a surprise, but it’s the putrid production of the wide receiver position that poses the problem.
New Orleans wideouts have accounted for only 42% of the team’s pass completions through two games. They have a combined 11 receptions for 164 yards and two touchdowns. Deonte Harris has the best production of the group so far. Harris has 3 catches for 81 yards, 55 of which came on a long scoring strike from Winston.
Undrafted second-year WR Marquez Callaway had a fabulous training camp after a solid rookie campaign. Callaway has the tools to be a productive complement to Thomas when he returns. However, he has only 3 receptions for 22 yards as the top receiving option facing top cornerbacks from opponents.
Veterans Ty Montgomery, Chris Hogan, and Lil'Jordan Humphrey have also not been able to get separation for their quarterback. They've combined for just five catches and 61 yards.
Kenny Stills, added to the practice squad last week, would provide a downfield threat that Montgomery, Humphrey, and Hogan doesn't. Rookie seventh-round pick Kawaan Baker, undrafted rookie Easop Winston, and veteran Kevin White are also on the practice squad with Stills.
New Orleans may promote one of their practice squad wideouts to provide a jolt to the receiving corps. The answer doesn't appear to be in the tight end position.
Second-year TE Juwan Johnson, a converted wideout, has a nice chemistry with Winston and appears to be a solid matchup weapon. Adam Trautman, a third-round selection in 2020, has had a lousy start to his second year.
WHERE ARE THE ANSWERS?
The Saints could look to trade for a wide receiver before next month's trade deadline. Given the team's salary cap issues, however, they may look to want to hold on to their draft picks. It would also take a new receiver at least a couple weeks to adequately learn the Saints offense.
There are some intriguing free agent options still available at the position. Veteran WR Golden Tate is a player who would instantly upgrade the receiving corps. Antonio Callaway, Alshon Jeffery, John Brown, and Javon Wims are other free-agent veterans who have had success in the league.
Inconsistent fourth-year WR Tre'Quan Smith is eligible to come off injured reserve next week. Smith is a fine blocker and potential deep threat. He has never been able to get consistent separation at the NFL level and has often been a non-factor.
Michael Thomas is eligible to come off the P.U.P. list in time for the team’s week 7 game at Seattle. If healthy, Thomas takes the offense to another level. Until then, the Saints seem stuck with the pieces they have at wide receiver and tight end.
New Orleans will undoubtedly get Kamara more involved in the passing attack in the next few weeks. Callaway and Harris may also still emerge as solid weapons, but the team desperately needs a consistent pass catching threat for Winston.
Sean Payton's stubborn refusal to invest more in the receiving position arguably cost his team in Brees' waning years. That inability to provide Jameis Winston with viable threats is a shortcoming that could hamper the Saints throughout the 2021 season.
Follow Bob Rose on Facebook and Twitter @bobbyr2613.