When the New Orleans Saints signed wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders as a free agent last spring, it was in the hope that he would add a long-awaited second threat at the position to go along with All-Pro Michael Thomas at the position.
Thomas suffered an ankle injury in the season opener that sidelined him for nine games and limited his effectiveness all season. That elevated Sanders into the featured wideout and again left the team with a thin receiving corps.
Deonte Harris, Tre'Quan Smith, and undrafted rookie Marquez Callaway all had pleasant moments during the year. However, they also had injury issues that forced the Saints to elevate practice squad wideouts into more prominent roles.
Harris and Callaway have both shown the promise to be effective NFL receivers, while Thomas continues to be the best in the game when healthy. However, salary cap issues may force New Orleans to move on from one of their most consistent offensive weapons of 2020.
Sanders turns 34 on March 17th, the start of the free agent signing period. He will also count $10.5 million against the salary cap in 2021. Releasing Sanders, who the Saints are reportedly trying to trade, would create $6.5 million in cap space if done before June 1st and $8.5 million if designated as a post-June 1st release.
If the Saints move on from the still-productive Sanders, they may look to bolster the position with another free agent addition. The presence of Thomas and salary cap concerns will prevent the team from adding a high-priced receiver like Allen Robinson, Curtis Samuel, Kenny Golladay, Will Fuller, Juju Smith-Schuster, T. Y. Hilton, or Corey Davis. Here are a few other wideout options that are currently scheduled to be available.
Kendrick Bourne (25 - 49ers)
Chris Conley (28 - Jaguars)
A. J. Green (32 - Bengals)
Breshad Perriman (27 - Jets)
Josh Reynolds (25 - Rams)
Demarcus Robinson (26 - Chiefs)
John Ross (26 - Bengals)
Willie Snead (28 - Ravens)
Dede Westbrook (27 - Jaguars)
Albert Wilson (28 - Dolphins)
(age and previous team in parentheses)
A seven-time Pro Bowler, Green is the biggest name on this list and is coming off his second year back from Achilles surgery that forced him to miss all of 2019. He could be willing to play on a reasonable one-year deal for a chance to contribute to a Super Bowl contender.
Snead could be an intriguing option. He played for New Orleans for three seasons and knows the offensive system. Perriman, son of former New Orleans wideout Brett Perriman, is a former 1st round draft choice. He had the best year of his career in 2019 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with potential Saints quarterback Jameis Winston behind center.
Bourne started his career as a special teams contributor, but is coming off his best season and is a physical target that makes tough catches in traffic. Wilson is a smaller receiver, but has good open field running ability. Miami will reportedly release Wilson before the start of free agency.
Ross was the 9th overall pick of the 2017 draft, mainly because of his blazing speed, but has been a bust because of injuries and poor performance. He could benefit from a change of scenery to resurrect his career. Conley also got off to a slow start to his career in Kansas City, but rebounded with two strong years in Jacksonville despite poor quarterback play.
Westbrook also flourished despite inconsistent quarterbacking with the Jaguars. He is an outstanding route runner with electric open field ability who is looking to bounce back from an injury-shortened season.
Robinson had limited touches in Kansas City because of a loaded receiving corps. He was still a proven playmaker from anywhere along the formation that excels on both deep routes or with the ball in his hands underneath.
Reynolds was another underused playmaker because of a deep corps of weapons in Los Angeles. He has excellent hands and is deadly on crossing routes coming off the most productive season of his four-year career.
Sanders played well last season and showed he has plenty left in the tank. With a year of familiarity in the offense and the fact we saw so little of him and a healthy Thomas together, don't rule out a potential restructuring of Sanders' deal.
If the Saints move on from Sanders, as expected, we shouldn't expect the team to invest heavily in another wideout this offseason. More is expected from Deonte Harris and Marquez Callaway in the offense in 2021, and Tre'Quan Smith is a trusted complementary weapon. They could also bring in a wideout through the draft.
If they go the route of free agency, Josh Reynolds, Demarcus Robinson, and Dede Westbrook have the perfect skill sets for their diverse offense. Conley, Perriman, and Ross would give the team a bona fide deep threat. Snead, Wilson, and Bourne could be productive underneath, and Green might jump at the chance to play for a contender.