New Orleans Saints 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

For over a decade, the Saints haven’t had to worry about the game’s most important position, with future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees arriving before the 2006 season and playing at a high level basically every season. In total, Brees completed 68.8% of his passes for an average of 7.78 YPA, 491 touchdowns, and 190 interceptions in 228 starts with the Saints, while finishing in the top-6 among quarterbacks on PFF in every season from 2006 to 2019, before falling off to a middling grade in 2020. Brees also led the Saints to a 142-86 regular season record in his starts, with 9 playoff appearances in 15 seasons and a victory over the Colts in Super Bowl 44 at the end of the 2009 season. Now, with Brees opting to retire ahead of what would have been his age 42 season, the Saints are in very unfamiliar territory.

The Saints have gotten a taste of life without Brees over the past two seasons, as he has missed 9 games with injury over the two seasons combined, and the Saints have fared surprisingly well in those games, going 8-1, but that’s misleading and not indicative of long-term life without Brees for a couple reasons. For one, the Saints had unsustainably good luck in those 9 games, going 5-1 in one score games and only once winning by more than two scores in a game in which the Broncos had to play without any quarterbacks. They also faced a relatively easy schedule overall and if you look at how the Saints’ offense played in those games, it’s not hard to see how they could have won those games by more points had Brees been available.

The Saints also had a very strong roster outside of the quarterback position on both sides of the ball, much stronger than they figure to have in the post-Brees era. The Saints for the past several seasons have managed their cap like the next season was going to Brees’ last, constantly squeezing every cent out of their cap and mortgaging future cap space to spend among the most money in the league on their roster in every season. The results were good, at least in the regular season, as the Saints went 49-15 over the past 4 seasons, the best record in the NFL over that stretch, and their supporting cast has been as much the reason for that as Brees.

However, the Saints never got a Super Bowl out of it, in part due to some bad luck in the post-season, and now the bill is coming due and at the worst possible time, with the cap shrinking for the first time in years due to lost revenue from lack of in person attendance. The Saints had to part with several key contributors this off-season without being able to add much in the way of replacements and, even still, they are up against this year’s cap and projected to be slightly over next year’s cap. 

That could change depending on where next year’s cap ends up, but it’s clear that the Saints are going to be in a tough financial situation for at least the next couple years, as they are paying for years of spending beyond their means in an attempt at one last Super Bowl run. That means whoever the Saints next starting quarterback is won’t have the luxury of having the talent around him on this roster that Drew Brees did.

Who that quarterback will be is yet to be determined and Brees’ recent missed time hasn’t really made their long-term plans at the position clearer. Teddy Bridgewater was their replacement for Brees when he missed time in 2019, but he parlayed that into starting jobs in Carolina and Denver. Bridgewater was replaced last off-season by ex-Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, who was the first quarterback off the bench in place of Brees when he went down last season, completed 6 of 10 for 63 yards and in the second half of a win over the 49ers, with Taysom Hill remaining in his usual role as a wildcat quarterback/pass catcher.

However, the Saints switched things up for the four full games that Brees missed, giving Hill the opportunity to start and play a full game at quarterback for the first time ever in his age 30 season, while Winston didn’t attempt a pass throughout the four games. Hill left something to be desired as a passer, but was ultimately better than expected in the four games, completing 71.9% of his passes for an average of 7.32 YPA, 4 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. 

Where Hill really added value was on the ground, unsurprising given his athleticism, rushing for 209 yards and 4 touchdowns on 39 carries (5.36 YPC). He was only PFF’s 20th ranked quarterback out of 35 eligible for those 4 games and, like in 2019 when Bridgewater was out, the Saints’ offensive efficiency went down noticeably with Brees out of the lineup, but it seemed that Hill was destined to become the successor when Brees ultimately retired, given that he’s been a favorite of head coach Sean Payton’s for years and didn’t faceplant in his 4-game tryout, while Winston was set to hit free agency again.

However, the Saints brought back Winston on a 1-year, 5.5 million deal in free agency and he seems to be not only a competitor for the starting job, but according to some reports, the favorite to win the job. Hill’s salary is substantially more, as he’s set to make 12.159 million in the final year of his contract in 2021, but that could be more representative of his overall role as a versatile, positionless player rather than him being cemented as the starting quarterback.

Winston has plenty of experience, with 70 career starts with the Buccaneers, and he’s a former #1 overall pick (2015) who is only going into his age 27 season, but he’s been very inconsistent throughout his career and has never finished higher than 15th in a season on PFF. Overall, he’s completed 61.3% of his passes for an average of 7.75 YPA, 121 touchdowns, and 88 interceptions in his career. Being with Sean Payton in New Orleans is one of the best places a quarterback like Winston could be and, in fact, Payton took on a pretty big reclamation project when the Saints first signed Drew Brees, who was replaced with the Chargers by Philip Rivers and passed over by the Dolphins for Daunte Culpepper. 

That’s not to say that Winston is going to become a future Hall of Famer, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Winston could earn the starting job and Payton could coax the best season of his career out of him. That’s probably a more likely scenario than Taysom Hill suddenly becoming a more than replacement level starting quarterback for the first time in his career in his age 31 season and it would allow Hill to continue in his unique role as a runner (5.36 career YPC on 151 carries), passer (7.81 career YPA on 134 attempts), and receiver (30 career catches for 336 yards and 7 touchdowns). It’s a position group with some upside, but it’s hard to understate how much the Saints will miss Drew Brees, even if he wasn’t at his best in 2020.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

I will get into the positions where the Saints have concerns later, but whoever wins the starting quarterback job will still have some talent around them, especially at the running back position, led by feature back Alvin Kamara. Kamara has never had more than 194 carries in a season, but he’s averaged a 4.97 YPC in his career that is the 4th highest in the NFL since he entered the league in 2017 among all running backs with at least 600 carries over that stretch, and he makes up for his lack of heavy carries with his usage in the passing game, as he’s had at least 80 catches in each of his first 4 seasons in the league, averaging 8.66 yards per catch and totaling 15 receiving touchdowns, to go with his 43 rushing touchdowns. 

Overall, Kamara has finished in the top-8 among running backs in 3 of 4 seasons in the league, with the exception of a 2019 campaign in which he was at less than 100% for most of the season due to injury. He plays a position with a higher than average chance of injury and higher than average positional turnover, but he’s only missed 4 games total in 4 seasons in the league and, still only going into his age 26 season, he’s about as close to a sure thing as there is at the running back position in the entire NFL. 

Kamara also doesn’t need to take on a massive workload as a runner because the Saints have power back Latavius Murray as a complement. The 6-3 230 pound Murray has seen 146 carries exactly in each of his two seasons with the Saints and has overall rushed for 9 touchdowns and a 4.42 YPC average. His age is becoming a concern, now in his age 31 season, but the Saints don’t rely on him for a huge workload either, so he could continue being an effective complement for another couple seasons. He doesn’t add much value as a receiver, but Kamara will play the vast majority of passing downs.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Kamara will also once again be relied on for a heavy load in the passing game, though it’s arguable if he’ll be used quite as much. On one hand, the Saints’ two quarterback options both have strong arms and they might not have as many check downs in the playbook as they did under Drew Brees, who famously loved targeting running backs in the passing game throughout his career, especially when he lost arm strength towards the end.

On the other hand, the Saints are even thinner in the receiving corps this season than they were last season. Kamara was one of four Saints with at least 35 catches and 55 targets last season and two of the four are no longer with the team, with Emmanuel Sanders (61/726/5) and tight end Jared Cook (37/504/7) both going elsewhere this off-season, Cook as a free agent and Sanders as a cap casualty. The Saints really didn’t do anything to replace either one and instead will be counting on young players stepping up and their star offensive players taking on a large volume.

Along with Kamara, the Saints’ other star offensive player is wide receiver Michael Thomas and the Saints will get an obvious boost getting him back after he was really not healthy all season last year, following a week one high ankle sprain. A 2nd round pick in 2016, Thomas had the most productive start to a career of any wide receiver ever before last season, posting a 92/1137/9 slash line as a rookie in 2016, a 104/1245/5 in 2017, a 125/1405/9 in 2018, and a league leading 149/1725/9 in 2019, while finishing as a top-8 wide receiver on PFF in all four seasons, including top-3 finishes from 2017-2019. However, Thomas was limited to just a 40/438/0 slash line in just 7 games last season.

Thomas only missed one game in his career prior to last season and is still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, so he’s as close to a sure thing to bounce back as any player in the league this season and possibly a favorite for the Comeback Player of the Year award. Thomas might not be quite as productive without Drew Brees throwing him the ball, but, in an offense that lacks other proven weapons, he figures to get a massive target share and he’s proven in the past that he can make contested catches regularly against heavy coverage.

Fourth year receiver Tre’Quan Smith is expected to be the #2 receiver, barring any cheap additions the Saints may be able to make with their limited remaining cap space. A 3rd round pick in 2018, Smith has gotten opportunity to play in his career, but last season, when he finished 5th on the team in targets and had a 34/448/4 slash line, was the most productive he’s ever been, which shows you the lack of productivity from him in his career. He also finished last season as PFF’s 99th ranked wide receiver out of 112 eligible on a career high 672 snaps. 

In all, Smith has averaged just 1.10 yards per route run in his career, despite playing primarily with Drew Brees under center. It’s possible he could benefit from having a quarterback under center who throws downfield more and the Saints don’t really have much of a choice but to give him more targets than he’s ever had before, but I wouldn’t expect him to have a sudden breakout season. He is only the #2 receiver by default, as their other options for playing time are a trio of recent undrafted free agents, Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Deonte Harris from 2019 and Marquez Callaway from 2020. 

Callaway played the most of the three in 2020, seeing 266 snaps, but he didn’t show much and finished with just a 21/213/0 slash line. Deonte Harris showed a little bit more, playing just 169 snaps and almost matching Callaway’s production with a 20/186/1 slash line, but he’s highly inexperienced, having played just 235 career snaps, and his 5-6 170 frame may limit him as a player. Lil’Jordan Humphrey, meanwhile, has played even less in his career, playing just 118 snaps, and has shown no sign of developing into a long-term contributor. 

Second year tight end Adam Trautman has more upside than their young wide receivers. A 3rd round pick, Trautman didn’t show much as a receiver in his rookie year with just a 15/171/1 slash line, but he was one of the better blocking tight ends in the league and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see his receiving take a big step forward in 2021. He wouldn’t be the first tight end to take a big step forward in his second season in the league and his receiving production was in part limited by his usage last season, receiving the ball just 3.7 yards from the line of scrimmage on his average catch and showing impressive after the catch ability with 7.7 yards after per catch. With the starting tight end job to himself and a quarterback under center who figures to throw downfield more, Trautman has the potential to have a solid receiving year in this offense and figures to get a significant target share regardless.

Depth is a concern at tight end because the Saints didn’t just lose Jared Cook this off-season, but also lost long-time #2 tight end Josh Hill to retirement, ahead of what would have been his age 31 season. Instead, it looks like Nick Vannett, a 5-year veteran journeyman who has never topped 29 catches in a season, will be the #2 tight end. Vannett is an adequate blocker, but little else and is unlikely to make an impact in the passing game. This passing game is very top heavy with Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara at the top and question marks beyond them, and, since Kamara is counted with the running backs, that leaves the Saints with arguably the thinnest receiving corps in the league. Michael Thomas returning to form will elevate this whole group, but they desperately need at least a couple young players to step up.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

One area where the Saints remain strong is the offensive line, where they return all five starters from a unit that was among the league’s best last season. The strength of this group is the offensive tackle position, where left tackle Terron Armstead and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk have been one of the best offensive tackle duos in the league in recent years. Armstead has been a top level starting left tackle since entering the lineup in 2014, finishing in the top-24 among offensive tackles on PFF in all 7 seasons, including 4 seasons in the top-8. 

Durability has always been the concern for him, as he’s never played all 16 games in a season, most recently missing a pair of games with injury last season. He will probably miss at least some time again with injury, but the Saints retained swing tackle James Hurst, so they at least have a decent insurance policy. They also have 2018 7th round pick Will Clapp as a versatile reserve, but he will probably focus on being a backup on the interior and he’s an underwhelming option anyway. 

Another growing concern with Armstead is he’s going into his age 30 season, but he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down yet and isn’t necessarily going to start declining in 2021. Ramczyk, meanwhile, was added opposite Armstead in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft and he’s been one of the top right tackles in the league since the word go, finishing in the top-14 among offensive tackles on PFF in all 4 seasons, including a #1 ranked finish in 2019, while making 63 of 64 starts over that stretch. Very much still in his prime in his age 27 season, there is no reason to expect anything different from him in 2021.

The Saints also have a talented young center in Erik McCoy, a 2nd round pick in 2019. McCoy quietly had a dominant rookie year, finishing 4th among centers on PFF in 16 starts and, while he wasn’t quite as good in 2020, he still finished 11th among centers on PFF in 16 starts and, still only going into his age 24 season, he looks like he will be one of the better centers in the league for years to come. 

Guard is the Saints’ weakest position upfront, even though they have a pair of former first round picks at the position. Andrus Peat was a first round pick back in 2015, but he has had trouble staying healthy, never playing all 16 games in a season, and it seems his recent injury history has caught up with him, as he hasn’t earned higher than an average grade from PFF in any of the past three seasons, after a promising start to his career. The Saints still locked Peat up on a 5-year, 57.5 million dollar deal last off-season, but that quickly looks like an overpay. 

Still only in his age 28 season, Peat theoretically has some bounce back potential if he can finally stay healthy, but that’s far from a guarantee, especially now three years removed from his last above average season. Right guard Cesar Ruiz, meanwhile, was a first round pick in 2020, but he was mediocre on 744 rookie year snaps. He could take a step forward in his second season in the league, but that’s not necessarily a guarantee. Even if he doesn’t, this should still be an above average offensive line regardless of their guard play.

Grade: A-

Edge Defenders

The Saints also lost some key players on defense this off-season. Probably the most talented player they lost was defensive end Trey Hendrickson, whose 13.5 sacks were tied for the 2nd most in the NFL last season, leading to him securing a 4-year, 60 million dollar deal from the Cincinnati Bengals that was far out of the Saints’ price range. Hendrickson might not be that big of a loss though, for a few reasons. For one, he wasn’t quite as good as his sack total last season, as his production was in part because of the talent around him.

Hendrickson was also technically the Saints’ third defensive end, as Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport are both talented starters. The Saints like to rotate players at the defensive end position, but they used their first round pick on a defensive end, taking Houston’s Payton Turner 28th overall and he will essentially replace Hendrickson. Turner was a bit of a questionable pick, not just because most expected him to fall into the second round, but also because the Saints had more pressing needs. That doesn’t mean he will be a bust, but they probably could have used that pick better.

Jordan and Davenport are also former first round picks, in 2011 and 2018 respectively, and both are under contract for the foreseeable future, 3 years and 2 years respectively. Jordan’s age is becoming a minor concern, now going into his age 32 season, but he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down and has been as durable as any player in the league in his career, remarkably playing in all 160 possible games in 10 seasons in the league, the longest active streak on defense, and regularly finishing among the league leaders in snaps played at his position, averaging 56.3 snaps per game in his career. 

Even if he does start to regress in 2021, Jordan should still be one of the better players in the league at his position. He has had a great career overall, but he’s especially been impressive over the past 6 seasons, finishing in the top-15 among edge defenders on PFF in all 6 seasons, totaling 65.5 sacks, 67 hits, and a 11.3% pressure rate over that stretch and playing the run at a high level as well. Unless his abilities fall off a cliff, he should be a very valuable player again on this defensive line.

Davenport, meanwhile, has shown all the potential to be an above average every down player, but he needs to stay on the field. Davenport has played just 37 of 48 games in 3 seasons in the league and, with other talented players at the position, he’s also been limited to just 35.7 snaps per game when he has been healthy, which is a big part of the reason why he has been limited to just 12 total sacks, but he’s added 25 hits and a 13.0% pressure rate, while playing at a high level against the run. His highest rated season on PFF came in 2019 when he was PFF’s 18th ranked edge defender on 533 snaps (13 games) and, still only going into his age 25 season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him exceed that if he can finally stay healthy. That may be a big if, but he’s dripping with potential.

The Saints also signed veteran Tanoh Kpassagnon as a free agent this off-season, but that was before the draft when they selected Turner and it’s unclear how much of a role Kpassagnon will have with Turner in the mix. That’s a good thing, however, as Kpassagnon has been one of the worst starting defensive ends in the league over the past two seasons with the Chiefs. He’s finished 109th out of 121 eligible edge defenders and 101st out of 125 eligible edge defenders respectively, while totaling just 5 sacks, 9 hits, and a 6.5% pressure rate. 

Kpassagnon may be better off in a reserve role, but the Saints are probably best off with him only playing a few snaps per game. 2020 3rd round pick Zack Baun could also be in the mix, but the hybrid player only played 82 snaps as a rookie and only 28 of them came on passing plays, on 19 of which he dropped into coverage rather than rushing the passer. If he sees a significantly increased role in his second season in the league, it will likely be primarily as a traditional off ball linebacker. This is a talented position group led by a trio of former first round picks in various stages of their careers and they have sufficient depth options as well.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

The Saints also lost a pair of defensive tackles this off-season, with Sheldon Rankins signing with the Jets on a 2-year, 11 million dollar deal that the Saints would have had a hard time matching if they wanted to and Malcom Brown being traded to the Jaguars for a late round pick in a salary dump that saved the Saints another 5 million. Neither player was a major contributor last season, playing 415 snaps and 345 snaps respectively, but they’re both solid players and the Saints did nothing to replace them.

Third year player Shy Tuttle is expected to move into the starting lineup and, while he’s shown a lot of promise against the run thus far in his career, he’s still a former undrafted free agent who has only played 340 snaps and 326 snaps in two seasons in the league and he leaves something to be desired as a pass rusher, with just 2 sacks, 3 hits, and a 5.6% pressure rate in his limited playing time. Tuttle could see his snap total close to double this season and he’s a major projection to a larger role.

Cameron Roach is also likely to be in the mix for playing time, even though the 2020 undrafted free agent struggled mightily as a rookie, finishing 135th out of 138 eligible interior defenders on PFF across 233 snaps. It wouldn’t be hard for him to be better in his second season in the league, but he looks far from ever developing into a contributor. Veteran Ryan Glasgow is also likely to see action. A 4th round pick in 2017, Glasgow’s career got off to a promising start, particularly his play against the run, but injuries have derailed his career, starting with a torn ACL that he suffered early in the 2018 season. 

Since then, Glasgow has played just 152 snaps total and, after the Bengals cut him in final cuts last off-season, he spent last season bouncing around the Texans, Patriots, and Saints practice squads before finally appearing in two games for the Saints down the stretch. Injuries are always the main concern with him, but he has a pretty clear path to a roster spot and a likely rotational role if he can stay healthy. Glasgow isn’t a pass rush option though, so the Saints could try to mask their lack of interior pass rushers with their depth at defensive end and use one of their defensive ends on the interior in sub packages.

Fortunately, the Saints still have David Onyemata, an every down player who is by far their best interior pass rusher. A 4th round pick in 2016, Onyemata has steadily developed throughout his career. He struggled overall as a rookie, but took a big step forward as a pass rusher in his 2nd season in the league and has totaled 16 sacks, 22 hits, and a 8.4% pressure rate in 4 seasons since. His play against the run left something to be desired early in his career, but he has developed in that aspect as well and finished the 2020 season as PFF’s 9th ranked interior defender overall, excelling as a pass rusher (6.5 sacks, 10 hits, 11.6% pressure rate), but also earning an above average run stopping grade. 

Onyemata might not be quite as good in 2021 as he was in his career best 2020 season, but he’s very much in his prime in his age 28 season, so he should at least remain an above average every down player. He elevates a position group that otherwise has a lot of question marks and a concerning lack of depth. Even if their defensive end depth is able to somewhat mask their lack of defensive tackle depth, the Saints still figure to get noticeably worse interior play this season.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The Saints also lost a couple linebackers this off-season, with Alex Anzalone signing with the Lions in free agency and Kwon Alexander being cut for salary purposes. Like the defensive tackles they lost, neither player was a major contributor, playing 525 snaps and 350 snaps respectively, but both were capable players and the Saints are thinner at the position without them. They did address the position in the draft, using a 2nd round pick on Ohio State’s Pete Werner, and, as I mentioned earlier, 2020 3rd round pick Zack Baun figures to see a bigger role as a linebacker this season, but both are significant question marks because of their lack of experience. 

Fortunately, top linebacker Demario Davis remains and should continue playing his normal every down role, in which he’s played 60.3 snaps per game in 3 seasons with the Saints. Davis was a late bloomer who was underwhelming earlier in his career with the Browns and Jets, but he’s finished in the top-19 among off ball linebackers on PFF in 4 straight seasons, including a career best #2 ranked finish in 2019, and has cemented himself among the better players in the league at his position. 

Davis’ age is a concern, now going into his age 32 season, but he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, finishing 6th among off ball linebackers on PFF last season, and, even if he declines, he should remain an above average every down linebacker. He also has no real injury history to speak of, playing 144 of a possible 144 games since entering the league as a 3rd round pick in 2012, which bodes well for his chances of continuing to play at a high level. The Saints will need him to continue playing well and staying healthy because he is their only proven linebacker and this position group lacks depth in a concerning way.

Grade: B

Secondary

Safety Malcolm Jenkins also saw significant action as a linebacker last season, but he might not play there quite as much this season because the Saints are also thinner in the secondary. The big loss was cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who was a solid starter last season, but was let go for financial reasons ahead of what would have been his age 33 season. The Saints didn’t replace him until using a third round pick on Stanford cornerback Paulson Adebo, so PJ Williams, a hybrid cornerback/safety who would play safety when Jenkins played linebacker, could have to see more action at cornerback this season.

Regardless of where he plays, PJ Williams is a pretty uninspiring option, as he has received below average grades from PFF in 3 straight seasons, including one of the worst in the league last season. A 6-year veteran, Williams has been better in the past, but, even only in his age 28 season, it seems like his best days are behind him. Fellow veteran Patrick Robinson’s best days are definitely behind him, but he too looks to be in the mix for playing time at cornerback. Highly inconsistent even in his prime, Robinson’s best season came in 2017 for the Eagles, when he finished 6th among cornerbacks on PFF on 710 snaps, but he’s subsequently played just 528 snaps with the Saints in 3 seasons since then, due in part to both injury and ineffectiveness, and now he’s going into his age 34 season, so it’s unclear if he has anything left. 

Chauncey Gardner-Johnson was the #3 cornerback and slot specialist last season, but he may see more action outside this season, given that their only other starting options are the aforementioned Williams and Robinson and a raw third round rookie. A 4th round pick by the Saints in 2019, Gardner-Johnson flashed on 547 snaps as a rookie before being more of a middling player on 861 snaps in 2020. He showed versatility as a rookie by playing safety, linebacker, and slot cornerback, before becoming the Saints’ primary slot cornerback in 2020, but outside cornerback would be a new challenge for him. He’s a versatile player who has shown upside, but his best play came in limited action and the Saints may be hurting his development if they move him around too much.

Marshon Lattimore remains the #1 cornerback, but the 2017 1st round pick has yet to match the heights he reached as a rookie, when he won Defensive Rookie of the Year and finished as PFF’s 8th ranked cornerback overall. In 3 seasons since then, he hasn’t finished above 29th on PFF. After allowing a 52.9% completion and 0 touchdowns to 5 interceptions as a rookie, he has allowed 59.2% completion and 12 touchdowns to 5 interceptions since, taking three seasons to match his rookie year interception total. He’s still a young player, only going into his age 25 season, and he’s loaded with potential, but he’s not a guarantee to bounce back to his rookie year form. 

Safety Marcus Williams doesn’t get the recognition that Lattimore gets, but he is actually the best defensive back in this secondary and one of the top safeties in the league. A 2nd round pick in 2017, Williams has started 60 games in 4 seasons in the league and has ranked in the top-8 among safeties in 3 those 4 seasons, with the outlier coming in a 31st ranked season in 2018. Williams is also still young, going into his age 25 season and, barring major injuries, should remain one of the top safeties in the league long-term. 

The Saints had to push more cap hits to the future to do it, but they were able to keep Williams on the 10.612 million dollar franchise tag this off-season and, while signing him to a long-term deal is another challenge, given his likely asking price at the top of the market (15-16 million) and the Saints’ dire cap situation for the next few off-seasons, he is one of their most important players and the Saints seem to be prioritizing him as such. If they had let him walk this off-season, their secondary would be in much worse shape.

Malcolm Jenkins remains as the other starting safety, but the Saints may have cut him this off-season if they could have, as he’s now going into his age 34 season and the 4-year, 32 million dollar extension he signed just last off-season now looks like a mistake, as he’s set to take home a guaranteed 6.2 million this season, after showing significant decline a year ago in a season in which he took home 10.55 million, including a 9 million dollar signing bonus. 

Jenkins had earned an average or better grade from PFF in 7 straight seasons prior to signing that deal with the Saints, with the previous 6 of those seasons coming with the Eagles, but in 2020, he fell to 57th among 99 eligible safeties, especially struggling in coverage, ranking 82nd in coverage grade at his position. It’s possible he is able to turn back the clock in 2021, but at his age, that’s far from a guarantee and he could easily continue declining, especially if asked to cover on the backend too often. This group is obviously better for having retained its top player, safety Marcus Williams, but it’s a group with plenty of question marks as well.

Grade: B

Kicker/Punter

The Saints had among the best special teams in the league last season, finishing 5th in special teams DVOA. The only aspect in which they were below average was place kicking and only by a little bit. Kicker Will Lutz wasn’t bad, finishing 11th among kickers on PFF, making 57/58 on extra points and 23/28 on field goals, but he was just 1/3 on field goals beyond 50+ yards. He’s been better in the past though, as last season was his lowest ranked season on PFF, while his best season was a 2nd ranked finish in 2018. 

In total, Lutz has hit 86.6% of his field goals and 97.3% of his extra points in five seasons in the league, including 13/23 on field goals longer than 50+ yards and 52/60 on field goals between 40-49 yards. I would expect him to be better in 2021 compared to 2020, even if he isn’t quite as good as he’s been in his best years. Lutz was also a weapon on kickoffs, part of the reason it was a big strength of this special teams unit, as he ranked 2nd on PFF in kickoff grade, his 4th straight season in the top-5. That should continue in 2021.

Punter Thomas Morestead wasn’t quite as good, ranking 24th among punters, but the Saints’ punting unit was also a big strength, in large part due to the supporting cast. Morestead has also been better in the past, finishing in the top-13 among punters on PFF in 7 straight seasons prior to last season, including four seasons in the top-5 (2013, 2014, 2016, 2017), so he should be better in 2021 than 2020, perhaps significantly so. This should be at least a solid kicker/punter duo and they have the upside to be much more than that.

Grade: A

Return Specialists

The Saints were also above average on returns, averaging 10.2 yards per punt return and 25.4 yards per kickoff return, good for 9th best in the NFL and 6th best in the NFL respectively. Most of the work was done by the Saints supporting cast though, as none of their returners finished above average on PFF. Deonte Harris was their best kickoff returner, averaging 27.3 yards per kickoff return on 16 attempts, after averaging 26.8 yards per kickoff return on 24 attempts as a rookie in 2019, and he should remain in that role in 2021, even if he’s also expected to serve a bigger role on offense.

Harris also has returned 53 punts for 10.3 yards per return with a touchdown in his career, including 17 return attempts in 2020, but he was one of three punt returners who saw significant action for the Saints, along with Marquez Callaway and Tommylee Lewis. Lewis is no longer with the team, leaving Harris and Callaway to compete for the punt returner role. Callaway is also expected to see a bigger role on offense in 2021, but it’s probably more likely that they will continue using Callaway on punt returns rather than using Harris primarily in both capacities, in addition to his own offensive role. 

Callaway had a lot of help from his supporting cast, but he averaged an impressive 11.1 yards per return average on 11 returns last season in his first season in the league, after averaging 13.6 yards per with 3 touchdowns on 40 returns at the University of Tennessee. Both Harris and Callaway should continue being productive in their respective roles if they continue to get good play from their supporting cast, though they might struggle if they don’t get the same support.

Grade: B-

Special Teamers

It’s possible the Saints won’t get the same level of play from their supporting cast and the loss of Justin Hardee, PFF’s 4th ranked special teamer in 2020 across 214 snaps, and Craig Robertson, PFF’s 24th ranked special teamer in 2020 across 358 snaps, is a big part of the reason why. Zach Baun also had a strong season, finishing as PFF’s 16th ranked special teamer in 2020 across 245 snaps, but the 2020 3rd round pick is just a one-year wonder on special teams and could see a bigger role on defense in year two, at the expense of some special teams snaps. The Saints also lost Alex Anzalone, who was decent across 179 special teams snaps in 2020.

JT Gray (323 snaps) and Kaden Ellis (274 snaps) return after finishing with above average grades from PFF and they have proven track records as well, so they should continue their above average play, but Dwayne Washington (203 snaps), Carl Granderson (174 snaps), and Adam Trautman (154 snaps) all struggled last season and their track records aren’t much better, so they would likely continue to struggle if counted on for significant roles again. 

The Saints did add one free agent to this group, Alex Armah, who has averaged 214 snaps per season as a special teamer over the past four seasons, but he has never earned more than a middling grade from PFF. The Saints will need significant contributions from their rookie class to continue playing at the level they played at last season, though they do benefit from the return of special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi, an 11-year NFL special teams coordinator who is well regarded around the league. Still, I would expect a drop off from last season.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The big concern with the Saints is the loss of quarterback Drew Brees, but he was far from the Saints’ only loss in an off-season where the Saints had to cut significant salary to get under the cap. The Saints have managed to win without Brees over the past two seasons because of their dominant supporting cast, but now more pressure will be placed on the Saints’ replacement signal caller with the rest of this roster thinned out. The Saints will also face a much tougher schedule this season than their schedule without Brees over the past two seasons and the fact that the Saints didn’t win most of those games convincingly is a concern, especially since their offensive efficiency noticeably dropped. 

There is still enough on this team that the Saints could still be in the mix for a wild card spot in the NFC, but they’re obviously behind Tampa Bay in the division now and it’s clear that the Saints have had among the biggest talent drop offs of any team in the league. They were starting from a high baseline, but any time a team loses significant talent in an off-season, it’s a concern. I will have a final prediction for the Browns at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

8/8/21 Update: The Saints were dealt a big blow when Michael Thomas needed ankle surgery that seems likely to sideline him for the first couple months of the season, but they did shore up a big weakness on defense by adding cornerbacks Prince Amukamara and Brian Poole, the latter of whom is one of the best slot cornerbacks in the league. They will also get some benefit from their special teams, which are more predictive than I previously though.

9/4/21 Update: The Saints will be without the injured Michael Thomas, the suspended David Onyemata, and injured kicker Will Lutz for the start of the season and they normally start slow anyway, so I would expect them to struggle to begin the season, before likely becoming a strong bet in the second half of the season. The loss of Brian Poole for the season hurts this defense and the Saints are likely to fall short of a playoff berth, but there is still plenty of talent here, as the Saints opted not to go for the full rebuild this off-season.

Prediction: 9-8 2nd in NFC South

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