News & Analysis

New Orleans Saints 2021 free agency and NFL Draft preview

Nov 15, 2020; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston (2) throws during warm ups prior to kickoff against the San Francisco 49ers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

In the lead-up to the start of free agency on March 17 and the opening day of the 2021 NFL Draft on April 29, we'll be taking a position-by-position look at all 32 NFL teams with a focus on the starting spots that have question marks heading into next season.

The New Orleans Saints pushed all their chips into the middle of the table to put a championship-caliber roster around Drew Brees in his final years. That Super Bowl never came. Now, the Saints are left to pick up the pieces with the worst salary cap situation in the NFL.

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They still have pieces in place to compete in 2021, but the Saints must first decide who their quarterback will be next season. Then the team has to figure out where they can cut costs to get under the salary cap without hindering their ability to push for a playoff berth.  

Projected cap space (Over the Cap): –$48,882,146 (last in NFL)

Picks in 2021 NFL Draft: 28, 60, 98, 105, 133

Projected 2021 offense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
QB ?
RB Alvin Kamara 7 / 70 $5.0 million
WR Michael Thomas 22 / 127 $18.8 million
WR ?
WR ?
TE Adam Trautman 9 / 71 $1.0 million
LT Terron Armstead 8 / 38 $16.2 million
LG Andrus Peat 24 / 39 $11.6 million
C Erik McCoy 11 / 37 $1.7 million
RG Cesar Ruiz 36 / 40 $2.9 million
RT Ryan Ramczyk 10 / 38 $11.1 million

The biggest question lingering in New Orleans is who will replace Brees should he retire. Though, we should note that an official retirement announcement still hasn’t come from the 42-year-old vet.

In-house option Taysom Hill and free agent Jameis Winston are the two leaders in that race, but the Saints could also look to target a different quarterback in the 2021 NFL Draft or free agency.

Jared Cook‘s release opens the door for a larger role for Trautman in his second year, but the team is still in need of some playmaking ability at wide receiver behind Thomas. Emmanuel Sanders appears to be one of the more likely cap casualties on the roster, and even though Deonte Harris could assume a larger role on offense after coming on late in the 2020 season, New Orleans is still thin on proven difference-makers at the position.

There is little reason to expect any significant changes along the offensive line. The one area where New Orleans could potentially look to upgrade is left guard, but Peat is locked into that spot following the big extension he signed last offseason. Given that the team will be seeking to free up some cap space, Ramczyk stands out as an extension candidate at right tackle. 

Should the Saints bring back Winston to be their starting quarterback in 2021?

Assuming that Brees does retire this offseason, which one would assume is the preferred outcome for New Orleans, the Saints don’t have many avenues to find his replacement before next season. There is a good chance that the top five quarterbacks are all off the board by the team's first pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, and their cap situation won’t make it easy to take any big swings on quarterbacks either via free agency or trade.

That leaves either the option already on the roster (Hill) or a cheap reunion with Winston in free agency as the two likeliest answers heading into next season. Of those two choices, Winston should be the preferred starter for the Saints.

The Saints have already invested heavily in Hill, but he didn’t show much in his four-game stint as a starter this past season that should give the team confidence in a full-time starting role in 2021. New Orleans ranked 20th in expected points added (EPA) per pass play over that stretch despite two matchups with a weak Atlanta pass defense. Hill recorded twice as many turnover-worthy plays (six) as he did big-time throws (three) in those four games. 

His athleticism does add value in the running game, but it’s hard to trust the 30-year-old as a passer, given how little he has shown in that area throughout his career. 

It’s not as if Winston doesn’t have his own drawbacks as a candidate for the starting job, but we’ve at least seen him perform at an average level across five years as a starter. Winston ranked 11th among all quarterbacks in PFF WAR from 2015 to 2019. That “average” play overall just happens to be highly volatile, with Winston ranking near the top of both the list for positively and negatively graded throw rate.

Having spent a year on the sideline learning the offense, Winston should be well-positioned to step into a starting role in 2021. If he does, the Saints will attempt to do what the Buccaneers could not — eliminate the mistakes and turnovers while keeping the impressive downfield throws that Winston can make.

Can Harris be a legitimate part of this offense moving forward?

Harris has been an electric return man since joining the Saints roster in 2019 as an undrafted free agent out of Assumption College. It wasn’t until the 2020 season that New Orleans really started utilizing him in several games on offense. Harris made a significant impact in the team’s wild-card victory over the Chicago Bears, catching all seven of his targets for 83 yards in the contest.  

There will always be a place in the NFL for players who are difficult to touch in the open field. That description fits Harris — it’s a big part of what makes him so dangerous in the return game, and it’s something that Sean Payton and company should be able to utilize more on offense in 2021 and beyond. Last season, Harris forced 13 missed tackles on 28 receptions across the regular season and postseason — an absurd rate on a limited sample. 

With Sanders potentially on his way out for salary cap savings, Harris could take on a more consistent receiving role on this team next season.  

Does Ruiz take a big second-year jump at right guard next season?

The decision to draft Ruiz in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft was a curious one. It wasn’t because Ruiz was a massive reach in the first round, as he was PFF’s top-ranked center and third-ranked overall interior offensive lineman in the draft class. It was more so that there was no clear path to the field for Ruiz. Larry Warford was coming off a successful 2019 season at right guard, and the ink had yet to dry on Peat’s big contract extension in free agency. On top of that, the Saints had seemingly hit a home run with McCoy at center in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Warford’s release made the move look more reasonable in hindsight, but there was still a good chance that the Saints were going to take a hit in play at right guard with a rookie offensive lineman. That’s exactly what happened in 2020. 

Ruiz had his share of troubles in pass protection as a rookie last season. His 42.3 pass-blocking grade ranked third-worst among qualifying right guards on the season, beating out only teammate Nick Easton and Quinton Spain. He was one of just four players at the position with at least 250 pass-blocking snaps and a pressure rate allowed north of 6.0%. 

The silver lining is that Ruiz is still a very young player — turning 22 in June — at a position that generally takes some time to develop from college to the pros. The Saints will be hoping for better results out of their 2020 first-round pick in 2021. 

Potential targets at open spots

Quarterback: Jameis Winston, Davis Mills

Winston makes sense for many of the reasons I discussed above. He signed a very affordable contract last offseason and did little to boost his value in 2020. For a team strapped for cap space, they will not find another starter who has both the starting experience and the knowledge of the offense that Winston has.

Mills is a potential later-round target at quarterback in the 2021 NFL Draft. The former five-star quarterback can operate an offense at a high level and has the requisite NFL arm strength and accuracy. He just doesn’t come with much experience or ability to create outside of structure.  

Wide receiver: Dyami Brown, DeSean Jackson  

When you’re looking at this receiving corps, the one element that they could really benefit from is a vertical threat. 

Jackson is one of the NFL's best-ever players in that regard. As the last two years have shown, he carries significant injury risk, but the 34-year-old has been a factor when healthy. There is plenty of reason to believe he can still take the top off a defense, and he should come cheap in free agency. 

Brown is a significantly younger alternative, but he provides a similar skill set on the vertical route tree. To be fair, that vertical route tree is almost exclusively what Brown ran in his time at North Carolina. However, his tape indicates that he can develop into a complete route runner in the NFL — not simply a one-trick pony. 

Projected 2021 Defense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
DI David Onyemata 7 / 125 $5.7 million
DI ?
EDGE Cameron Jordan 8 / 110 $9.4 million
EDGE Marcus Davenport 20 / 110 $4.4 million
LB Demario Davis 5 / 83 $6.9 million
LB Zack Baun N/A $1.1 million
LB ?
CB Marshon Lattimore 70 / 121 $10.2 million
CB ?
CB Chauncey Gardner-Johnson 64 / 121 $1.0 million
S Malcolm Jenkins 48 / 94 $9.0 million
S ?

The holes on the Saints defense come from either free agents that they’re unlikely to bring back, given their current salary cap situation, or starters who may be released to free up valuable cap space. 

Along the defensive line, Sheldon Rankins and Trey Hendrickson are the notable unrestricted free agents. New Orleans is also reportedly in trade conversations surrounding nose tackle Malcom Brown. Hendrickson is likely gone after playing his way out of the Saints’ price range in 2020, mainly because Davenport is a more-than-capable starter on the edge opposite Jordan. Shy Tuttle could be a candidate to see an increased workload if New Orleans loses both Rankins and Brown. 

At linebacker, there isn’t a ton of proven depth behind Davis. Baun should see a larger role in 2021, but the large majority of his 102 defensive snaps as a rookie came on the edge, where he played in college, rather than at off-ball linebacker. Alex Anzalone is a free agent this offseason, and Kwon Alexander is all but gone already because his release frees up over $13 million in cap space. 

Cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Patrick Robinson are also potential cap casualties for the Saints this offseason. Jenkins’ release could free up $7 million, while Robinson would net the Saints $2.6 million against the 2021 salary cap if cut. Ideally, the Saints can keep Jenkins on a restructured deal or extension because there is little in the way of reliable depth behind him on the depth chart. 

Last but not least, Marcus Williams stands out as the Saints’ biggest defensive free agent. He has graded out as one of the best safeties in the league since 2017, and there is no clear backup plan at free safety behind him on the roster. If the Saints make an effort to keep one free agent, it should be the 24-year-old safety out of Utah.   

Is the Saints defensive line still in good shape even if they lose Rankins, Brown and Hendrickson?

One of the biggest strengths of this Saints defensive line in recent years has been its depth. Eight Saints defensive linemen played at least 300 defensive snaps in 2020, and every single one of them recorded at least a 63.0 PFF grade. That kind of depth gives you confidence that you can withstand an MCL sprain to Rankins or an elbow injury to Davenport, as last season showed.

It also means that this can still be one of the most productive defensive lines in the NFL if none of the Saints’ unrestricted free agents return. Jordan is perennially one of the best defensive ends in the league, and Onyemata graded among the 10 best players at his position in 2020. Davenport has been limited by injuries early in his NFL career, but he has been impactful when healthy, earning an overall grade of 83.3 across the last two seasons.  

The biggest concern will be that the Saints won’t have the same luxury of being able to withstand injuries. They’ll need their starters to remain healthy, or else things could begin to deteriorate.   

Can Baun be a starting off-ball linebacker for this team in 2021?

Baun was the 42nd-ranked player overall on PFF’s Big Board entering last year’s draft — the fourth-ranked off-ball linebacker on the list. That positional distinction is important because Baun was not an off-ball linebacker at Wisconsin. He played primarily on the edge, but he showcased the kind of athleticism and coverage ability when dropping that signaled he could make the switch in the NFL. 

He played the Sam linebacker role in New Orleans as a rookie but was used sparingly on defense. In total, 87 of Baun’s 102 defensive snaps came lined up on the line of scrimmage as more of an edge-rushing outside linebacker, and 72 of those 102 defensive snaps came as a pass-rusher. There was no massive off-ball shift for Baun’s role compared to what he did at Wisconsin. 

All indications point toward an opportunity for an increased role for Baun next season, with Alexander standing out as a candidate to be released and Anzalone hitting free agency. You have to imagine that the Saints plan on giving a chunk of those snaps to their 2020 third-round pick. It just remains to be seen how he adjusts to that new role.  

Why should the Saints do everything they can to bring back Marcus Williams?

Williams is one of the most underappreciated safeties in the NFL. Since entering the league in 2017, his 91.2 PFF grade ranks fourth among all qualifying safeties, behind only Harrison Smith, Adrian Amos and Earl Thomas. On top of that, he’s shown the ability to succeed across various coverage responsibilities, grading above 85.0 in both single-high and two-high schemes throughout his four-year career. 

The Saints aren’t flush with cash, but beyond what the team’s plan is at quarterback, keeping Williams in town should be a top priority for New Orleans this offseason. 

Otherwise, they will surely need to find free safety help elsewhere this offseason. Jenkins will offer the most value in a box/slot role, and the only other safety on the team to play at least 200 snaps in free safety alignments last season (P.J. Williams) is also an unrestricted free agent.

Potential targets at open spots

Interior defensive line: Sheldon Rankins, Marvin Wilson 

The arrow could very well be pointing up for Rankins following two years affected by injury in 2019 and 2020. Rankins spoke to his health in a recent interview, mentioning that he feels as good as he has since he posted a career-best 79.0 PFF grade in the 2018 season. If the Saints can bring him back at a reasonable price point, it’s a move they should look to be making. 

Wilson is a defensive tackle who has slid down some draft boards after an underwhelming 2020 season, but he did put up back-to-back 90.0-plus PFF grades in 2018 and 2019 while at Florida State while playing at least 500 defensive snaps each year. He would add a powerful defensive tackle into the mix to pair with Onyemata and Tuttle.  

Linebacker: Alex Anzalone, Zaven Collins

Anzalone’s first few years in the NFL have been marred by injury and inconsistent play — a contributing factor to the Saints likely looking elsewhere for linebacker help this offseason. However, Anzalone has shown solid play in coverage when healthy, and it’s difficult to see him having a highly competitive market this offseason. A reunion wouldn’t be a terrible outcome for either side heading into 2021. 

Targeting a prospect like Collins early in the 2021 NFL Draft would be a much more aggressive move at the position. Collins has a rare combination of size and athleticism that will interest NFL teams. His pass-rushing ability would fit in nicely on a New Orleans’ defense that isn’t a stranger to blitzing off-ball linebackers, and he would serve as a Davis replacement down the line while still being able to play alongside him early in his career. 

Cornerback: Gareon Conley, Jaycee Horn

The Saints were one of the biggest proponents of man coverage in 2020, and both of these potential targets bring some man-coverage skills that New Orleans should like. 

Conley is one of the more intriguing buy-low candidates out there at cornerback this offseason. The former first-round pick is coming off a lost 2020 season due to injury, but Conley was playing the best football of his short career toward the tail end of the 2019 season following his trade to Houston. He has shown that he can make plays on the football, with 21 pass breakups and four interceptions across his last two seasons on just 118 targets.   

Horn, meanwhile, has the ideal press-man cornerback mentality coming out of South Carolina. He allowed just eight catches across seven games across the entire 2020 season. New Orleans should have interest should he slide to them at the back end of the first round in this year’s draft. 

Safety: Marcus Williams, Richie Grant

If the Saints do have to cede Williams to another team this offseason, Grant is a versatile free safety out of UCF who could help make up for what New Orleans is losing with Williams’ departure. The PFF Draft Guide lists Grant’s processing speed as his biggest strength, and he projects as a strong fit on a Saints defense that runs a lot of two-high coverages. A bonus to Grant’s game is that he has been tremendous against the run. He earned a 90.0 run-defense grade this past season at UCF.

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