TAKING STOCK: NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

BY ADAM GREENE

A shockingly uneventful regular season for the New Orleans Saints came to in an end against the eventual Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the playoffs, but that wasn’t the big story. Like the offseason preceding it, the most important postseason exit Saints news was all about quarterback Drew Brees.

Back in 2020 at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, Brees suffered a major unforced error by saying something stupid about kneeling during the national anthem and the season was on the rocks before the opening kickoff. 

But Brees and the team survived it, and while the QB missed some games with an injury and posted some of the worst numbers of his career, they did claim a division title and win a playoff game.

The writing was on the wall before their loss to the Bucs in the divisional round, with reports swirling that Brees was going to hang up his gunbelt regardless of how far the team went after that. It turns out, it wasn’t very far at all and a few weeks ago the first ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer ended all speculation by making his retirement official.

So now, for the first time since 2006, New Orleans will line up on opening day with a new quarterback. We’ll take a look at that and more.

In the Taking Stock series, we’re looking at each playoff team, going from worst to first, and outlining exactly what they must do to avoid being one of the five or so franchises who miss the postseason the year after making it.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

2020-21 Record: 12-4, NFC South Champions

Playoffs: Defeated the Chicago Bears 21-9 in the NFC Wild Card round, lost 30-20 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Divisional Round

2021-22 NFC Championship Odds: +1200

Previously: Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, Los Angeles Rams, Pittsburgh Steelers, Seattle Seahawks, Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts, Chicago Bears, Washington Football Team

THE QUARTERBACKS

As Brees rides off into the sunset, the Saints did the smart thing and brought back his backup Jameis Winston, who they specifically did not play last year when Brees was hurt. That honor went to the other backup, Taysom Hill, whom Sean Payton has been over-hyped for since he pulled him off the street as an undrafted free agent out of BYU in 2017.

Though Hill went 3-1 as a starter for Payton in Brees’ absence last season, the head coach seems to have finally stumbled out of his stupor and at least informed Winston that there will be an honest competition between the two men in the preseason.

It’s difficult for me to see any legit battle between the two men where Winston doesn’t smoke Hill like a pack of Cools. I’m a firm believer that the NFL gives up too early on QBs and a guy like Winston, with the capability of throwing 30 TDs and 5,000 yards a season, shouldn’t be automatically exiled. If you could, through coaching and play design, cut the man’s turnovers in half you’d have a Pro Bowl quarterback.

But the Saints can win with Hill and have in the past. So even if Winston can’t pull it together, Hill can at least keep from making mistakes and leave the team in the hands of…

THE DEFENSE

New Orleans finished with the No. 5 ranked defense in 2020-21 and were third in the league in forced turnovers. The problem is, of course, the squad was raided in free agency as they lost defensive end Trey Hendrickson to the Cincinnati Bengals, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins and cornerback Justin Hardee to the New York Jets and outside linebacker Alex Anzalone to the Detroit Lions. They also cut corner Janoris Jenkins in a salary cap move.

They did manage to re-sign cornerback P.J. Williams, but to keep their defense in the upper echelon of the league, they’ll need a major step up from defensive end Marcus Davenport, who looks more like a draft bust (one that cost them two first round picks to get) by the day. As a perennial contender, the Saints are at least blessed with the reputation that can help them land some veteran free agents late in the process who want to play for a ring. Especially older guys from perennially losing squads like Melvin Ingram and Mychal Kendricks.

THE DRAFT

Picking at No. 28, the Saints are likely out of the top QB conversations unless a guy like Mac Jones falls to them. In that case, it’s decision time, not only to maybe pick a guy to be a potential franchise quarterback, but presumably there will be teams looking to trade back into the first round for Jones in order to secure his fifth year option.

If they stay put, New Orleans should be thinking all defense and best player available. That means a corner like Tyson Campbell from Georgia or Asante Samuel Jr. from Florida State. They could look hard at Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins and Washington defensive lineman Levi Onwuzurike too.

NFC SOUTH

Considering the fact that the Saints won this division last season and its wild card team won the Super Bowl, it remains tough. It helps that the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons both still seem to be in some disarray, with the Falcons breaking in a new coaching staff this season. Atlanta has a playoff roster, at least on offense, but I still see the South as a two-team race. Tampa Bay has made a point to bring back its key players, especially on defense, and should remain the odds-on favorite to take the South, if not the entire NFC. Truthfully, the fact that the Bucs start an older QB and the NFL is adding an extra game to the regular season could work against them.

But I wouldn’t count on that. What I do feel confident about is that the Saints, if Winston can protect the ball, should still be a factor and play in January.

Projected 2021-22 Record: 10-7, NFC Wild Card

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