A new era of New Orleans Saints football is upon us. After 15 years as quarterback of the Saints, Drew Brees finally retired following last season's playoff loss. How do you replace an icon? Head coach Sean Payton is now tasked with molding a new leader under center. Will it be Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill? Realistically, it'll likely be both at some point this year. On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Dennis Allen has several key holes to fill in his unit.
Sean Payton has more NFC South titles in the last four years than he did in his first 10 seasons as the head coach in New Orleans, and he still has a roster filled with talent, albeit without proven depth. Payton is one of the best coaches in the NFL, but his status would be vaulted to another level if he can transform either Winston or Hill into an upper-echelon quarterback. It seems like Payton is savoring this challenge, internally smirking about what he's about to unleash upon the league with his new signal caller. Or it could be a disaster, and the Saints slip back into 7-9 mediocrity.
Either way, buckle up because 2021 is going to be an interesting season for the Saints.
There's a new starting quarterback in town, but who it will be is still up for debate.
Taysom Hill went 3-1 as a starter while Drew Brees was injured last season, throwing his first touchdown passes of his professional career in the process. He rushed for a career high eight touchdowns, amassing 457 yards on ground on 87 attempts and caught a touchdown pass. Overall, Hill accounted for 13 touchdowns last season as his usage rate increased tremendously.
Jameis Winston appeared in four games for New Orleans, replacing Brees in the second half of a Week 10 victory over San Francisco in his only extended playing time. His lone, true highlight from last year was in the postseason, when Winston fired off a 56-yard touchdown pass against the Buccaneers, flashing the incredible arm we remembered from his days in Tampa Bay. Yes, Winston threw for 30 interceptions two years ago and has earned the label of "turnover-prone." Payton, however, clearly has seen enough to give Winston another contract. The quarterback room this season feels like a potential "hope for the best but prepare for mediocrity" situation.
Whichever quarterback wins the starting job will be joined by one of the best playmakers in the NFL: running back Alvin Kamara. The explosive back put up nearly 1,700 yards and 21 touchdowns as a dual threat rusher and receiver last year. Unfortunately, the franchise's new signal caller will initially be without the services of All-Pro wide receiver Michael Thomas, who will miss several games to start the season recovering from ankle surgery. Thomas's 2020 campaign was plagued by injuries, and he appeared in only seven games while logging career lows in all statistical categories.
Production from the supporting cast of skill players is perhaps the biggest question mark on offense outside of the quarterback position. Expect a breakout season from receiver Tre'Quan Smith as he enters a contract year. Deonte Harris and Marquez Callaway showed flashes of brilliance in limited offensive snaps last season. Latavius Murray is a reliable second running back behind Kamara. Tight ends Nick Vannett and Adam Trautman replace the departed Jared Cook. Thankfully, the Saints still boast a solid offensive line, capable of keeping whoever wins the quarterback job upright.
Roster turnover is a part of football, but Dennis Allen's defense lost several key contributors in the offseason, including linebackers Kwon Alexander and Alex Anzalone, defensive linemen Trey Hendrickson, Sheldon Rankins, and Malcom Brown, and cornerback Janoris Jenkins. Some of these losses are bigger than others (Hendrickson and Jenkins), but there's always uncertainty as to how a new contributor will perform.
Which recent draft picks and offseason signees will step up to fill the void? The Saints signed former Kansas City defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon in the offseason. Second year linebacker Zack Baun is a logical candidate to see an increase in snaps, and there is a slew of defensive rookies that could have an opportunity to shine. New Orleans's first three picks in the 2021 draft were defensive players, selecting defensive end Payton Turner, linebacker Pete Werner, and cornerback Paulson Adebo in the first, second, third rounds, respectively.
The Saints still have a strong core of defenders, with studs at all three levels of the defense: defensive end Cameron Jordan, linebacker Demario Davis, and cornerback Marshon Lattimore. Other impactful familiar faces returning include safety Marcus Williams, defensive tackles David Onyemata (after he serves a six-game suspension), Shy Tuttle and Malcolm Roach, and defensive end Marcus Davenport, who has yet to live up to his first-round draft pick status in his first three seasons.
The Saints defense has been integral to the team's four straight NFC South titles. With a new quarterback taking over for Brees, this unit may be more important than ever.
One of the most startling developments during the 2020 season was the sudden inaccuracy from kicker Wil Lutz, who recorded the lowest made field goal percentage of his career (82.1%). Lutz missed four of six field goals over 40 yards from weeks 10-14. While not a massive cause for alarm, Lutz inconsistency was frustrating at times for a kicker who was lights out the previous three seasons. Hopefully Lutz has rediscovered his mojo in the offseason.
Speaking of ends of eras, for the first time in 12 seasons, the Saints will field a punter other than Thomas Morstead. Second year player Blake Gillikin is set to fill Morstead's shoes after spending last year on injured reserve. Here's to Gillikin bringing back the glorious mullet he rocked at Penn State.
Explosive returners Deonte Harris and Marquez Callaway should provide a steady presence once again in the return game.
Quarterback play, personnel depth, and how the team adapts to the early season losses of Thomas and Onyemata will largely dictate how this year unfolds for the Saints. New Orleans still has the talent to make the playoffs, but a fifth straight division crown seems unlikely.
New Orleans: 11-6, NFC Wild Card Game