METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints will have at least nine new starters in 2021, thanks to Drew Brees’ retirement, players they let go in free agency, and players they released or traded while shedding more than $110 million from their salary cap.
The good news is that New Orleans’ roster still should be loaded enough to contend for a fifth consecutive NFC South title with elite players such as wide receiver Michael Thomas, running back Alvin Kamara, offensive tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk, defensive end Cameron Jordan, linebacker Demario Davis and cornerback Marshon Lattimore.
But the Saints still have several holes at key positions, with precious little cap space remaining to fill them.
Here is a look at the priorities, starting at the top:
I thought about ranking this fifth or sixth or leaving it off the list entirely since the Saints already have two compelling candidates in Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill. They don’t have to add anyone else here unless it’s an obvious upgrade -- and the only obvious upgrades are unlikely scenarios like a trade for Russell Wilson or moving up 20-plus spots in Round 1 of the draft.
But it felt strange to rank QB below any other position since the Saints’ ability to replace Brees will make or break their fortunes in 2021 and beyond. So they should at least have discussions regarding every scenario.
One realistic possibility that wouldn’t surprise me: Bringing back free-agent veteran Chase Daniel if he comes cheap enough. The Saints like to have depth at quarterback so they can use Hill in his versatile role as a runner and pass-catcher.
If the Saints do spend any significant money, this feels like the most likely position after they released No. 2 starter Janoris Jenkins.
They reportedly showed some level of interest in two of the top available free agents (Richard Sherman, who is still available; and Chidobe Awuzie, who signed with the Cincinnati Bengals). Sherman would make sense, considering the Saints recently hired former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard as their secondary coach.
Anyone in that price range would force the Saints to make another cap-saving move. But it’s possible that some bargains will shake out, with a lot of experienced starting cornerbacks still available.
The Saints have decent depth in the secondary overall, with Lattimore as their No. 1 cornerback, three starting-caliber safeties and two veteran backups in P.J. Williams and Patrick Robinson (both of whom have done their best work in the slot). They were also intrigued by the potential of undrafted rookie cornerback Keith Washington Jr. last year.
But they still could use a bona fide No. 2 starting cornerback on the outside. So if they don’t land one in free agency, it should be a top draft priority.
This is almost a mirror image of the cornerback position. The Saints have a terrific No. 1 receiver in Thomas and some young talent with intriguing potential in Tre’Quan Smith, Deonte Harris and last year’s undrafted rookies Marquez Callaway and Juwan Johnson, among others. But they’re missing an obvious No. 2 starter after they released Emmanuel Sanders.
There could definitely be some bargains available in free agency to fill that void, since this has been a tough market for many receivers. And it’s notable that there are several slot receivers available.
This should be a draft priority regardless of whether New Orleans adds a free agent, especially since Smith is heading into the final year of his contract.
A strong argument could be made for this as the Saints’ No. 1 need since they released Kwon Alexander and let Alex Anzalone leave in free agency. But I dropped it a notch below the other positions since they typically use only two linebackers and Davis has one of those spots on lock.
The Saints traded up to draft Zack Baun in the third round last year, so they would love to see him develop quickly after a quiet rookie season. They also like the potential of young backups Kaden Elliss, Chase Hansen and Andrew Dowell. But there is room for an upgrade through free agency or the draft. It also wouldn’t be surprising to see Alexander come back at some point once he recovers from a torn Achilles.
Letting Trey Hendrickson leave in free agency was expected. The Saints weren’t convinced that his breakout 2020 season was sustainable -- and they couldn’t afford to outbid the Bengals’ four-year, $60 million offer regardless.
However, Hendrickson will still be missed at such a vital position, even though the Saints have two experienced starters in perennial Pro Bowler Jordan and former first-round pick Marcus Davenport. The Saints will rely heavily on Davenport to finally realize his own potential on a consistent basis. They’ll also lean more on promising backup Carl Granderson, among others. But it wouldn’t be surprising to see them add to the mix.
Several intriguing names remain in free agency, though they might be too pricey.
The Saints also lost two of their top three players at this position, trading starting nose tackle Malcom Brown and allowing former starter Sheldon Rankins to leave in free agency. So they should add some depth. But they won’t necessarily need to invest heavily at the position, since they still have their No. 1 DT in David Onyemata and like the potential of young backups Malcolm Roach and Shy Tuttle.
The Saints might have the NFL’s best one-two punch in Armstead and Ramczyk, and they already re-signed veteran backup James Hurst. But it’s worth noting that both Armstead and Ramczyk are heading into the final year of their contracts. So unless the Saints plan to spend mega-millions to extend them both, this could be a top draft priority with an eye toward the future.