A New Orleans Saints 2019 season that began with sky-high expectations ended abruptly with a loss in the first round of the playoffs. So the New Orleans Saints off-season is littered with questions that need to be answered. Like the last two off-seasons, the organization is tasked with figuring out how to get this team over the hump and back to the Super Bowl.
With Drew Brees officially announcing his intentions to return for the 2020 season this week, it feels like the New Orleans Saints off-season can officially begin. Now the organization must face tough decisions on nearly every position group on the roster.
Here’s an overview of issues that will loom large during the New Orleans Saints off-season.
New Orleans Saints Off-Season Questions
Sort Out Backup Quarterback Situation
New Orleans has possessed three talented quarterbacks on its roster throughout the last two seasons, a rare luxury. While the questions surrounding Brees have now been answered (contract negotiations aside), New Orleans must figure out what to do with backups Teddy Bridgewater and Taysom Hill.
Much of the debate has been over whether the Saints should focus on keeping Bridgewater or Hill. However, few have discussed the potential scenario that neither return in 2020.
Bridgewater, once a respected starting quarterback has spent most of the last four years not starting in the NFL. He is likely getting anxious to return to a starting role, especially after getting a taste of it again while filling in for Brees last season. Bridgewater will be a free agent in March, and now is the perfect time for him to get a lucrative contract.
Bridgewater played admirably in his five starts in 2019 and his value has undoubtedly risen. New Orleans would probably love to have him back but will have a hard time offering him the pay he’s earned. They spent just $7.5 million on him in 2019 and Bridgewater is likely to receive an offer of at least $20 million per year from another team.
Head coach Sean Payton seems far more infatuated with Hill than Bridgewater. He’s gone as far as comparing Hill to Hall of Famer Steve Young. However, the Saints have a chance to get good value in exchange for Hill.
Hill has repeatedly stated his desire to be a starting quarterback and several teams happen to be in the market for a new quarterback. If Hill were to return as the primary backup to Brees, he could actually see significantly reduced playing time due to the injury risk associated with his current role. Hill would likely want to avoid this scenario, however, his options are limited as a restricted free agent.
Another team could feasibly match a high tender if the Saints place one on Hill. While they will likely place a second-round tender on Hill, it’s not hard to imagine a quarterback-needy team giving up a first-round pick for Hill. With this in mind, New Orleans may roll the dice and place a first-round tender on Hill.
If another team makes an offer for Hill and the Saints decide not to match it, it’s a win for both Hill and the Saints. Hill finally gets his shot as a starting quarterback, and the Saints get a high draft pick.
Payton may not be thrilled to see his prized athletic quarterback go to another team after three years of development. However, the prospect of getting a first or second-round pick in exchange for a player they claimed off waivers will likely be too tempting to resist.
If this is the case, New Orleans will have to find a capable backup and/or a potential successor to Brees. If New Orleans does keep Hill and wants him to stay in his current versatile role, they will likely need to add another quarterback anyway.
Add More Wide Receiver Talent
Wide receiver is easily the team’s biggest need and it’s a concern that carries over from last off-season. In 2019, New Orleans banked on the development of 2018 third-round pick Tre’Quan Smith and undrafted free agents Austin Carr and Keith Kirkwood. The Saints also brought in several undrafted and low-profile receivers in training camp hoping to find a diamond in the rough.
This approach did not yield great results. While 2019 Offensive Player of the Year Michael Thomas hauled in a record-breaking 149 receptions, no other Saints wide receiver caught more than 30 passes.
A 34-year old Ted Ginn was the Saints second-most productive receiver, but he caught just 53.6 percent of his targets. Smith missed five games due to injury but didn’t show much in the way of progression when he was healthy.
Kirkwood suffered a season-ending injury before the regular season. Carr caught one pass in six games before also ending up on injured reserve. Training camp standouts Emmanuel Butler and Lil’Jordan Humphrey never caught a pass in regular season action.
Fortunately, the Saints should have plenty of opportunities to add wide receiver talent. A free agent receiver like Robby Anderson, Emmanuel Sanders, or Randall Cobb could be a fine addition to the Saints offense if their respective teams let them hit the open market.
The draft should offer an even better opportunity, with the most loaded wide receiver draft class in years. This means New Orleans shouldn’t necessarily have to spend a first-round pick to come away with good talent.
Either way, the Saints should aim to add at least one talented receiver in free agency and at least one in the draft. Last year’s thrifty approach did not solve this need.
Figure out Future at Left Guard
Andrus Peat has started 60 games over five seasons for the Saints, mostly at left guard. The rest of his starts have come at left tackle, filling in for Terron Armstead. Peat is a decent starter at both positions and this versatility gives him excellent value.
With that said, Peat has struggled against premier defensive tackles and defensive lines that excel at running stunts. It’s worth noting that while Brees’ injury occurred due to bad luck more than anything, Peat missed his block on Aaron Donald, who caused the injury.
Despite his shortcomings, Peat has been selected to the last two Pro Bowls, perhaps due to the overall reputation of the Saints offensive line. Along with his versatility and respectable starting experience, these Pro Bowl selections will give Peat significant leverage in contract negotiations.
New Orleans has some other talent at the position if they decide to move on from Peat. Nick Easton, who was a 2019 free agent signing, turned in mostly mixed performances while filling in for an injured Peat last season, but there wasn’t a significant drop off with him starting. Saints coaches speak highly of 2018 seventh-rounder Will Clapp, but it’s not clear if they envision him as a starter someday.
New Orleans will likely make an offer to Peat, but it probably won’t be in the ballpark of what Peat is looking for. Another team likely will offer him good money though, considering his resume. Prior to free agency, the Saints must figure out whether or not they have an acceptable replacement on the roster already.
Make a Plan at Linebacker
The Saints brain trust has done a tremendous job of revamping its linebacker group in recent years, and yet, it is already time to figure out their future at the position.
Fortunately, the only pressing decision they face is with A.J. Klein. His salary will jump to $9 million for 2020 if they choose to retain him. It’s possible that Klein would be willing to restructure to a more team-friendly deal. However, at age 28, Klein may be more interested in capitalizing on his current value.
If Klein does depart, Kiko Alonso, a last-minute addition prior to the 2019 season is a more than suitable replacement. He arguably performed better than Klein last season but played fewer snaps as he assimilated into the defense.
There’s also Alex Anzalone, who feels like a forgotten asset on the Saints defense. He missed all but the first four games in his rookie season due to injury but came back strong with an excellent 2018 season. Then the injury bug struck again in 2019, ending his season after just two games.
These injury issues are nothing new for Anzalone, who wasn’t able to play a full season in college. He will become a free agent next off-season, so New Orleans should start pondering on whether or not to invest in him long-term.
Demario Davis, a 2019 All-Pro selection, is also entering a contract season. He’s undoubtedly worth re-signing, but he turns 32 next year and will probably want to cash in on the best stretch of his career. It would be in the Saints best interest to attempt to negotiate an extension this off-season. This will create extra cap space for this off-season and avoid a potential stand-off next off-season.
Make Tough Decisions in the Secondary
The Saints secondary could take a number of different forms next season. Any one of the following players (and probably more) could be playing for a different team next year: Safeties Vonn Bell and D.J. Swearinger, and cornerbacks Eli Apple, Janoris Jenkins, P.J. Williams, and Patrick Robinson.
Of those six players, Robinson seems like the most likely to be cut. After a great 2017 Super Bowl run with the Philadephia Eagles, Robinson signed a four-year, $20 million dollar contract with the Saints. Since then, he’s been relegated to a reserve role, but Robinson is still set to earn over $12 million over the next two years. Robinson could be willing to restructure, a route the Saints might try to take depending on what happens with the other cornerbacks.
Williams presents a tricky situation. The Saints have shown a lot of patience with him over his five years with the team. Williams missed all but two games in his first two seasons due to injury. He eventually found his place as the Saints starting nickel back, but his consistency has been a serious concern.
There are several strong candidates to take over the nickel back job, including C.J. Gardner-Johnson, who’s coming off an excellent rookie season. However, he may end up as the starting strong safety next year, depending on what happens with Bell.
Alternatively, New Orleans may keep both Apple and Jenkins and groom one of them for the nickel back role. This is an ideal scenario, but keeping Williams around and letting go of Apple or Jenkins is a much less expensive option.
Apple vs. Jenkins
In regards to Apple and Jenkins, there are a lot of factors that play into these decisions. Most would agree that Jenkins is the better cornerback overall, but, he’s seven years older than Apple, a free agent. Jenkins will also count for an $11.25 million cap hit in 2020 if retained. The Saints could try to restructure this, but this figure won’t decrease significantly even if they negotiate an extension.
Apple showed progression early in the 2019 season before making some critical errors down the stretch. These last two years have served as a kind of audition for Apple after he was traded away from the New York Giants on poor terms during the 2018 season. If New Orleans believes Apple can return back to his early 2019 form and continue to grow, they should invest in him.
If they aren’t satisfied with what they’ve seen then the Saints should move forward with Jenkins, who is the better player right now despite the age and contract factors. Keeping both players would likely require Apple to accept a low contract offer and Jenkins agreeing to an extension. Starting cornerbacks are always in high demand though, and another team could easily out-bid the Saints for Apple.
The Saints will have a tough time letting go of Bell if that’s the route they have to take. However, there’s no doubt that Bell will have plenty of suitors in free agency and the Saints appear to have a very capable replacement in Gardner-Johnson. If the Saints want to keep Bell, they should try their best to get a deal done prior to the start of free agency.
Another factor to consider is that Gardner-Johnson’s traits may be better utilized in the slot or big nickel role he excelled in last season. While he’s also played well at strong safety, Gardner-Johnson regularly made impact plays when positioned near the line of scrimmage.
The Saints will have to tread carefully with this group in the coming months. There’s a lot of talent here without even mentioning Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams, who will both be free agents next year unless the Saints pick up Lattimore’s fifth-year option. The decisions the Saints make with this group will affect the secondary for years to come.
It will be interesting to see the New Orleans Saints off-season moves prior to the start of the 2020 season.