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Saints top 3 positional needs heading into the 2020 off-season

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Which positions should be targeted most by the Saints’ front office in the upcoming free agency period and NFL Draft?

NFL: NFC Wild Card-Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints Derick Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

With the draft and free agency rapidly approaching, it’s getting to that time of year where we debate what positions the Saints should spend their resources on to pursue another ring in 2021.

This off-season is a bit murkier than last year’s due to Drew Brees’ future being up in the air, to an extent. But there are multiple holes throughout the Saints’ roster to fill out, nonetheless.

To project which position groups need filling out more than others, a certain criteria needs to be set.

My personal criteria consists of position importance and positive/negative solution players on the Saints roster.

What I consider a positive solution player is someone who is worth their contract. These include guys like Michael Thomas and Drew Brees, who are worth their large contracts, or players on rookie deals, who are earning playing time on a cheap deal. Think Chauncey Gardner-Johnson.

A negative solution player is a player who I would consider not worth his current or expected contract, whether it be due to age or poor play.

If a position group has more negative solution players up for contract than positive ones, then it’s considered a need. If there are multiple position groups with the same amount of holes, it’s filtered by importance of the position.

For instance, quarterback is the most important position. However, I consider Brees a positive solution at that position, despite his age, if he decides to return.

They have Teddy Bridgewater and Taysom Hill as insurance, in the small chance he does retire.

That group has a positive solution and depth at a position where you only need one starter. Therefore, QB did not make my top three for 2020. If Brees retires, that obviously might change things.

With that being said, here are my top three:

Wide Receiver

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Whether it be through the draft or free agency, the wide receiver position has to be addressed for the Saints this off-season.

Michael Thomas is the only receiver on the Saints’ roster who is undoubtedly worth his contract, besides maybe Deonte Harris. Thomas’ exploits are well-known, as the only receiver in the league with a legit MVP case.

The #2 and #3 receiving options in Ted Ginn Jr. and Tre-Quan Smith flat out have not been getting the job done when they’ve been called upon, for the most part.

Among the 118 NFL receivers with at least 25 targets in 2019, Ginn and Smith rank 104th and 110th in yards per route run, respectively.

They’ve gotten their opportunities, and just haven’t made the most of them.

Ginn had a catch rate of 56.4 percent and only had three games (out of 17) in which he caught more than two passes. Smith gets a bit more of a pass due to him missing five games with an injury, but he only had one game (out of 12) with more than 50 receiving yards.

Deonte Harris showed some flashes, including a gargantuan play in the playoffs, but you can’t bank on a guy with seven career catches to be a #2 receiver.

Ginn, an unrestricted free agent in March, is likely gone. Smith will stick around, with a couple of years left on his rookie deal, as he should. It’s too early to give up on Smith, but we also haven’t seen enough to think he’s ready for an expanded role yet.

We’ll see if the receiver position is addressed in free agency or the draft.

Cornerback

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Tennessee Titans Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

The cornerback group for the Saints is somewhat similar to the receivers, in that it’s a high-priority group, and there’s really only one surefire contributor I feel 100 percent confident is a positive solution player for 2020. That’s Marshon Lattimore, obviously.

Despite having a bit of an off-year, he’s still producing at an above-average level while on a rookie contract.

The only three corners under contract for next season are Lattimore ($4.9 mil cap hit), Patrick Robinson ($6.15 mil cap hit) and Janoris Jenkins ($11.25 mil cap hit).

Chauncey Gardner-Johnson is listed as a safety on Spotrac, but primarily plays slot corner. His cap hit for 2020 is under $1 million.

Eli Apple’s contract is up in March. I wrote last week that I’d be weary of re-signing him for more than a small annual salary.

I could see the Saints parting ways with Robinson, if they get in a crunch and need money to sign more important assets, but keeping him one more year wouldn’t be the worst thing. He provides depth in the slot and outside.

Jenkins is the more intriguing option here. His cap hit is pretty high for an aging corner, but he’s still got a bit left in the tank. He played pretty well down the stretch for the black and gold after Eli Apple went down with an injury in Week 16, and he’s been solid for most of his career.

In his three weeks with the Saints, Jenkins was targeted 13 times and only allowed 88 yards receiving on 8.8 yards per catch. He allowed one touchdown, while picking off one pass and breaking up two passes.

In the Wild Card game against Minnesota, he held Stefon Diggs in check, only allowing three catches for 19 yards. In the graphic below, Diggs tried to run a double move at the top of the screen, and Jenkins was having none of it.

If Mickey Loomis can work his magic and figure out a way to maneuver the cap to fit Jenkins in, I feel he might stay.

Jenkins is a solid player, but his price tag is a bit high to consider him a positive solution player at this point in his career. He’ll be 32 soon, and if they want to keep him, they’ll probably have to add some void years to his contract to spread out his hit.

Even if Jenkins returns, he’s still a stop-gap solution. I doubt they keep both Jenkins and Robinson, and if one of them leaves then there is no depth at the corner position.

If Jenkins stays, then Loomis and Sean Payton might look to the draft for another corner to groom for the outside. And if Jenkins leaves, then I’d assume they look to find a starter in free agency.

This is a huge decision for the front office, considering whoever they decide to take the reigns for the #2 corner spot across from Lattimore will be on the field for around or over 90 percent of the defense’s snaps.

Offensive Line

NFL: NFC Divisional Playoff-Philadelphia Eagles at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Strong offensive line play has been a calling card for the Saints offense for some years now, and now’s not the time to change that. Keeping Brees protected at this point in his career is a must.

The good news is they have four quality starters pretty much locked in to their spots for next year on that unit. The bad news is they have no left guard and no depth whatsoever.

Andrus Peat has struggled for a couple of years in a row, despite somehow making Pro Bowls in both of the last two seasons, and will cost upwards of $9 million to retain heading into 2020.

He fought through injuries once again for much of the 2019 season, after his porous 2018 campaign in which he allowed 24 pressures in less than 500 pass blocking snaps, while committing a team-high eight penalties (four more than any other Saints offensive lineman).

Behind him at guard is Nick Easton, who signed a 4-year $22.5 million contract last offseason. Easton hasn’t proved to be worth that contract, allowing almost as many pressures as Erik McCoy in less than half of the snaps.

Will Clapp might stay on board for another year or two, but he’s far from a long-term solution.

Not only does the front office need to find a starter at left guard, but they have to add depth to a unit that is almost always going to get banged up throughout a season. Add in the fact that Terron Armstead hasn’t had a season in his career where he hasn’t missed at least one game (although he played a career-high 15 games in 2019), and you know you’re going to need some reliable backups.

The only two backup tackles on the roster now are unproven youngsters Derrick Kelly and Ethan Greenridge.

I would imagine they pursue a free agent interior offensive lineman like Brandon Scherff, and add depth through the draft.

This strategy is similar to what they did with Easton and McCoy last year, and they found a quality starter using this method.

Although Mickey Loomis is quite the navigator of cap space, he won’t be able to use the method of signing quality free agents and drafting their eventual predecessors at every position, considering how strapped the Saints are with cap space.

It will be interesting to see how Loomis and Payton decide to use their assets and draft capital and what what positions they prioritize in doing so.