On Sunday, the 13-3 New Orleans Saints will host a wild card playoff game against the Chicago Bears. There are only three teams that have finished an NFL season with such a strong record and still had to play Wild Card Weekend: the 1999 Tennessee Titans, the 2019 Saints, and the 2020 Saints.
Even the 2009 Saints, who were also 13-3 and earned a first round bye along with home field advantage, had one of the tougher roads to the Super Bowl. They had to beat three future Hall of Fame quarterbacks in one postseason as they took on Kurt Warner, Brett Favre, and Peyton Manning on route to their first and only NFL Championship.
It almost doesn’t feel like the playoffs if the Saints aren’t in one of the toughest positions, and this season seems to be no different. This time, however, there are additional strains for every team as they not only have to worry about injuries to their players, but also Covid infections and exposures.
Yet, even if Covid weren’t a factor, there are still four distinct reasons why this season is the Saints’ best chance to finally get that second ring.
1. Drew Brees is expected to retire. This may have come as a shock to casual NFL fans earlier this week, but most Saints fans have known all along this was very likely Brees’ last season before he exchanges his cleats for a microphone in the NBC booth. If you need a reminder of how fortunate Saints fans have been to watch Brees play the past 15 years, just think about the time Aaron Brooks threw a pass backwards to an offensive lineman.
2. The Saints have literally the worst salary cap situation in the entire league next season. They are currently almost $100 million OVER the projected 2021 salary cap. As Covid has impacted team revenue across the league, the salary cap is going to be lower next year, and the Saints had already kicked the proverbial can down the road so far, they were already going to be over.
Major decisions that impact the roster will have to be made as this is a hard cap, not a soft cap like in the NBA where owners can choose to pay a luxury tax if they go over the salary cap. Most cap experts assume this means the Saints will have to restructure, cut, or be unable to resign many quality players on their current roster.
Whether or not Brees retires, his huge cap hit of $36.15 million will have to be addressed. Likely roster cuts will include Kwon Alexander, Nick Easton, Janoris Jenkins, Malcom Brown, Latavius Murray, Thomas Morstead, and possibly Jared Cook.
Only Morstead is definitively passed his prime as all of these players have added tremendous value to the roster and would be huge losses, especially if they are all lost in the same offseason.
The team will also likely have to restructure several contracts, and one never knows how much that might ruffle the feathers of those players they ask to do so. Cam Jordan, Marshon Lattimore, and Michael Thomas could all be approached to restructure their contracts, but something tells me all three might hesitate to do so.
Jordan just signed a team friendly extension last year and would probably be perturbed at being asked to financially help the team out any more. Lattimore will be on his fifth year option already playing on a contract worth $7-10 million less than he might have received on the open market.
Thomas just signed the richest wide receiver contract extension a season ago and his seemingly fragile ego makes me think he’d be even less likely to take a pay cut. I could be wrong, however, as he has had an injury plagued season this year and may feel as though he has lost some negotiation leverage in the process.
3. The 2017 draft class has outplayed their contracts and it’s time to pay the piper. Luckily, because Ryan Ramczyk and Marshon Lattimore were first round picks, the Saints were able to place fifth year options on them for around $10-11 million each for the 2021 season. Alvin Kamara’s contract extension should keep him with the Saints through 2023 and perhaps longer.
Unfortunately, that only accounts for half of the draft class that has been called one of the strongest in the history of the NFL. Of the seven players selected by the Saints that year, six are not only still on the team, they’re valuable starters.
Alex Anzalone’s importance grew dramatically with the season ending injury of Kwon Alexander, who had formerly supplanted him on the depth chart. If the Saints definitely can’t afford to keep Alexander at $13 million per year, their only hope to retain Anzalone is for him to accept a below market deal.
Marcus Williams has made some frustrating plays to say the least, but the simple fact remains that he has been an above average safety while playing some of the best football of his life prior to his recent ankle injury. Pro Football Focus gave Williams excellent grades in run defense (89.5) and coverage (72.4) with an overall grade of 79.3.
Trey Hendrickson has so outplayed his current contract, it may be impossible to pay him what he could earn on the open market. Hendrickson more than doubled his sack total from his previous three seasons in 2020 alone. With 13.5 sacks, Hendrickson was tied for second in the league with Aaron Donald. Only T.J. Watt earned more sacks than the Saints’ 2017 third round pick, who earned just $1 million this season.
All three impact players will be unrestricted free agents in 2021, and all three will be incredibly difficult to retain at market value. Reason #2 doesn’t help the situation either as the Saints will be strapped for spending cash next season.
4. The Saints coaching and scouting staff might get poached. Last year, several Saints coaches including defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, and assistant head coach Dan Campbell all interviewed for head coaching jobs, but didn’t land anywhere else. That was fortunate for the Saints, but that luck may soon run out.
If you are one of those people who only likes to eat sausage and doesn’t care how it’s made, Ireland is perhaps the biggest reason why the Saints have hit on more draft picks in recent years. Before Ireland joined the Saints in 2015, draft picks were routinely wasted by the Saints.
Brandin Cooks is the only player from the 2014 Saints draft class who is still playing the league. The rest of that draft class included Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Khairi Fortt, Vinnie Sunseri, Ronald Powell, and Tavon Rooks. I don’t judge you at all if you’ve never heard of any of them.
Since taking over scouting and assisting General Manager Mickey Loomis, Ireland has overseen drafts including Saints picks like Tyeler Davison, P.J. Williams, Andrus Peat, David Onyemata, Vonn Bell, Michael Thomas, Sheldon Rankins, Tre’Quan Smith, Marcus Davenport, Will Clapp, C.J. Gardner Johnson, Erik McCoy, Adam Trautman, Cesar Ruiz, and of course the entire 2017 draft class.
Ireland’s loss would be immeasurable. And yet, he’s not the only important personnel the Saints risk losing.
Director of Pro Scouting and Assistant G.M. Terry Fontenot will also interview with the Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons for their general manager positions. Saints fans owe Fontenot a debt of gratitude for his work in free agent acquisitions that have included Demario Davis, Malcom Brown, Taysom Hill, Emmanuel Sanders, and Jared Cook.
The Detroit Lions also plan to interview Dan Campbell for their head coaching vacancy, and Dennis Allen is presumed to be a top candidate for other vacancies, though no known interviews have been set up yet.
Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, receiver coach Curtis Johnson, defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen, and secondary coach Aaron Glenn might all garner interest from other teams as well. Sean Payton may be able to block interviews, but he has never been one to do that in the past as he allows his coaches and assistants to grow and pursue larger roles elsewhere if need be.
This will be the final curtain call for this iteration of the Saints. Though rosters and coaching personnel change slightly every year, there is a definite sense of finality this season. Saints fans and players alike should be grateful for the success of seasons past and unite under the assumption that this may be the best coaching staff and roster the franchise has ever produced.
The talent and experience is already evident, so hopefully this team enters the playoffs without a “there’s always next year” mentality. After four consecutive years winning the division and earning a trip to the playoffs, it might be easy to think that way. But, with the four reasons listed above, next year is sure to be different.
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