While the New Orleans Saints were in “win now” mode for the 2020 season, they made several prudent moves last offseason that bolstered the team’s future. They signed key veterans like Malcom Jenkins and Emmanuel Sanders to mentor younger position units, and to make an immediate impact for what was likely the final season for Drew Brees. On the flip side, there were some unpalatable moves that the team may regret. You can read about those here below:
However, several decisions by the organization indicate a framework for the team in the post-Brees era. Here are some of the moves last offseason New Orleans will be happy for in the future.
Alvin Kamara, Demario Davis Extensions
Prior to the season opener, the Saints quietly locked up two key players who serve as a core foundation for the offense and defense, respectively. Alvin Kamara signed a five-year, $75 million extension, and Demario Davis signed a team friendly three-year, $27 million extension.
The decision to extend Alvin Kamara on a blockbuster contract was a palpable step towards a new era for New Orleans. Even further was the five-year, $96.25 million extension of Michael Thomas in 2019. For one, it’s a sense of necessary stability for whoever eventually fills the shoes of Brees. Just as the Saints signed Malcolm Jenkins to serve as a critical mentor for younger players like C.J. Gardner-Johson, the tandem of Thomas and Kamara, and their reliability, puts the successor to Brees in a position to succeed.
With Drew Brees, the team could rely heavily on his production, while surrounding him with cheap talent. Prior to Alvin Kamara’s extension, the team ranked respectively low in cap spending on offensive talent. From 2015-19, New Orleans ranked an average 17th in cap spending on running backs, and 27th on wide receivers. Heading into 2021, the Saints now rank 8th amongst cap spending on running backs, and 3rd on wide receivers.
A lot of people are in the camp of strongly against massive contracts for running backs. Why shouldn’t they be? The Carolina Panthers, ranked second in cap spending on running backs, went 5-11 and saw Christian McCaffrey play three games all season. The top-ranking Dallas Cowboys saw Ezekiel Elliot, who singularly accounts for 6.51% of the 2021 cap, score six touchdowns last season.
The season leader for rushing touchdowns last season was Derrick Henry at 17. He accomplished this feat in 2,027 yards. Comparatively, Kamara was just one touchdown behind him at 16 — but he did so in just 932 yards. That efficiency not only speaks to Kamara’s abilities, but it also indicates longevity for a position with a painfully short shelf-life. If you include his five receiving touchdowns, Kamara was the season leader in total touchdowns with 21.
Now, the team is at a point of impasse at quarterback. Whoever the starter is in 2021, with signs pointing towards Jameis Winston leading the pack, with Taysom Hill right behind him, will need a sense of stability under center. Having a tandem of pass-catchers like Thomas and Kamara alleviates a ton of pressure. Moreover, the versatility of Kamara, and his efficiency as both a rusher and receiver, can’t be understated. And likely, it can’t be replicated.
The decision to extend Demario Davis, however, may prove just as much, if not more valuable to the team’s future. Davis joined the Saints as a free agent in 2018; he not only made an immediate impact, but his leadership has been crucial to the stability of the team through the past few seasons of adversity. When the team needed it most, Davis stepped up and filled the void of a 13-year team identity cultivated by Drew Brees. Thanks to Davis, and his pregame speeches, the team never skipped a beat.
That same type of leadership is paramount to traversing through the post-Brees era. It’s a rarity for a team to have an immediate successor to fill the void of a team leader. New Orleans not only has that in Davis, but they also have been privy to his prowess on the field. Davis led the team in tackles last season with 119, including 10 for loss, had a team-high 73 solo tackles, recorded 4 sacks, 5 passes defended, and 12 quarterback hits.
“Obviously, he’s one of our leaders, he’s a physical player, he runs well,” Sean Payton said on Davis. “He’s found his niche here, too. And I’m proud of the role he’s taken not only as a linebacker but as a leader on this team, too. That’s something as a head coach you can never take for granted.”
Demario Davis has categorically played his best football as a Saint. He was named a first-team All-Pro for the first time in 2019. Accordingly, New Orleans has had a top-ranking run defense since Davis joined the team in 2018.
In locking up Davis and Kamara prior to the 2020 season, New Orleans put the team in a position to succeed for years to come.
Drafting Cesar Ruiz
In the 2020 mock drafts, the following players were anticipated to be the Saints No. 24 pick: WR Justin Jefferson, WR Laviska Shenault, WR Jalen Reagor, TE Cole Kmet, QB Jordan Love, LB Patrick Queen, LB Kenneth Murray. Similarly, no mock draft in 2019 predicted a trade-up for C Erik McCoy. Yet, we should have seen it coming — just as their 2020 selection of Cesar Ruiz.
Initially, Ruiz was intended to move into the center role, with the foreseen move of McCoy to guard. Unfortunately, the vision for Ruiz wasn’t able to come to fruition with the shortened offseason and loss of preseason games. That said, it’s almost guaranteed that this will be the vision for 2021. Ruiz saw more playing time towards the end of the season; despite being responsible for the ugly sack on Brees in Week 10 where he suffered 11 rib fractures, Ruiz showed steady improvement working in tandem with McCoy. The odd man out, unsurprisingly, was Andrus Peat — he awarded no stability for a flanking rookie guard, suffered about 10 injuries last season, and is on a hefty contract with over $30 million in guarantees.
The decision to let Larry Warford walk will prove prudent to the team’s cap space the next few seasons. Warford was on a four-year, $34 million contract. Though Peat’s five-year, $57.5 million extension is still on the books, having two core O-line members on rookie contracts can’t be understated. Ruiz signed a four-year, $12 million contract last season, while McCoy signed a four-year, $6 million contract in 2019. Despite having a rookie play in an unintended position, the offensive line still graded 8th in PFF’s 2020 rankings. Once the team has a full offseason at its disposal, the line should see a strong upgrade in the interior with McCoy at guard. One that is incredibly cheap.
Signing Jameis Winston
Now, the ultimate verdict on the Jameis Winston signing is in flux; the team doesn’t have him under contract for the 2021 season. However, New Orleans holds quite a bit of leverage against possible contenders — they were the only team to have eyes on him last season, coach him, teach him, and now potentially lower his value because no one else could see him play. The fact that the Saints managed to snag him on a one-year, $1.1 million contract last offseason is slightly ridiculous.
Just five seasons prior, Winston was the No. 1 overall pick. In his final season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Winston completed 60.7% of his passes for 5,109 yards, threw 33 touchdowns, and 30 interceptions. The obvious issue is the 30 interceptions, including the caveat of never reaching the postseason. That said, if you look at the precedent with former No. 1 picks, the $1.1 million contract increases in absurdity. Here are a few No. 1 overall quarterbacks who left their initial team, and the contract that followed:
- Carson Palmer: Traded to (then) Oakland Raiders in 2011, four-year, $43 million contract
- Alex Smith: Traded to Kansas City Chiefs in 2013, four-year, $68 million contract
- Sam Bradford: Traded to Philadelphia Eagles in 2015, two-year, $36 million contract
- Matt Stafford: Traded to Los Angeles Rams in 2020, five-year, $135 million contract
Now, let’s look at their final season stats prior to the trade (for injured players like Smith and Bradford, their final full season prior to the trade), and their overall postseason record:
- Carson Palmer (2010): 3,970 yards, 61.8%, 26 TD, 20 INT; 1-3 postseason record
- Alex Smith (2011): 3,144 yards, 61.3%, 17 TD, 5 INT; 2-7 postseason record
- Sam Bradford (2012): 3,702 yards, 59.5%, 21 TD, 13 INT; no postseason
- Matt Stafford (2020): 4,084 yards, 64.2%, 26 TD, 10 INT; 0-3 postseason record
Past the interception count and the lack of a postseason appearance, Winston’s numbers are not only comparable to these former No. 1 picks, but arguably can be explained, to a degree, by his aggressive nature. Winston may have thrown 30 interceptions, but he threw more touchdowns than anyone on this list with 33, and recorded over 1,000 more yards. This doesn’t even account for longevity concerns for players like Bradford, who missed half of 2013, and the entirety of the 2014 season with a torn ACL.
It’s more than just luck to acquire a former No. 1 pick for pennies. New Orleans, in promoting such a fostering culture — particularly with respect to quarterbacks — made them Winston’s prime destination. Payton was somewhat lambasted for signing Teddy Bridgewater to a hefty $7.5 million contract. Then Drew Brees went down in Week 2, Bridgewater went 5-0 in his place, and he was subsequently awarded a starting role with the Panthers. Winston didn’t choose New Orleans in anticipation of a second Brees injury — though if so, it was quite omniscient. Just as Bridgewater didn’t join the team the previous season with that vision in mind.
In fact, Bridgewater declined an immediate starting role with the Miami Dolphins in favor of the Saints. He did so for two reasons: a chance to learn the “Harvard education in quarterback school,” and an opportunity to be the successor for a quarterback he admires. The timing wasn’t right with Bridgewater, but Winston is now on track to receive that exact opportunity, should he decide to stay.
Should Brees retire, as it all but certain, and Winston re-signs with New Orleans, that $1.1 million contract may be one of the smartest moves Payton has made. On the flip side, should Winston seek out a more lucrative opportunity, there’s still reason to consider this a top three move. That would make two subsequent seasons that the Saints have taken in a quarterback project, cultivated a starter, and gave them an opportunity for a second chance in the NFL. Worst case, the team rolls with Taysom Hill for a season.
Quietly, New Orleans has made itself the prime destination for free agent quarterbacks with a chip on their shoulder, and something to prove. Just like Drew Brees. In doing so, they’ve ultimately set themselves on the best path to adequately replacing him.
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