With the first week of NFL free agency coming to a close, it seems reasonable to expect the New Orleans Saints to be a bit more active, assuming the money works in their favor.
The Saints haven’t been a team that makes big, early splashes in free agency for some time, adopting a more conservative and insular approach since 2017. That approach has lead them to four straight 10+ win seasons, four straight NFC South titles and thus four straight playoff appearances.
One of the major constants of those runs, and of the last 15 seasons, has been quarterback Drew Brees. But another big piece to the winning puzzle has been an ever-improving and eventually elite defense. Going into the 2021 season, Brees has retired, and the Saints defense has taken some big hits with holes now open at each level and position group.
Filling in the role of starting quarterback in New Orleans of course won’t be easy. But there are candidates in Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill. Winston has five years of NFL starting quarterback experience and one year with the Saints. Though only having four games of starting experience, Taysom Hill has been with the team and operated in several capacities over the last four seasons. Both have a leg up in their own respective manners. But where should the Saints dedicate their focus outside of quarterback?
The Saints lost two tight ends in Jared Cook, the 2020 starter, and Josh Hill. They also lost Emmanuel Sanders who signed with the Buffalo Bills in free agency. Sanders was seen as a bit of a savior when signed last offseason because the Saints looked to finally land a viable WR2 to complement Michael Thomas. Unfortunately, due to injury and other concerns, the two hardly found the field at their best together.
With improvements left to be made at tight end, wide receiver, and offensive line depth, it’s hard not to feel that the attacking side of the ball has some pertinent needs to address. But on the defensive side, the holes feel even more glaring.
With the losses of Trey Hendrickson (Bengals), Sheldon Rankins (Jets), and Malcom Brown (Jaguars) the Saints have a lot of work to do on their defensive line. As Doug Mouton pointed out on 4th Down on 4 via WWL-TV, those are three of their top six defensive linemen in terms of snap counts. Sure, they have the young talent already available to them fill the void, but it seems likely this is a position group the Saints will need to continue to fill out. Especially considering how much they rotate players along the line, unless there is a paradigm shift on the way in that regard.
At the second level, linebacker Demario Davis lost two running mates in Alex Anzalone and Kwon Alexander. Again, there’s young talent at the position, but it feels like more attention may be necessary. Which is akin to the second cornerback spot which was vacated with the release of Janoris Jenkins who is now with the Tennessee Titans. This position still has a lot of appeal on the open market and could be in contention as top priority.
Lowest passer rating allowed when targeted in coverage among free-agent cornerbacks (@PFF, min 25 targets):— Sosa K (@QBsMVP) March 12, 2021
4. Darious Williams - 59.9
6. Brian Poole - 64.7
10. Mike Hilton - 70.0
14. Troy Hill - 74.3
16. Jason Verrett - 77.5
17. Michael Davis - 77.7
19. Janoris Jenkins - 79.0
But what is the top priority? Offense or defense? The loss of Justin Hardee also brings to question stability on special teams as well. Does focusing on the offensive needs put the team down a road similar to 2014-2016? A great offense but a struggling defense has never proven to be a winning combination for the Saints. But then does focusing on the defense lead to missed opportunities to bolster firepower. Ideally the team could do both. However, there could be barriers (like money) in doing so.
My initial thought is that defense should be the priority. Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, Latavius Murray, and the offensive line are proven enough commodities that should drive production regardless of the signal caller. Meanwhile those quarterbacks and Adam Trautman, if all pans out, should only help to bolster the situation.
In the nine games without Drew Brees in the last two seasons the Saints went 8-1. And that was largely due to their defense and special teams. The first game, a 33-27 victory over the Seattle Seahawks on the road, was a bumpy one for the defense which gave up over 500 total yards. However, the game was also won with both a defensive and special teams return score along with a phenomenal performance by Alvin Kamara. Two of those three elements are in place currently and the other, the defense, is a major question mark heading into 2021.
Over those nine games, the Saints’ defense allowed an average of only 289.6 total yards including allowing over 400 total yards only twice. In 2020, that average would have ranked as the second-best defense in the league, third-best in 2019.
Meanwhile the Saints’ offense averaged only 354.2 total yards in those games. That production would have ranked only 20th in 2020 and 15th in 2019
The New Orleans Saints have shown that they can win without Drew Brees in the past. But was it the offense leading the way or the defense? Certainly there are individual examples of both, but over the most recent nine contests, the defense looks to have been the major factor and thus perhaps deserves the greater focus.
Where would you focus first, offense or defense? Let us know what you think. Make sure you follow Canal Street Chronicles on Twitter at @SaintsCSC , “Like” us on Facebook at Canal Street Chronicles, and make sure you’re subscribed to our new YouTube channel. As always, you can follow me on Twitter @RossJacksonNOLA and subscribe to my daily Saints podcast, Locked On Saints.