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NFL Draft 2021: What the big picture for the New Orleans Saints looks like heading into the season

The Saints addressed positions of need in the draft, but was it enough?

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021 New Orleans Saints might be the hardest to pin down Saints team since 2015. Drew Brees has retired, Jameis Winston is the presumed starter, Taysom Hill is in the wings, and the defense is — in a word — thin.

On the offensive line, meanwhile, you have Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk extensions looming. So there are a ton of questions for the Saints, with the most pressing being: Is the 2021 season part of the New Orleans championship window?

The biggest needs for the Saints heading into the draft were at left cornerback and linebacker alongside Demario Davis. They opted to eschew the needs in the first round for Payton Turner, a high-upside defensive end who rocketed up boards late in the draft process. If that sounds a lot like Marcus Davenport, it’s because it’s almost the same, except this time the Saints stayed pat at 28 and opted to not trade up (and to be fair, that’s a big exception).

The other odd thing about this draft is that there was buzz of the Saints moving up for a specific type of player (at this point we can begin to infer it was either Patrick Surtain or Jaycee Horn). Once the rest of their draft unfolded, it became very clear why they didn’t do that.

Day 2 was the most important day of the draft. They picked up the linebacker and cornerback that fans expected on Day 1, but they weren’t the players they anticipated. First it was Ohio State linebacker Pete Werner, followed by Stanford cornerback Paulson Adebo. While Werner wasn’t a bad pick or a slam dunk to a lot of people, Adebo was a considered a steal whose 2020 opt-out made him harder to evaluate.

On Day 3, it was the usual suspects. A quarterback prospect who will require a lot of work in Ian Book, a depth offensive tackle in Landon Young, and a speedy receiver from a small school in Kawann Baker.

So, where does this leave the Saints in the big picture? First of all, let’s look at the big names the Saints have hitting free agency in 2022.

  • Marshon Lattimore — CB
  • Ryan Ramczyk — OT
  • Terron Armstead — OT
  • Taysom Hill — QB?
  • Jameis Winston — QB
  • Marcus Williams* — S

*Currently on the franchise tag and potentially negotiating an extension.

The replacements for most if not all of these players are not yet on the roster, so the hope is that the Saints are working on something with at least a few of them. On top of that, the wide receiver situation for the Saints is Michael Thomas, Tre’Quan Smith, Marquez Callaway, Deonte Harris and a slew of question marks.

So, what is the big picture for the Saints, and what is their prognosis moving forward? Here is a look at their most dire positions, and what can be done about them moving forward.

Quarterback

At the end of the day, Jameis Winston is still a big question mark at QB. We saw very little out of him to evaluate last season, all that we know is that he has a big arm and gunslinger’s mentality. That could go either way in Sean Payton’s offense. However, regardless of how he plays next year, Taysom Hill isn’t the future of the franchise at QB, and it’s hard to imagine Book is either.

You’re not going to find a QB who will lead you into the promised land in free agency unless he lands in the perfect situation for his style. With that in mind, the draft is the best place to look. Next year’s draft class doesn’t look nearly as strong at QB as this one did in the early rounds, but that could work in the Saints’ favor. One thing, however, is certain. The Saints don’t want to become quarterback purgatory in the post-Brees era. They’ll want to find their guy soon, even if it’s just signing Winston to a long-term deal if he has a successful season.

Wide Receiver No. 2

Michael Thomas is in it for the long haul, but Smith at No. 2 doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence. He’s undoubtedly missing some consistency at the position, and he’s shown some flashes. The Emmanuel Sanders experiment didn’t quite work out, but it seemed to be a step in the right direction. Wide receiver would have been a luxury pick in this draft, but it would be nice to have the No. 2 spot shored up.

Next season there are some major number one players hitting the market, but the Saints aren’t going to lock up Allen Robinson, Chris Godwin, Davante Adams or Robby Anderson. Instead, they’ll want to look at midrange targest like T.Y. Hilton, who had a renaissance season, Tim Patrick or even Dante Moncrief. It’s hard to make a true splash at this position with so many other high-paying positions in dire need, so they’ll have to make do.

Offensive Tackle

It’s hard to imagine the Saints offensive line without Armstead or Ramczyk, and no Saints fan wants to. Unfortunately, both of them hitting free agency at the same time presents huge problems for the Saints. They’re two of the best at their respective ends, and the Saints have been lucky to keep them together as long as they have.

The best case scenario for the Saints is that Winston plays well and they can target a tackle to replace one of these two in the first round and sign the other long-term. Ramczyk seems to be the most likely candidate for the former. Young feels like a depth pick for the Saints in the middle rounds. Sean Payton likes to have six viable linemen on his roster at all times, so he’ll likely want to move him around.

Linebacker

The hope here is simple. That Werner is able to fill out the linebacker spot alongside Demario Davis and keep the defense strong at the second level. The fundamental issue here is that the best linebackers the Saints have drafted in recent years have been secondary players. Kenny Vaccaro, Vonn Bell and most recently CJ Gardner-Johnson have been better linebacker picks than Stephone Anthony, Hau’oli Kikaha and Alex Anzalone (though the latter at least put in quality time).

Davis was a free agent, and while that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to look to free agency to get a linebacker who can play, it does mean you have to examine how you’re growing your players. Werner has been praised for his smarts and his quickness, but that has to translate. All the Saints can do for now is give him a chance, but he’ll be asked to produce early.

Cornerback

Putting aside for a moment that on top of the big money contracts consistent bookends Armstead and Ramczyk need to get to stay in black and gold they need to re-sign Marshon Lattimore, the Saints need to address their cornerback situation opposite Lattimore.

Adebo has the potential to be very good, but he still isn’t a Day 1 starter, and in the NFC South, if your No. 2 corner isn’t up to snuff, Calvin Ridley and Chris Godwin will expose you. Of all of these positions, corner seems to be the most pressing on the surface, because you can’t disguise a struggling CB.

A short-term bandaid could be to sign Richard Sherman. The reality is, the Saints can’t have Patrick Robinson playing outside in Week 1. That isn’t ever what he was signed for, and it especially is a bad idea now. Every day they wait to sign someone they’re losing time for him to learn the defense. This picture is a Jackson Pollock right now.

Safety

What can I say besides flip that franchise tag with Williams into a long-term deal. The Saints really don’t want to expose the back half of their defense by letting him go.


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