On April 6, 2020, the New Orleans Saints thought they finally had the answer.
When it was reported that night that two-time Pro Bowl Wide Receiver Emmanuel Sanders had signed with the New Orleans Saints, the woes of thousands had thought they were finally heard. The Saints, for the first time since trading Brandin Cooks to the New England Patriots in 2017, had a wide receiver to compliment the then-leading reception-getter in the NFL Michael Thomas. What was thought to be the missing piece to a Saints offense that was already one of the best in the NFL turned out to be less than the Saints had anticipated, as Thomas’s injury-plagued 2020 meant that the duo only spent seven regular season games on the field together (only three of which with Drew Brees at quarterback). So, with the Saints famously in “salary cap hell” heading into the 2021 offseason, they cut ties with the former SMU wide receiver, letting Sanders walk just one season after deeming him the missing piece for an unstoppable offense.
So now Sean Payton and friends are back to the drawing board for 2021. Michael Thomas will, hopefully, be back and fully healthy for the season. He just needs someone across the field from him to take attention that the 2019 NFL Offensive Player of the Year is sure to draw. The Saints have no shortage of options, but one of them will need to step up in a massive way this season. That being said, let’s examine the options.
The Saints drafted Smith out of the 2017 National Champion UCF Knights in the third round of the NFL draft. 3quan was scouted by Matt Miller of (at the time) Bleacher Report as being a deep threat with big play ability, but a need to work on his hands and improve upon drop issues while with the Knights. At UCF, Smith had drop issues where he dropped 16 targets over his three seasons in Orlando, for an 8.6% drop rate, including a 9.6% drop rate in his senior year (18th worst in the American). It looked like he improved on those issues in his first two seasons before his four drops in 2020 gave him a career worst 9.8% drop rate (worst on the Saints for anyone with 50+ targets).
That being said, 3quan put up a number of more productive career highs in 2020 despite the shaky quarterback play from an aging Drew Brees and the incomparable Taysom Hill. His 51 targets, 37 receptions, 533 yards and 6 touchdowns were all career highs in his short career-to-date, and he stepped up with 85 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the Saints’ playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “3quan” has the ability to be the Saints’ WR2, he just needs to put it together and last season was a big step forward.
(For more about Smith’s 2020 season, check out this piece done by our very own Andy B back in February).
When you put up career highs in receptions and yards in a playoff game, you’re going to get some attention.
That’s what Deonte Harris experienced after his seven-reception, 83-yard performance in the Saints’ 2020 Wild Card game against the Chicago Bears, Harris’s best game to date and the game that showed his potential as a future key piece of Sean Payton’s offense. Initially brought in as a return specialist, Harris excelled at that to the tune of 1,159 total return yards in his rookie season in his rookie season in 2019. As shown by the chart below, Harris was primarily used in the short game in 2020, with 27 of his 33 targets coming less than 10 yards downfield, including 11 behind the line of scrimmage.
While this might be a symptom of the waning arm strength of Drew Brees, Harris needs to prove his worth in the intermediate and deep game as well in 2021 to solidify himself as the deep threat for whichever of Taymeis lines up at quarterback in the black and gold this season.
(Maybe I was just a year early in predicting the breakout for Harris.)
The Peanut Gallery
After Thomas, Smith and Harris on the depth chart, the other options are a handful of UDFA’s and a 7th round pick. While that may be underselling some of the players that Sean Payton has at his disposal, one of them is going to need to step up in a big way if they want to challenge for the WR2 spot alongside Michael Thomas. The first name that Saints fans will be invested in is Kawaan Baker, the first WR that the Saints have drafted since the aforementioned 3quan and a 7th round rookie out of South Alabama. Baker was one of the Sun Belt’s leading receivers in 2020, finishing 6th in the conference in yards with 659, with 266 of them coming in the slot (3rd in the Sun Belt and I promise you that was more impressive than it sounds).
Already in the Saints’ system is former Tennessee Volunteer Marquez Callaway. Callaway, donning the #12 and being the spiritual successor to Marques Colston, picked up 213 yards in his rookie season with the Saints. Callaway made a name for himself in the Week 7 contest against the Carolina Panthers, when forced into the WR1 role he picked up eight receptions for 75 yards. While it’s a leap to say he could be the Saints’ WR2 in 2020, it wouldn’t be the first time the Saints took an under-utilized Vol and turned him into a valuable starter.
Of course, any discussion about the Saints’ receiving options would be incomplete without at least some mention of Alvin Kamara. Kamara has been targeted at least 100 times in all fours seasons he’s been with the Saints and will likely be receiving 100 more for this coming season. This is already a massive reason why Michael Thomas has been so successful despite the Saints having little other wide receiver production over the past few seasons. We could also see the emergence of sophomore tight end Adam Trautman, who will likely take over the starting TE spot after the release of Jared Cook.
Overall, the Saints have options for the WR2 spot, and while none of them are completely proven, there’s enough talent and ability in the WR room for someone to take that spot and run with it. As of now, it’ll likely be Tre’Quan Smith’s spot to lose, but he’ll have players nipping at his heels every step of the way if he can’t perform up to expectations.
For more information about the Saints’ overall WR corps, check out this recent piece by our very own Ross Jackson about some of the lesser-known players catching passes from “Taymeis” in 2021.
Outside of CGM, which Saints WR will have the most receiving yards in 2021?
This poll is closed