Let’s be clear: I’m not advocating for the New Orleans Saints to give up on the 2021 season. Nor am I thinking all hope is lost. But too often Saints sites and blogs paint a picture of how everything is always rainbows and gummy bears, so some times it’s important to take a step back and think about the harsh reality.
This is going to be a two-part series where in this piece I will lay out all of the reasons why the Saints should at least be open to the idea of focusing on 2022 and beyond at the sake of sacrificing the potential success of the 2021 season. Next time, we’ll cover the opposite, and go over all of the reasons why the Saints should focus on the present and go near all-in for a 2021 Super Bowl.
Let’s address the first elephant in the room as to why the Saints might struggle in 2021. The New Orleans Saints no longer have Drew Brees as their starting quarterback. Sure, Brees’s arm near the end of his career left a lot to be desired in terms of deep-field strength and accuracy, but his pinpoint precision and elite decision-making will obviously be missed. In his place, the Saints are likely turning to 27-year-old Jameis Winston, who led the NFL in interceptions in his last full season as a starting quarterback. It’s hard to see certain improvement on the offensive side of the ball when you’re losing a future Hall of Famer, regardless of who the replacement will be.
But then you can go position-by-position and compare this year’s team to last, and it’s hard to find improvement much of anywhere on the roster. The offensive line is largely the same, despite losing Nick Easton in the offseason. The running back group is still the same, headlined by Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray. But tight end, the Saints lost Josh Hill and Jared Cook without any note-worthy replacements. At wide receiver, the Saints lost Emmanuel Sanders. While Michael Thomas should be healthy for a full season, until he actually suits up, it’s impossible to bank on his health for 2021.
On defense, it’s even worse. At defensive end, the Saints lost Trey Hendrickson, the team’s 2020 team leader in sacks. In the secondary, the Saints lost Janoris Jenkins, and Marshon Lattimore is expected to miss a game or two with a suspension. At defensive tackle, the Saints lost Sheldon Rankins and Malcom Brown, and that’s before factoring in David Onyemata’s suspension. The Saints might see a nominal improvement at linebacker from last year, but it’s more than offset by the losses elsewhere on the defense.
While the Saints roster presents multiple areas of concern in 2021, the salary cap situation for 2022 might be even more dire. The Saints were able to go from 100+ million over the 2021 salary cap, to now being 10+ million under the cap before the 2021 season kicks off. But the Saints are projected to be approximately 30 million over the cap next season, and Jameis Winston, Marcus Williams, Terron Armstead, Marshon Lattimore, Taysom Hill, Tre’Quan Smith, Patrick Robinson, PJ Williams, and more are all set to be free agents.
If Jameis Winston were to have even a somewhat decent 2021 campaign and the Saints were forced to extend him, it would be almost impossible to keep many of the players listed above considering the restructures that took place this past offseason to get under the 2021 cap.
Instead, maybe the route to go would be to throw away the 2021 season and draft a quarterback with a first round pick in 2022. A franchise quarterback on a rookie deal does wonders for a team’s long-term salary cap and sustainability (see e.g., the Kansas City Chiefs), but it’s hard to find a franchise guy outside of the first half of the NFL draft. If the Saints want to make sure they can lock down their “guy” for 2022 and beyond - assuming that guy is still in college, it’s best to have an earlier pick to ensure they can draft him.
To instead focus on signing players to help the 2021 team on funny-money deals that make the 2022 salary cap situation even worse would be to truly delay the inevitable. As much as Saints fans praise General Manager Mickey Loomis for working his salary cap magic, salary cap hell is upon us. We lost players like Emmanuel Sanders and Trey Hendrickson simply because we couldn’t afford them this past offseason. This is what salary cap hell looks like. A Hall of Fame quarterback helps ease the burden of salary cap hell elsewhere on the team the team, but the Saints no longer have that luxury. There’s something to the idea of embracing the salary cap hell for one season and going all-in for 2022 and beyond. Otherwise, we might get out of salary cap hell, but we could be in salary cap purgatory until Baylen Brees is old enough to be the Saints franchise quarterback.