The New Orleans Saints have officially been eliminated from the playoffs after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers clinched the division title this weekend, and the Saints’ only chance of making the wild card spot was dashed with a Minnesota Vikings loss. This is now the second year in a row that the Saints have missed the playoffs after four straight appearances from 2017-2020. This has led to various questions being brought up, as well as speculations as to what direction this team should/will go in for the foreseeable future.
In this article, I will be discussing some of the major topics that need to be answered going forward if this team is to have a brighter future, as well as my personal opinion as to how it will be handled. Keep in mind, this is my personal opinion on what needs to be handled and how to do so. We may have differing opinions, which is the whole point of this type of article, to discuss the direction of the team as well as our individual opinions on how to fix the issues with the franchise. Feel free to provide your input in the comments as well, it is much appreciated.
Item #1: What to do at head coach and quarterback
These two items somewhat coincide as they have been the two most blatant issues with the roster to date. To put it nicely, Dennis Allen has not been the coach this team needed and has shown everyone just how much Sean Payton did for this franchise. The first question that needs to be answered in this regard is what do the Saints do with Sean, do they trade him and get their desired first-round pick out of it? Is there a chance that Sean could return as is being reported? My opinion would be if there is a chance to bring back Sean to the Saints, you do it. If he is dead set on leaving, which could be the case, then you sell to the highest bidder, whether that be the Los Angeles Chargers, Denver Broncos, Arizona Cardinals, or otherwise, and move on with your future value.
The other half of this is the quarterback position, which somewhat ties to the head coaching spot right now for a few reasons. As seen in a report by Mike Florio at Pro Football Talk, there is, “increasing chatter in league circles” about Sean Payton returning to the Saints, potentially with quarterback Tom Brady in tow. There was obviously the notion previously that if Drew Brees had retired when Tom first hit free agency, he would have considered the Saints due to Sean. This union was also discussed with the Miami Dolphins’ tampering investigation where they tried to get both together there. There is also the concept that Dennis Allen was the man who drafted Derek Carr with the then-Oakland now Las Vegas Raiders and there may still be a connection there if Allen remains. Carr is now benched for Jarrett Stidham and has left the team to avoid distractions.
After being informed of his benching, Raiders QB Derek Carr has left the team, with their permission, to avoid being a distraction over the final two weeks of the season, according to a source.— Jeff Howe (@jeffphowe) December 28, 2022
The Saints also have the option to draft a quarterback with their second-round pick this offseason, or even sign one of the other options aside from Brady. With free agents such as Baker Mayfield, Jimmy Garoppolo, Teddy Bridgewater, and Daniel Jones on the market for now, the pool is not exceptional. Obviously, Lamar Jackson is also a free agent, but the odds that the Saints could afford him, never mind the Baltimore Ravens letting him walk in the first place, makes him a longshot option. Draft options such as Hendon Hooker, Jaren Hall, or Tanner McKee make a few interesting players worth consideration, yet the lack of a Saints first-round pick to grab any of the premier options such as Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud, Will Levis, or Anthony Richardson makes it a little difficult.
I would say of all options if you are intending to compete, bringing back Sean Payton with Tom Brady would be the option to immediately do so. Despite my opinions of Brady, he is a proven starting quarterback who under Sean would likely bring this team into the playoffs regardless of circumstance. With Michael Thomas, Chris Olave, Alvin Kamara, and other offensive options around them already, it would be interesting. If you are looking more toward the long-term future of the team, it would be wise to trade Sean and look to grab one of the first-round QBs this year or next year and cut your losses.
Item #2: Revamping the defensive line
Another issue the Saints’ front office will face is what to do with the current structure of the defensive line. With multiple free agents on the defensive line (David Onyemata, Shy Tuttle, Marcus Davenport, Tanoh Kpassagnon, Kentavius Street, and Albert Huggins) the front office has to decide who to keep, and who to replace. Cam Jordan is a lock for the roster next year presumably after another relatively productive year statistically, and a very solid year in general. Payton Turner has been injured and performing at times but is likely a lock for the roster to give him one more shot at improving. Outside those two, it is mostly question marks along the defensive line, with both inside defensive starters in Onyemata and Tuttle set to hit free agency, and much of the depth set to do so as well.
In my opinion, the team should retain Onyemata if possible, on a 1–2-year deal worth approximately the same amount as his previous deal (about 5-6 million each season against the cap once it is cut down). However, they should look to grab another defensive tackle to put alongside David to fill the void left for a while now by Sheldon Rankins leaving in free agency. There are some big-name interior defensive linemen hitting the market if they want to really splurge (i.e. Fletcher Cox, Javon Hargrave, Dalvin Tomlinson) but also some younger options to fill the role more long-term (i.e. Da’Ron Payne, Jerry Tillery, Teair Tart).
As for Davenport, he has been outperformed by Carl Granderson this season, so if the Saints do not decide to bring him back it would not be an exceptional surprise. Bringing in another defensive end in either the later portion of the draft, or a free agent such as Samson Ebukam, Dawuane Smoot, or Arden Key to rotate in and out and be a strong pass-rushing option on the cheaper end of the spectrum would be nice to see. Regardless of who they bring in, it definitely needs to be addressed in some form.
Item #3: Bringing back key free agents
Another point worth discussing is this year’s free agents for the Saints, and who they want to bring back, whether they intend on competing next season or playing the long game. As previously mentioned, I would prefer to bring back Onyemata as he already has the chemistry with the team/staff and has been a solid enough option on the interior for a long time. Some other players worth noting are Bradley Roby, Marcus Davenport, Juwan Johnson, Blake Gillikin, Kaden Elliss, Marquez Callaway, J.T. Gray, P.J. Williams, Jarvis Landry, Mark Ingram, Deonte Harty, and Shy Tuttle.
Bradley Roby: Roby is a tough decision in my opinion, as there are a few factors that go into this. Firstly, would be age, at nearly 31 years old, he is on the older end of the cornerback lifespan (at least typically) but has been a solid option for the Saints this year at times. He has started in 9 of his 12 games played, allowing a career-low completion percentage (55%) on the highest amount of targets he has seen since 2019 (33/60 passes were completed against him this season). He has only allowed 1 touchdown and 12.2 yards per completion, with 36 tackles, 4 pass deflections, and 2 fumble recoveries on the season. The talking point with him would be his missed tackle rate, in which he has missed 18.2% of his tackle attempts, the highest rate of his career since 2020. I believe bringing him back for a 1-year deal in case Paulson Adebo continues to trend downwards would be a safe option provided the Saints intend to compete.
Marcus Davenport: Davenport is a less difficult decision in my opinion, as he has been really struggling this season, and has only played in 62 games in his career of a possible 82, and only started in 32 of which. Despite the Saints trading two first-round picks to get Davenport, he really has not produced at a level worthy of a long-term extension. With only 21.5 sacks to date (practically a sack every 3 games played), only 0.5 sacks this year in 14 games played, and only 60 QB hits in his 62 games played, he really has been underwhelming. If his asking price is exceptionally low, then maybe consider it, but otherwise, you should be able to find similar production for a lesser value.
Juwan Johnson: Juwan Johnson is one of the few free agents the Saints have which I insist they re-sign him. He made the third year leap we really wanted to see after transitioning to tight end and has vastly improved his game this season. With 7 receiving touchdowns, 487 receiving yards on 41 receptions, and a 64.1% catch rate (only 2 of which are considered drops according to ProFootballReference) he has really been a bright light for this offense. Keep him for his asking price and try to get a 3–4-year deal done if possible.
Blake Gillikin: Blake Gillikin somewhat struggled to open the season but has picked up the pace as of late and really showed his worth. He has roughly the same net yards per punt as last year (41.5 this season to 42 last season), a significantly higher punts inside the 20-yard line percentage (41.7%), and more punts inside the 20 this season (30 this season, 29 last season) on fewer attempts than last season (72 this season, 83 last season). Overall, he has played well this season and I would not mind him being the punter for New Orleans over the next few years.
Kaden Elliss: Another player who, like Juwan Johnson, has had a breakout season and is basically a must-re-sign at this rate. Elliss has played his way into the starting rotation, starting 10 of 16 games this season after the injury to Pete Werner. Kaden has 7 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 2 pass deflections, 76 tackles, 9 pressures, 10 QB hits, and has only allowed a 65.4% completion rate when in coverage. Bringing him back for another 2-3 seasons would be the right choice.
Now we get into the other players, who I will split into re-signing or not.
Re-sign: Marquez Callaway (good depth), J.T. Gray (great special teamer), P.J. Williams (good to rotate in and out as a defensive back), Shy Tuttle (good depth)
Do not re-sign/unknown future: Jarvis Landry (despite a few good weeks, his injuries made this season poor for him), Mark Ingram (presuming he retires, if he does come back then you can consider it for a year or two), Deonte Harty (injury prone now + role was taken by Rashid Shaheed), Chase Hansen (Elliss took the role), Calvin Throckmorton (has not been great as depth, can find a better option).
Item #4: Cap space...again
This is a yearly event for the Saints, it is where about 10 contracts are restructured and a few players are cut/traded to free cap space. This year the Saints are actually in better shape than in previous seasons, as right now they are only $53 million over the cap limit (per OverTheCap). This is also not noting any potential increases in the NFL cap space next season, as it is projected to potentially exceed $220 million per team (it is at $208.2 million this season). Presuming this increases from 208.2 to 220 million, this would free up 11.8 million more for the Saints.
There are a few contracts worth mentioning where they could be cut/traded post-June first, or also restructured in some capacity. These are:
Cam Jordan: You would presumably go the restructure route here, as his base salary for 2023 is $13,900,000 and his cap number is set to be $25,737,250. That is a pretty wide margin, and even if less than half of that difference is removed via whatever wizardry of signing bonuses Mickey Loomis pulls off, that is still approximately 6 million dollars.
Michael Thomas: This situation is a difficult one with the state of Michael Thomas’ injuries and his huge cap hit for 2023. Here are the options. If he is going to stay with the team, the restructure is definitely doable, with his base salary set at $15,500,000 and his cap hit set at $28,263,000, so there is a large gap available for restructuring contract money. If they choose to cut him post-June-1st (not a likely option, but just for continuity’s sake) he would only count towards $11,813,000 in dead cap, and the Saints would save $16,450,000. The post-June-1st trade is also possible for the same amount in dead cap and cap saved. Cutting or trading him prior to June 1st would leave the team with $25,452,000 in dead cap and only $2,811,000 in cap saved, so that can essentially be ruled out. No matter what the option, there are ways around this contract.
Marshon Lattimore: Another restructure candidate, with $14,500,000 in base salary and $22,464,317 as a cap hit, so a little over 7 million dollars in difference to work with. Keep in mind the likelihood of him removing all 7 is low, but even a small amount of this number being restructured would be helpful.
Ryan Ramczyk: Another contract that could be restructured with very similar details financially, he has a $14,000,000 base salary and a $21,441,321 cap number, so a little over 7 million in between is worth restructuring.
Other Major Contracts: Andrus Peat ($11,825,000 base salary, $18,371,000 cap hit), Alvin Kamara ($9,400,000 base salary, $16,093,000 cap hit), David Onyemata ($10,192,555 cap hit despite being off the roster, if re-signed this amount could be pushed as done previously with Ryan Ramczyk), Demario Davis ($8,250,000 base salary, only $1,000,000 is guaranteed, however, $13,276,000 cap hit).
- One other thing worth noting is the running back position and what the Saints want to do there. Despite a good couple of weeks from Alvin Kamara, he has had a down season and will be 28 entering next season, and the backups on the roster are Mark Ingram (33), David Johnson (31), and Eno Benjamin, who frankly could see more snaps in the coming season if he remains on the roster. Whatever the choice may be, it certainly could be worth addressing if need be.
- Another note for next season is playing the young players on the roster over some of the older veterans where possible. This means even more Chris Olave snaps, seeing Rashid Shaheed more often, and players like Trevor Penning, Carl Granderson, and Alontae Taylor getting snaps over players like James Hurst, Marcus Davenport, and Bradley Roby respectively. We will also hopefully get to see the two notable injured rookies on the roster next season in Smoke Monday and D’Marco Jackson, who still remain on the NFL roster, so they will likely be back next year.
- One final thing worth considering is the whole Wil Lutz saga going on. I do not think he should be replaced whatsoever, as he has been getting better later in the season. However, bringing in a UDFA just to push him to be at his best entering the season is not the worst idea, as we did that this offseason with John Parker Romo.
Overall, there is a lot of work to do with the roster in both circumstances. If they want to compete, they have holes to fill no doubt. If they want to tank/rebuild and go get a premier QB, they are without a first-round pick in 2023 (for now) and much of the roster is aging at this point in time. This will be a large offseason worth noting regardless of direction and will heavily influence the Saints in the future.