My goal with the Offseason Preview series is to get caught up with each team’s 53-man roster, offensive and defensive schemes, team needs, and offseason capital within a 10-minute read. The basics will be at the top -- cap space, draft picks, cut candidates, notable departures -- and the film and analytics takes will be at the bottom. I hope to write these in a way that they’re referenceable throughout not just free agency and the NFL Draft, but also the 2021 season as we look into weekly matchups. The offseason is the time for me to get outside of our fantasy football bubble and learn more about what’s going on at the other positions. You can read the rest of my 2021 Offseason Previews here and can follow me on Twitter (@HaydenWinks).
Saints 2020 Recap
There were times when it wasn’t pretty, but the Saints did finish second in point differential last year despite injuries to Drew Brees, Michael Thomas, and others. Coach Sean Peyton has a ton to do with that floor, though the core of the 2020 roster was as good as anyone’s. Both sides of the ball finished fifth in scoring against the 12th hardest schedule, and they did it with unique schemes. Offensively, the Saints were run heavy (28th in in neutral pass rate) with the second shortest average depth of pass attempt, and defensively, the Saints led the league in two-man while winning with four up front. How much those identities change in 2021 will depend on how the front office navigates the league’s worst cap space this offseason. It looks like the Saints will be restricted on the talent they’ll be able to bring in, but there’s still enough on the current roster to compete in 2021 pending on what happens at quarterback.
Saints 2021 Offseason
Saints Cap Space
-$48.9 million (32nd)
Saints Draft Picks
1.28, 2.60, 4th, 7th, plus compensatory picks
QB Drew Brees (pending retirement), QB Jameis Winston, FS Marcus Williams, EDGE Trey Hendrickson, TE Jared Cook, TE Josh Hill, Slot CB P.J. Williams, FB Michael Burton, LB Alex Anzalone, RG Nick Easton, P Thomas Morstead
Saints Cut Candidates
Saints Depth Chart
% of Passes
RB (Early Down)
RB (Third Down)
Offensive Coordinator: With Drew Brees a near lock to retire, free agent Jameis Winston is the favorite to start Week 1 assuming he doesn’t land an unexpectedly large offer in free agency. If Winston starts, coach Sean Peyton will flip the passing offense upside down. Brees and Taysom Hill combined for a 6.2 air yards per attempt average (31st) while Winston has chucked downfield for his entire career. Obviously Peyton won’t completely dial up the Bucs’ system because Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas are two elite low-aDOT players, but there could be major changes to the Saints Offense in 2021.
Passing Offense: This is an impossible paragraph to write with Winston and Taysom Hill offering completely different skill sets, so let’s just move to the pass-catchers. Michael Thomas might have to restructure his contract and is unlikely to see the rare volume he had in the Brees offense, but he’s unquestionably the top dog in the pass game regardless of the quarterback. That will especially be the case with Emmanuel Sanders another year older (34) and the rest of the receiving room lacking for reliability. With Alvin Kamara so involved, there’s really only room for one receiver to tango in New Orleans. At tight end, Adam Trautman has been shoved to center stage following the releases of Jared Cook and Josh Hill. The 2020 third-rounder primarily blocked as a rookie but was a productive receiver in college and is athletic enough to take advantage of full-time snaps. His year two mini breakout is easy to see coming.
Rushing Offense: The Saints lost some offensive line depth, but the projected starting five is still really, really good. Elite 2015 third-round LT Terron Armstead, 2015 first-round LG Andrus Peat, 2020 first-round C Cesar Ruiz, 2019 second-round C/G Erik McCoy, and 2017 first-round RT Ryan Ramczyk combined to rank third in adjusted sack rate allowed and sixth in short-yardage rushing EPA last season. It could be the best unit in the league if 22-year-old Ruiz and 24-year-old McCoy take a leap in 2021. And then there’s Alvin Kamara who will again be backed up by Latavius Murray if he dodges a release ($2.5M in cap savings). The only real wrinkle to the run game right now is losing FB Michael Burton. 30% of the Saints’ 2020 run plays had two backs on the field, many of which featured Burton lead-blocking for the ball carrier.
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Cover 2 Man
% of Plays
Defensive Coordinator: The Saints are a man coverage team through and through. 31% of their snaps came in Cover 1 man, and they led the NFL in Cover 2 man snaps (22%). When they go to zone, it’s typically in two-high safety looks because they’ve had some dudes at safety and can win with just four pass rushers. Last year, the Saints were just 15th in blitz rate (32%) yet were third in adjusted sack rate. The salary cap leaves multiple players’ statuses up in the air, but the core of the defense should remain intact. Another top-12 finish in points allowed is a reasonable projection after they finished fifth in 2020.
Passing Defense: The Saints have decisions to make at corner. Stud CB1 Marshon Lattimore is an extension candidate, 32-year-old CB2 Janoris Jenkins is a cut candidate ($7.0M) but can also be restructured, and there could be movement within the depth pieces. If they can be retained, Lattimore, Jenkins, and slot CB Chauncey Gardner-Johnson combine for a borderline top-five cornerback depth chart. Safety is equally up in the air with stud FS Marcus Williams set to hit free agency. He could be the only big name to re-sign in New Orleans this offseason. If not, there’s a hole to fill next to 33-year-old SS Malcolm Jenkins. The Saints will miss situational edge rusher Trey Hendrickson (14.0 sacks) but 2018 first-round DE Marcus Davenport and veteran Cameron Jordan is a strong pass-rushing duo up front. Overall, New Orleans could have one of the better pass defenses in 2021 with just a few savvy moves. They were sixth in EPA last year.
Rushing Defense: 32-year-old LB Demario Davis is one of the better all-around backers in the league. He’ll need a new running mate if Kwon Alexander is released ($13.2M cap savings) and doesn’t re-sign at a lower figure. Alexander, 26, tore his Achilles last Christmas. 2020 third-round OLB Zack Baun is the wild card at the position. Most, including myself, believed Baun was a situational edge rusher, not off-ball linebacker. On the defensive interior, the Saints are expected to trade or release 2015 first-round NT Malcom Brown ($5.0M cap savings), who was sixth out of 129 defensive tackles in run stop percentage in 2020. His potential loss is softened by having quality three-tech DT David Onyemata, 2016 first-round DT Sheldon Rankins, and overachieving 2019 UDFA Shy Tuttle on the roster. A small slip in rushing defense next year is expected, but the core pieces are still there for a top-12 finish.
Saints Team Needs
1. Quarterback - Drew Brees is expected to announce his retirement soon, and Taysom Hill, 31 this season, isn’t a long-term option. Free agent Jameis Winston might not be either, but he has far more upside and should be cheap coming off a zero-start 2020 season. Who isn’t rooting for Winston in New Orleans?
2. Free Safety - This can be as easy as re-signing 2017 second-rounder Marcus Williams. The Saints will be restructuring gods in an attempt to keep Williams in the building. He’s been a top-10 free safety since entering the league. The Saints were sixth in passing EPA last season with Williams covering half the field on the backend. If he walks, the front office will be looking for a free safety with two-high experience.
3. Outside Receiver - Michael Thomas is a stud underneath. 34-year-old Emmanuel Sanders can be in spurts, but the rest of the depth chart is lacking. Tre’Quan Smith only has 80 receptions through three seasons and ranked 113th out of 140 qualifying receivers in yards per route run last year. Speedy 2020 UDFA Marquez Callaway could be a name to watch in 2021.
4. Linebacker - Kwon Alexander will either be released ($13.1M in cap savings) or will take a massive pay cut following his Christmas-day Achilles tear. The Saints need to find Demario Davis a replacement and can get younger at the position overall. It’s unclear if the coaching staff envisions 2020 third-rounder Zack Baun as a situational edge rusher or potential off-ball linebacker. I thought he was the former coming into the league.
5. Defensive Tackle - The Saints will have to trade or release NT Malcom Brown for salary cap reasons. There are plenty of three-tech options on the depth chart, but none perfectly fit that run-stuffing nose tackle role that Brown had. He was sixth out of 129 defensive tackles in run stop percentage in 2020.
2021 Fantasy Football Rankings
Consider these my way-too-early 2021 fantasy football ranking ranges ahead of free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft, and here’s where each player ranked in PPR points, expected PPR points, and PPR points over expected last year.
Until the quarterback issue is resolved, there’s no point in doing Saints fantasy write-ups because of how drastic the offense is when it’s quarterbacked by Taysom Hill and a legit passer. Just look at the splits from above. If Winston re-signs, he’s the heavy favorite to start games as he’d only sign here if he believed he has a good chance of starting. How many games he and Hill start will depend on if his turnover issues have been corrected by 1.5 years in coach Sean Peyton’s quarterback camp. Here are my fantasy ranges if Winston signs a cheap deal soon: Alvin Kamara (RB1), Michael Thomas (WR1/2), Adam Trautman (TE2), Latavius Murray (RB4), Jameis Winston (QB2/3), Taysom Hill (QB3/4), Emmanuel Sanders (WR7), and FA Jared Cook (TE3).