The New Orleans Saints’ efforts to secure a Super Bowl crown have fallen just short the past two seasons. In 2018, it was the “Minneapolis Miracle.” Then, in 2019, it was that now-infamous non-call against Los Angeles Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman.
New Orleans gambled on being able to reach the Super Bowl the past two seasons, which puts general manager Mickey Loomis into something of a precarious situation heading into the 2019 offseason. His team is awfully short on picks in this year’s NFL Draft, and the Saints’ salary cap situation isn’t particularly great, either.
As of now, New Orleans is projected to have just over $8.5 million in cap space, according to Over the Cap. That’s the fifth least available, meaning the Saints’ possibilities in free agency are going to be limited.
Regarding the draft, New Orleans owns the following selections:
- Round 2, No. 62 overall
- Round 5, No. 158 overall
- Round 6, No. 164 overall (via New York Jets)
- Round 6, No. 190 overall
- Round 7, No. 222 overall
Unless the Saints are banking on finding a number of hidden gems in April’s draft, that second-round pick is going to be of extreme importance for the team’s immediate future.
To understand that future, especially as it pertains to New Orleans’ chances to finally get over the proverbial playoff hump this season, we have to understand the clear-cut needs.
Here are the top five in order.
One might argue quarterback should be higher on the priority list, particularly when considering 2019 might easily be Drew Brees’ final year before calling it a career. The 40-year-old future Hall of Famer was certainly effective enough last season, leading the league with a 74.4 completion percentage. Yet his 3,992 passing yards were the lowest he’s had since his 2005 campaign with the San Diego Chargers.
Simply put, the end is approaching.
It’s feasible New Orleans asks No. 2 quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to man the bench for one more season, essentially promising him the starting job once Brees retires. This might be the best route, as there aren’t exactly a lot of options in free agency. Plus, the lack of draft picks, particularly a Round 1 selection, all but eliminates the Saints from either trading for a QB on the trading block or targeting one of only a handful of NFL-ready signal-callers in the draft itself.
In all likelihood, New Orleans probably tables this need until 2020.
Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins’ torn Achilles in the playoffs casts some serious doubt whether or not he’ll be ready by Week 1. Even if he is available, New Orleans could use some additional rotational help up the middle.
Fortunately, this year’s NFL Draft is tremendously deep along the defensive line, mixed in with both edge and interior defenders. More than a few should be available come the Saints’ first pick late in Round 2, should that be the route taken.
Another possibility, though, is targeting pending free-agent defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, as Clutch Points’ Andrew Ortenberg pointed out. Suh may not come cheap. But at 32 years old, winning a Super Bowl could easily be more important than cashing in on a lucrative free-agent deal.
Made that much easier if the Saints wind up parting ways with some cap casualties this offseason.
New Orleans’ offensive line is kind of in the same boat as the D-line. It doesn’t necessarily need plug-and-play contributors right now, but there are both depth concerns, as well as long-term needs.
Center Max Unger will turn 33 years old before the regular season begins. He’ll also be a free agent after 2019. Tackle Jermon Bushrod also turns 35 years old this summer, and he’ll need a replacement. It will be interesting to see if the Saints cut left guard Andrus Peat before his fully guaranteed $9.625 million fifth-year option goes into full effect at the start of the league new year. Cutting and then re-signing him to a long, team-friendly deal would make sense.
That said, there are both depth and long-term concerns here. A patchwork idea might be to purge the Atlanta Falcons from one of their veterans, Andy Levitre, whose age and recent injury history prevents him from being a long-term fix. But when healthy, he’s reliable. And he’d likely come on the cheap.
Or, if New Orleans elects to go through the NFL Draft, Boston College’s Chris Lindstrom in Round 2 isn’t a bad idea, either.
In 2018, Michael Thomas was Brees’ top weapon through the air. That was pretty much it. No other Saints wideout came close to 500 yards receiving. And while it’s possible to blame some of the receiving inadequacies on Brees’ age, the lack of a true No. 2 target at this position also bears a lot of weight.
2018 rookie Tre’Quan Smith might be the player to watch develop, although he was up and down for much of his inaugural season. Another big-bodied contributor, Cameron Meredith, has had more of an injury history as of late than anything else.
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot out there on the free-agent market to suggest New Orleans will be active here. Sure, the team could take a run at someone, perhaps like the soon-to-be-let-go Terrance Williams of the Dallas Cowboys. Yet that option would probably wind up providing more of the same on the Saints’ depth chart.
There are a number of enticing wideouts in the draft, however, and it’s a fairly deep class. Whether or not New Orleans chooses to use that second rounder on a receiver, however, is anyone’s guess.
Congratulations are certainly in order for veteran tight end Benjamin Watson who, at 38 years old, finally called it a career after 2018. Unfortunately for the Saints, that leaves a glaring hole at the position. And it also compounds the problem for Brees heading into the season.
Depth tight ends Josh Hill and Dan Arnold had a combined 28 catches last year for a net 335 yards. Sure, either one could wind up taking a huge leap in 2019. But that’s probably not something New Orleans wants to bank on.
Fortunately, just like wide receiver and along the defensive line, this year’s draft is deep. And while the Saints’ top pick in the draft is probably too late to grab a key tight end prospect, such as Iowa’s Noah Fant or T.J. Hockenson, one player to watch is Alabama’s Irv Smith.
Smith, a surefire Round 2 prospect, showed plenty of prowess for the Crimson Tide in 2018 — displaying the kind of post-catch abilities not entirely unlike those of the San Francisco 49ers’ own, George Kittle.
If Smith winds up falling to the Saints at No. 62 overall, don’t be shocked if he winds up being the selection.