It is not fun watching a team’s season come to a premature end. It is disheartening to witness it happen four years in a row, and that is what Saints fans have just endured. From Super-Bowl favorites four seasons in a row to playoff disappointment in those same four seasons, it has been an extremely bumpy-ride for New Orleans since 2017. Winning the division title each year has been great, but it doesn’t really mean anything without a ring. What would normally be an extremely optimistic-offseason for any team coming off four straight playoff appearances is actually a potential fallout for this Saints team. Many people will say this is the Saints most important offseason since 2006, which saw them land future Hall of Famer Drew Brees and hire their still-legendary head coach, Sean Payton.
The culmination of that offseason took New Orleans from the “‘Aints” to Super Bowl champions in four seasons, and the entire 15-season run has been nothing but historic for this team. After having disastrous defenses for much of the early-to-mid 2010s, the Saints front office and coaching staff were able to turn that turmoil around from 2017-present. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen and defensive backs coach Aaron Glenn are owed big props for helping develop one of the worst defenses into a top-5 unit these past few years. Unfortunately, the lack of a Super Bowl victory, or even an appearance, has masked the progress and greatness of this team.
You can call Payton insane based on the fact that he continues to roll with the same staff and (mostly) the same team and expects different results each season. The same disappointment continues to happen, and Payton, along with general manager Mickey Loomis, are now forced to change quite a lot of things up. Changes are imminent, but the extent of those changes is a big mystery. Here’s what New Orleans must deal with this offseason, what those changes might bring, and how the team might handle everything.
What has been a structured and consistent group of coaches is now being shaken up. Even though it seems both coordinators and the head coach positions for New Orleans will not be changing in 2021. However, the Saints are still taking major hits to the make-up of their player and team develop group. Dan Campbell, who joined the Saints as an associate head coach and tight ends coach in 2016, just signed a six-year contract to become the Detroit Lions next head coach. Campbell was the interim head coach for the Dolphins in 2015 before joining the Saints as an assistant for the last five seasons. Joining him is Glenn, the man who helped develop a seemingly always-sorry Saints secondary into one of the best in the league. He’s helped develop lockdown corner Marshon Lattimore, ball-hawking safety Marcus Williams, the young and promising Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, and many more players. Both departures will hinder the Saints’ consistency, even with the great hire of Kris Richards to replace Glenn.
Terry Fontenot – Falcons GM
Dan Campbell – Lions HC
Aaron Glenn – Lions DC
and now Joe Lombardi – Chargers OC#Saints coaching staff a hot commodity out in these NFL streets.
Almost got Ryan Nielsen poached to the college ranks, too.
— Ross Jackson (@RossJacksonNOLA) January 25, 2021
Losing quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi is also a big deal, as he got a big promotion to become the Chargers offensive coordinator for a lot of reasons. He played a big part in the Saints’ impressive passing game since 2016, whether it was Brees, Hill, or Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback. Lombardi was also an offensive assistant and the QB coach for New Orleans from 2007-2013, the most primitive and great years in Brees’ career. The Saints will likely welcome some new, potentially young, quarterbacks into the team’s mix, so Lombardi’s knowledge and coaching will likely be missed heavily. Another face that has been in the building since at least 2017, defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen, also almost departed the Saints. He was offered, and all but agreed to become, the defensive coordinator position at LSU. Apparently, some contract language barred Nielsen from making that sort of move to the NCAA, so he’s staying in New Orleans for the time being, even getting a promotion to assistant head coach to fill Campbell’s exit.
The changes don’t stop with the coaching staff. Terry Fontenot, a Louisiana native who has been a New Orleans scout or executive since 2003, was named the Atlanta Falcons new, and first African-American, general manager last month. Fontenot began as a scout, was promoted in 2013 as director of pro scouting, and spent 2020 as the team’s assistant GM and Vice President of pro personnel. His work meant a lot to the team, and it showed with the constant success. All of New Orleans is very happy to see him get a promotion to such an important position, even if it is for the rival team, but he will be missed. So will the other departures, even if the top three coaching positions (head, offensive, and defensive coordinator) are staying put. Personally, a change at OC would be welcoming, since a lot of the offensive break downs can be attributed to Pete Carmichael. Let’s see how the Saints handle these many changes as the 2021 offseason slowly begins.
Potential cap hell
On paper, cap hell isn’t a “potential” for New Orleans. It is eminent. The Saints are currently projected to have negative $100M in salary cap space to begin the 2021 offseason. The top three contracts on the books right now (Brees, Cameron Jordan, and Michael Thomas) carry a combined cap hit of $73.85 million, which is over 41% of their total cap. The next three players (Terron Armstead, Taysom Hill, Janoris Jenkins, and Kwon Alexander) account for another $60 million, which an additional 33%. Seven players currently account for three-quarters of the Saints’ total payroll, which is a major problem on paper.
Luckily, for the Saints, Loomis is a cap genius. He finds ways to maneuver money in a way that gives New Orleans breathing room – and more. His favorite ways of achieving this cap manipulation include contract restructures and persuading players to take a little less money to play, or stay, in New Orleans. In 2020, Loomis was able to restructure multiple contracts, including those for Brees and Jordan, to save the team $15.8 million in cap space. In 2019, the Saints saved $9.5 million by doing similar restructures, and they will have plenty of those opportunities in 2021. Players like Hill and Andrus Peat can save the team a few million just but turning some of their owed money into upfront bonuses to not count against the cap. Speaking of which, the salary cap number is going to be higher than the expected $175 million threshold. Multiple NFL insiders believe it will be $185 million or more, which bodes extremely well for New Orleans.
The NFL and NFLPA began preliminary negotiations last month on the 2021 salary cap, which some believe will end up higher than expected. It’s one of several key issues as the sides brace for another unusual offseason, with Super Bowl LV days away.https://t.co/PrdNKWIap5
— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) February 4, 2021
Unfortunately, and $10M-$15M increase in the salary cap still won’t provide the Saints enough breathing room to be comfortable with their roster moving forward. The restructures may not even be enough, and some tough cuts will have to be made. Cutting Jenkins and Alexander would save the team nearly $20M alone; both men started all the games they were eligible to play while on the team last season, so saving money does not come without some big holes. Brees’ retirement, which is still up in the air according to Payton, would also save the team money, but they would have to turn around and spend a good amount of money to retain Jameis Winston, the man many believe is set to replace Brees. Much like the coaching staff, the seemingly-always consistent roster for this Saints team will face plenty of shake ups to the starting lineups in 2021. Their cap situation may mot allow them to make any big splashes in free agency, which leads them to the next-best event to improve and fill their team.
Possible draft picks and scenarios
Draft capital has not been a concern for the Saints recently. Payton and Loomis have traded up a plethora of times since their fantastic 2017 draft class, which featured pro bowl players in Lattimore, Alvin Kamara, and Ryan Ramczyk. They were also able to snag Williams and Alex Anzalone that year, making their depth youthful and plentiful at most positions when combined with their free agency signings. That beloved class has also made it easier for the Saints to build their roster with a “win now” mindset, bringing in established veterans such as Malcolm Jenkins and Jared Cook on shorter deals instead of using multiple day one and day two draft picks to fill positions. The Saints had only four total picks on the 2020 draft after trading most of their capital away during the draft to move up and get “their guys,” such as Zack Baun when they fell to the perfect spot. The team also did not have a first-round draft pick in 2019 due to their trade for Marcus Davenport the year before, and only selected a total of five players, which tied for the lowest of all teams.
As of right now, two and a half months away from the 2021 NFL draft, the Saints have five selections. They could have had a total of eight due to Fontenot’s departure granting them a conditional third-round pick, but the team traded a 2021 third and fifth-round pick in two different trades and lost their seventh-round selection due to COVID-19 violations. Fortunately, the team could gain more conditional picks if some of their impending free agents sign larger deals with other teams. The better the player and the bigger contract, the higher the pick will be. Even if New Orleans gets a few of those, it would still be smart for them to either trade back for even more draft capital, or stay put and select the best player available at each spot to (cheaply) fill imminent roster gaps. They will look to target help for their wide receiver corps, quarterback situation, cornerback and linebacker depth, and possibly more.
Many changes will be happening to this Saints roster, as it has to the staff, so cap maneuvers and savvy drafting will help keep this team afloat and not bludgeoned for money. It’s an uphill climb for the team, but not one they are unfamiliar with. Buckle up, Saints fans, because this offseason will be the most exciting an offseason has been in over a decade.