There’s a pretty clear message if you read between the lines.
The New Orleans Saints have been awfully quiet this free agent period. As we approach the final week of March, the Saints have added a whopping two new players to the team, and lost nine free agents to other teams already. While the Saints have re-signed four of their own pending free agents, the two players have been a full back and a back-up tight end, so it’s hard to be too excited about the moves thus far.
But when you take a second and look at the moves the Saints have made this offseason, it paints a pretty clear picture of the Saints’ plan for the next few months. No, while FB Alex Armah and TE Nick Varnett are both helpful in the running game, I don’t think these moves signal a stark paradigm shift in the offensive scheme as some have suggested. Instead, I think these moves show how the Saints plan to approach the 2021 NFL Draft.
One way to judge a team’s needs in the offseason is by looking at the positions of the players that team has lost or could lose in free agency. For the Saints, that list would be pretty extensive:
- Quarterback – Jameis Winston, but he has since re-signed
- Wide Receiver – Emmanuel Sanders
- Tight End – Jared Cook & Josh Hill
- Offensive Line – Nick Easton
- Fullback – Michael Burton
- Defensive End – Trey Hendrickson
- Defensive Tackle – Sheldon Rankins
- Linebacker – Kwon Alexander & Alex Anzalone
- Cornerback – Janoris Jenkins
- Safety – Marcus Williams, who was later franchise tagged
- Punter – Thomas Morstead
But take a second and look at this list (aside from Winston and Williams), and you might notice something about some of the positions listed: Generally speaking, there are guys who are still on the roster that can fill in to most of these positions.
For instance, the Saints might have released Thomas Morstead, but they have Brent Gillikin waiting in the wings. They lost Emmanuel Sanders, but they hope to have a healthy Marquez Callaway and Deonte Harris to pair with Michael Thomas and Tre’Quan Smith. Gone is Trey Hendrickson, but the Saints will hope Marcus Davenport is able to take a step forward in the final year of his rookie deal, and will turn to Carl Granderson to fill in as a rotational piece. Big Sheldon Rankins is now with the New York Jets, but the Saints have Malcolm Roach and Shy Tuttle along with David Onyemata in the middle of the defensive line. On the offensive line, Nick Easton remains a free agent, but the Saints were able to bring back versatile backup James Hurst into the fold while they hope Cesar Ruiz is able to take added responsibility in his second season with the team.
Really the areas of concern were going to be quarterback, fullback, tight end, linebacker, and cornerback. Of those five positions, the Saints have already addressed three of them by re-signing QB Jameis Winston and bringing in FB Alex Armah and TE Nick Varnett. Those three positions specifically (quarterback, fullback, and tight end) were the weakest and most shallow on the roster before those signings. Hence why those were addressed first.
If push came to shove, the Saints have warm bodies they could play at linebacker and cornerback. The Saints have second-year linebacker Zack Baun and former 7th round pick Kaden Ellis. At cornerback, instead of young players, the Saints have an aging veteran in Patrick Robinson who could play opposite Marshon Lattimore. They didn’t have a fullback on the roster until they signed Armah, and before signing Varnett, the only true tight end with any NFL experience was 2020 draft pick Adam Trautman.
The Saints’ strategy here is fairly clear: They want to address each position of need by having a comfortable floor that represents a “worst case scenario” if nothing more happens before the 2021 NFL Draft. If the Saints never signed a tight end, they would be forced to draft one in the draft. Same with a fullback. Now, the Saints will instead be able to draft the best player available who provides an upgrade over their current roster.
This is why the Saints are also looking at cornerback T.J. Carrie.
I’d rather they fill out the roster and set the floor at cornerback with someone like TJ Carrie than be forced to absolutely have to draft a corner at all costs in the first round.
Same idea for all the positions, but that might not be realistic this year. https://t.co/6PIdhqy08U
— Nick Underhill (@nick_underhill) March 25, 2021
Carrie was a solid, if unspectacular, player last season with the Indianapolis Colts. But he provides depth and a comfortable baseline for the Saints where they are not forced to go into the draft needing a specific position in the first round. Similarly, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Saints to start showing interest in a free agent linebacker of the same ilk. Address each position of need as cost-efficiently as you can (knowing you’re still tight up against the salary cap), and then you can go into the 2021 NFL Draft with an open mind and look to improve your team any way you can.
Does signing a new fullback and blocking tight end mean the Saints will switch to a run-heavy offense in 2021? Not necessarily. It just means they are replacing part of what they lost in Michael Burton, Josh Hill, and Jared Cook. What it means, though, is that the Saints are purposefully trying to position themselves ahead of the 2021 NFL Draft to make the draft as exciting as possible for Saints fans.
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