It wasn’t how it was supposed to end. As the clock ran out, all Drew Brees could do was look at the scoreboard and wish Tom Brady well. After another NFC South Title, his fourth straight with the Saints, Brees was on the wrong end of an early playoff exit, again. This time losing to the Buccaneers—a team the Saints swept in the regular season—30-20 in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, ending their season.
It wasn’t just the end of the Saints’ season, it was the end for Brees in a Saints’ uniform. Brees played 15 years for the Saints, going 142-86 in his career, throwing for 68,010 yards and 491 touchdowns. He’s a surefire Hall of Fame selection in five years, but now the Saints face the tremendously difficult task of trying to move on without him. And that means plenty of questions, beginning with who will sling the rock.
Last season the Saints added former Buccaneers’ starter and No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston. Yet, when Brees suffered broken ribs and was lost for four games, it was Taysom Hill that started at quarterback. Hill ended up throwing for 928 yards and four TDs along with two INTs, rushing for 457 yards and eight TDs. He went 3-1 as a starter and was QB8 from Weeks 11-14 as he filled in for Brees, giving the team a glimpse at what a Hill-led offense might look like.
Hill is back in 2021, but so, too, is Winston. Both figure to battle it out to succeed Brees this season. Winston is the more prolific passer, throwing for 5,109 yards and 33 TDs in 2019, finishing as QB3. The problem was he tossed 30 INTs, too, a ratio that was too much for Bruce Arians. He’s had a year working with Sean Payton to curb those tendencies, and if he wins the job the Saints will be expecting him to take a step up.
The team also drafted Ian Book out of Notre Dame. In four years, Book threw for 8,948 yards and 72 TDs. Aside from being an interesting future stash, I doubt he factors into the 2021 competition. It likely comes down to Winston and Hill, and I’m not sold that either maintains the job completely.
Drafters seem equally as confused, with both Winston and Hill posting similar ADPs. Winston is currently going as QB31, while Hill is QB32. If either got control of the job, they could have QB1 upside and would safely fall in the QB2 range for me. However, I suspect Winston is the nominal starter and Hill is used in frequent packages, limiting the upside of both. Neither is a great bet currently to greatly outproduce their ADP.
An area where there’s less mystery is the backfield, where Alvin Kamara is the lead back and one of the best in the league. In 2020, he finished as RB1 thanks to a prolific touchdown season. He rushed for 932 yards and added 16 TDs, catching 83 passes for 756 yards and five additional TDs. He has a Top-5 upside, which aligns with his ADP of RB4. Repeating as RB1 is a challenge, and it’s likely Kamara has some TD regression, but he remains a top option at the running back position.
The Saints also return Latavius Murray, who was RB34 in 2020. Murray rushed for 656 yards and four TDs, adding 23 receptions for 176 yards and a touchdown. He will remain a part of the rushing attack for the Saints, remaining in the RB3/4 range. His current ADP is RB47, and while his long-term value might not be great I think Murray outplays that ADP in 2021. There aren’t any other significant challenges on the roster, and he works well as a complimentary piece to Kamara, especially when Hill is in a quarterback.
This is a unit with more questions than answers, especially after word broke just before camp that Michael Thomas had ankle surgery and will miss the first part of the season. Thomas is the top of the heap, and he’s seen his value dip a bit after a poor, injury-plagued year in 2020. Thomas saw just 55 targets, catching 40 passes for 438 yards and no TDs in 2020. It was a steep decline for a player that was going as WR1. Injuries played a part, limiting him to seven games and just five starts. Early reports are he’ll miss at least the first month but it could be November before he’s back in action. Coming off a lost year in 2020, drafting Thomas early is a risky proposition. If he ends up playing in only half the season he could struggle to reach consistent WR1/2 numbers week-to-week and likely won’t finish in the Top 36 at the position.
Behind Thomas it gets interesting. Last year’s marquee free agent Emmanuel Sanders, who ended up leading the Saints in receiving, moved on to Buffalo. The Saints didn’t add significant competition in free agency or the draft, leaving a pool of Tre’Quan Smith, Deonte Harris, and Marquez Callaway to fight for targets at receiver.
The most likely bet to lead the group feels like Smith, a former third-round pick entering his fourth professional season. He’s seen his targets increase each season, with 50 targets resulting in 34 receptions for 448 yards and four TDs. If he ends up being the top receiver, he could reach WR3 levels. He’s going as WR80, but that should creep up. Harris is more of a Special Teams wizard who is used creatively in the offense. I don’t see him having a consistent role. The dark horse is Callaway. He’s got a minimal ADP right now, but that figures to change with the Thomas injury. He saw only 27 targets in 2020, catching 21 for 213 yards. But he had some decent production at Tennessee and could make his mark this off-season.
Another distinct possibility is the Saints bring in a free agent or scoop up a player post cuts to add to the position for the season. With Thomas unavailable, the Saints could rival Detroit for the weakest receiving corps in the NFL if they don’t make some additions.
This is another group re-making itself in 2021. Last season, veteran Jared Cook was the main threat at tight end, while Hill took snaps at the position as well. Cook has now moved on to the Chargers, and Hill seems focused on playing quarterback. All of that figures to benefit second-year man Adam Trautman.
As a rookie, Trautman saw just 16 targets in 2020, catching 15 for 171 yards and a touchdown. That is insane efficiency and gave a glimpse of what he might be able to do. I suspect Trautman will be the main receiving threat at the position while free agent signing Nick Vannett, who spent 2020 with the Broncos, will be more of a blocking tight end. Trautman is currently going as TE20, which speaks to the excitement over his potential. With Thomas gone and no clear target hog at receiver, Trautman could be poised to make a big leap in 2021, so his ADP figures to keep rising.
The Saints remain a talented team with some very talented pieces on offense. And yet, for the first time in years, they have a significant question about the quarterback position in 2021 and beyond. Kamara should still return strong value, while Murray, Smith, and Trautman have some upside. I suspect the Saints offense, in general, takes a step back in 2021, but the team should still be in the 8-10 win range and compete for a playoff berth.
Matthew Fox is a die-hard NFL Fan and Broncos’ homer. He’s a member of the FSWA. You can find more from him on Twitter @knighthawk7734 or as co-host of the Fantasy Football Roundtable Podcast.
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