NFL

New Orleans Saints: Major changes coming up, with or without Brees

By Sports Desk March 04, 2021

The New Orleans Saints are in limbo.

Until Drew Brees reveals whether his playing career will continue into a 21st season, New Orleans will not be able to finalise a plan of attack for an extremely challenging offseason.

With or without Brees, the Saints need to make some significant changes, New Orleans left facing a balancing act between staying competitive and getting under a shrinking salary cap.

They are under that pressure after one of most talented rosters in the NFL again came up short in the postseason, their playoff hopes ended in the Wild Card round by their NFC South rivals and eventual Super Bowl champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The lessons learned from that failure will dictate how the Saints attack free agency and the draft this year.

What can be gleaned from another season in which the Saints excelled but ultimately fell short of expectations? We reflect on their 2020 using Stats Perform data.

Offense

The numbers tell a very clear story. In 2020, the Saints' passing offense was not the force it has been in previous years.

After finishing seventh in net passing yards per game (265.3) in 2019, the Saints finished 19th (234.9) in the same category in 2020.

They also had nine fewer passing plays of 25 yards or more, recording just 24 having put up 33 in 2019.

Indeed, this was a season in which the increasing limitations of Brees' arm restricted the upside of the New Orleans attack.

Brees was 14th in passing yards gained per attempt (7.54) in 2020 but his impact as a downfield thrower was minimal.

He attempted just 21 passes of 21 air yards or more in his 12 games and completed only nine of them, though five went for touchdowns.

Should Brees retire, head coach Sean Payton may be tempted to go with Taysom Hill as his replacement in 2021 after he filled in for the 42-year-old in four games in 2020.

Utility man Hill attempted nine passes of 21 air yards or more and completed five of them for 170 yards and two touchdowns with a passer rating of 140.0, offering hope he could be an upgrade on Brees in that area.

Though there are concerns over the explosiveness of the passing game, there should be no such worries about their ground attack.

The Saints ranked eighth in the NFL in rushes of 10 yards or more (60), with 27 of those coming from Alvin Kamara.

Kamara finished fourth among running backs in scrimmage yards per game with (112.5).

With or without Brees, the Saints need to find a way to maximise the potency of their passing game so not to waste the prime years of one of the top running backs in the league and ensure they have the firepower to compete in the NFC.

Defense

One of the main reasons the Saints were able to contend despite the conservative nature of the passing offense was the strength of their defense.

The Saints were one of the premier defensive teams in football, allowing opposing offenses to move the ball at a rate of 5.01 yards per play, with only three teams bettering them in that regard.

New Orleans also had one of the most opportunistic defenses in the league, their 26 takeaways tied for third in the NFL.

The 92 points scored off those turnovers provided a substantial boost to Brees and the offense, with that resulting in the league's sixth-best tally.

The Los Angeles Rams (2) were the only team to allow fewer touchdowns of 20 yards or more than the five the Saints conceded, while New Orleans was exceptional at keeping opposing run games in check.

New Orleans forced 50 negative run plays in 2020, the negative yardage total of minus 121 fourth in the NFL behind the New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers.

Between their ability to limit big plays, take away the football and make offenses one dimensional through shutting down the run game, the Saints boasted an elite defense last season.

With uncertainty at the quarterback position, keeping that group together is likely to be pivotal to the Saints' hopes of staying in contention in 2021.

But for a team whose salary cap situation is the worst in the NFL, that will be easier said than done.

Offseason

Assuming the most optimistic estimate of the salary cap being $185million, the Saints are set to be $65m over it as things stand.

New Orleans look set to suffer after years of stretching the cap to its extreme, and that pain is coming in a year where they have 22 unrestricted free agents.

Brees has restructured his contract in advance of his expected retirement, helping the Saints significantly, yet their odds of keeping around defenders such as Marcus Williams, P.J. Williams and pass rusher Trey Hendrickson - who was third in the NFL with 13.5 sacks in 2020 - still look slim.

Linebacker Kwon Alexander and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who carry a combined cap hit of over $23m and can be released for a dead cap charge of just $4m, stand out as obvious potential casualties of the financial issues facing the Saints.

Should Brees indeed ride off into the sunset, New Orleans will need to decide whether to gamble on Hill or bring back Jameis Winston on an affordable deal and make him the successor.

The draft could also be an avenue by which the Saints could find Brees' heir, however, it seems more likely they will use their draft capital to reinforce a defense that could lose talent at all three levels.

Their decision-making in resolving the issue at quarterback and minimising the impact of the potential departures on defense will define whether the Saints stay at the sharp end of the NFC in 2021.

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