After three consecutive 7-9 seasons, the New Orleans Saints returned to their playoff ways by going 11-5 and knocking off the rival Carolina Panthers in the Wild Card round. Though they lost to the Minnesota Vikings in excruciating fashion the following week, the Saints enjoyed a superb rebound campaign. Despite being tabbed as one of the favorites for next year’s Super Bowl, there are still holes throughout the New Orleans roster, particularly on the perimeter.
While most statistics suggest that the Saints were their usual top-five selves offensively, they were surprisingly woeful on third down in 2017. Finishing first in the NFL with 48 percent in 2016, the team dipped to only 36 percent this season. Although the franchise became more rush-centric, the lack of receiving productivity outside of budding superstar Michael Thomas was the main culprit of down-three demise. The Saints offense will continue to be formidable with Drew Brees under center, but they remain a piece or two away from returning to their peak form.
Adding a Pass-catcher Will Diversify Saints Offense
Sign Jimmy Graham
New Orleans signed Jimmy Graham to a four-year/$40 million deal in July 2014. Little that the football world knew was that he would be traded the very next off-season. Graham rivaled Rob Gronkowski as the premier tight end in football from 2011-2014, but he hasn’t been the same dominant threat with the Seattle Seahawks, despite respectable numbers. With Graham’s prime contract now expiring, the Saints have an opportunity to resign their former prolific seam surgeon. New Orleans has two things working in its favor: familiarity and a withering Seattle team. Graham posted astronomical statistics to begin his NFL career. Though he and Brees’ last game as teammates came in December 2014, it shouldn’t take a tremendous amount of time to reestablish their virtually-unstoppable rapport. In regards to the Seahawks, an aging and ailing defense coupled with a putrid offensive line have their immediate future at a crossroads. Russell Wilson will keep them afloat, but Graham should consider a reunion with the team that has the higher championship ceiling.
The concern with signing the five-time Pro Bowler, as with any free agent the Saints consider, will be the money. As long as Brees breathes, he will be the main priority for the franchise. If acquired, it’ll be intriguing to see what Graham’s contract amount will be, especially when he turns 32 during the upcoming campaign.
Sign Sammy Watkins
Although Allen Robinson is the more-complete wideout, Sammy Watkins is the better fit for the Saints. Drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 2014, the Clemson product compiled 125 receptions for 2,029 yards and 15 touchdowns in his first two seasons. Injuries limited him to 430 yards and two scores on 25 grabs in just eight 2016 games. The Bills considered Watkins expendable and traded him to the Los Angeles Rams. Watkins concluded 2017 with 39 catches for 593 yards and eight touchdowns. While his stat line won’t excite Saints fans, it should be noted that he played in the NFL’s most improved offense. With Offensive Player of the Year Todd Gurley accumulating just under 2,100 scrimmage yards, including receivers Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods each completing 55-catch, 780-yard seasons from Jared Goff, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. Due to his less-than-stellar output, Watkins shouldn’t demand a ton of cash. If added to the roster, the 25-year-old speedster will be a younger and more polished version of Ted Ginn Jr., who’s in his thirties. With the Saints receiving corps being its shallowest in the Drew Brees-Sean Payton era, Watkins could be in store for a career year in New Orleans.
Outside of staying healthy, the question will be if Watkins can be a reliable target for not only long balls but also quicker, short-field routes. With Michael Thomas as the clear-cut number-one receiver, he won’t be asked to be the hero.
Sign Jarvis Landry
From an emotional standpoint, Jarvis Landry makes sense for the Saints. Putting forth a standout high school career in Lutcher, Louisiana, Landry then enjoyed a stellar collegiate tenure at LSU, producing alongside Odell Beckham Jr. If he were to avoid the franchise tag from the Miami Dolphins, bringing the Louisiana native back home will be a win for the Who Dat faithful. Of course, it’s always a plus when a player is known to contribute greatly. Landry’s 2017 consisted of a career-high 112 catches for 987 yards and nine touchdowns, en route to his third-consecutive Pro Bowl selection. In the process, the 25-year-old surpassed Anquan Boldin for the most receptions by a player in his first four seasons in NFL history. For perspective, he’s accomplished these feats with the likes of Ryan Tannehill and Jay Cutler as his quarterbacks. Not bad for a player that’s essentially a slot receiver. If New Orleans doesn’t resign Willie Snead, Landry would be a tailor-made piece for an offense that traditionally thrives on the intermediate passing game.
Although these positives are seemingly too good to ignore, obtaining Landry may be the least-likely signing for the Saints. Since 2006, the franchise has placed sixth or better in total offense. With Brees and Payton leading the way, they’ve proven to succeed regardless of the resources available to them. Even with Landry being a significant upgrade over Snead, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Saints passed on Landry and retained Snead to preserve dollars.
Sign Cameron Brate
While Tyler Eifert is by far the best free agent tight end, his extended injury history is a huge red flag for potential suitors. That leaves the Saints with Trey Burton and Cameron Brate. While Burton possesses more athleticism and versatility than Brate, his small frame for the tight end position may lead teams to look in another direction. Thus, this opens the door for Brate to come to New Orleans. Once on the Saints practice squad in 2015, Brate is relatively familiar with the organization. Technically, Brate is a restricted free agent, meaning that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can match any offer he gets from other teams. With the Bucs spending a first-round pick on O.J. Howard last April, though, they appear to be moving forward with the Alabama star. Due to his increased productivity over two seasons, however, the Saints may be more inclined to insert Brate into a starting role.
If New Orleans does indeed bypass Brate, it’ll be because of these two words: Coby Fleener. Agreeing to a five-year/$36 million deal in March 2016, the former Indianapolis Colts pass-catcher has been a huge disappointment. Injuries and lack of aggressive play turned the 28-year-old into one of the latest post-2013 free agent blunders for the Saints. Granted, not a tremendous amount of tight ends all time are the caliber of Jimmy Graham, but Fleener simply hasn’t lived up to his big payday. Not to say Brate will be a repeat of Fleener, but his predecessor may cost him a second stint with New Orleans.
Wait Until the Draft
If the free agent market doesn’t entice the Saints, they can easily wait for the draft to find their future wide receiver and/or tight end. Courtland Sutton from Southern Methodist would be a nice grab at 27. At 6’4″ and 215 pounds, Sutton would be a nightmare matchup in 50-50 and red zone situations, similar to what Marques Colston was for 10 seasons. Though he isn’t the sharpest route runner, he does display the ability to get separation with his mid-level quickness. In an NFC South division that features big-bodied targets Julio Jones and Mike Evans, Sutton would fit in nicely.
The other prime draft prospect for New Orleans should be Oklahoma’s Mark Andrews. His 62 receptions for 958 yards and eight touchdowns earned him the John Mackey Award, an honor that is annually given to the nation’s best tight end. Standing 6’4″ with a 254-pound frame, he has impressive shiftiness and open-field speed. His presence and performance played a critical role in his quarterback, fellow draft mate Baker Mayfield, winning the Heisman Trophy.
Regardless of who is selected in April, Saints fans shouldn’t be concerned, considering the franchise’s track record with acquiring pass-catchers in the draft since 2006. Plus, drafting is a lower-price, lower-risk method for importing capable players.
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