The New Orleans Saints enter 2021 free agency coming off a 12-4 season in 2020 and have 20 unrestricted free agents.
Safety Marcus Williams and defensive end Trey Hendrickson should draw the greatest interest around the NFL from that list. But quarterback Jameis Winston is probably the Saints’ top priority, with Drew Brees expected to retire -- assuming they don’t pull off a blockbuster trade instead.
Unfortunately, the Saints’ budget will be severely constrained by the league’s reduced salary cap. They are currently projected to be around $65-$70 million over the cap before they start restructuring deals and possibly releasing some veterans.
Here’s what to expect from the Saints when the NFL offseason hits high gear with the start of free agency on March 17:
UFA: Jameis Winston.
Game plan: Of course the Saints have to explore the idea of a trade for Russell Wilson after ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that New Orleans is one of only four places where Wilson would accept a trade. But that feels like a long shot, considering the Seahawks haven’t yet shown any desire to trade Wilson -- and since the Saints don’t have a premium draft choice to offer. It’s more likely that New Orleans will re-sign Winston to compete with Hill for the starting gig. It remains to be seen if Winston will draw more interest around the league than he did last year as a free agent, but coach Sean Payton has made it clear the Saints want him back. And another team’s offer would have to be very enticing to lure him away from such a good opportunity.
Game plan: Murray has proved to be a good fit during the first two years of his four-year deal. But it’s possible the Saints could consider releasing him or requesting a pay cut since they have to pinch every penny and he’s due $3.35 million in salary and bonuses. Maybe they would even consider a reunion with veteran Mark Ingram if he came at a lower rate.
UFA: Bennie Fowler
Game plan: Sanders is another wild-card candidate for a release or pay cut since he is due $8 million in the final year of his two-year deal ($2 million of which is guaranteed), and he turns 34 in March. But he had a solid first year in New Orleans, and the position would be awfully thin without him. Either way, receiver should be a top draft priority.
UFA: Jared Cook
Game plan: There is a good chance the Saints will move on from Cook unless he comes at a bargain rate. Cook turns 34 in April, and the Saints drafted a potential successor last year in Trautman. Hill is due $2.6 million in salary and bonuses, which puts him in that same category as Murray and Sanders. But the Saints value his versatility.
Game plan: The Saints’ starting five is set for now, but they have some huge long-term decisions to make with both tackles Armstead and Ramczyk heading into the final year of their contracts. Both could cost nearly $20 million per year in an extension. The Saints will likely try to re-sign either Easton, Hurst or a similar versatile backup.
UFA: Trey Hendrickson, Sheldon Rankins, Noah Spence
Game plan: Hendrickson should draw plenty of interest after an unexpected breakout season with 13.5 sacks -- which might price him out of New Orleans. Rankins, meanwhile, has battled injuries the past two years. But teams might pony up to see if the former first-round draft pick can regain the form he displayed in 2018. The Saints would probably like to have both back, but only at the right price. Brown is another release/pay cut candidate. New Orleans has decent depth at both positions, but could add more in the draft.
Game plan: Alexander is the most obvious candidate for a release or pay cut since he tore his Achilles late last season and is due $13.4 million in salary and bonuses ($2 million guaranteed). Anzalone, who has started 23 games including the playoffs, could potentially be back if he comes cheap. Robertson is a valued backup and special-teamer. Regardless, the Saints need to draft and develop some young talent at this position.
Game plan: The Saints have some major decisions upcoming in their secondary with Marcus Williams a free agent now, Lattimore a free agent in 2022 and both Janoris and Malcolm Jenkins over the age of 32. Williams could cost more than $10 million a year in free agency, while Lattimore could cost nearly $20 million per year. But they probably can’t afford to lose both of them. Meanwhile, Hardee and restricted free agent safety J.T. Gray are both priorities for their special-teams coverage. And Robinson is a top candidate for a release or pay cut.
Game plan: Morstead is another release/pay cut candidate since he is due $3.5 million in salary and bonuses, he is coming off a rare down year, and Gillikin is waiting in the wings. But it wouldn’t be easy to part ways with the best punter in Saints history and one of the best in the NFL over the past decade-plus.