The Saints started strong in 2021, opening 5-2 and then threatening to sneak into the playoffs down the stretch despite multiple injuries at quarterback, including to Week 1 starter Jameis Winston. In the end, New Orleans missed the cut, snapping a four-year streak of postseason runs under longtime coach Sean Payton. Not only are the Saints a full year removed from the end of the Drew Brees era, but they've yet to draw much closer to a definitive next phase, entering 2022 with remaining uncertainty at QB and across the lineup.
Now the question is, where do they go from here? What can they do to get back on track after finishing 9-8 and out of the playoffs?
You came to the right place. Here are five steps to help fix the Saints:
1. Clear cap space
It wouldn't be a Saints offseason without this as the top priority, would it? A year after maneuvering through a dire cap situation, general manager Mickey Loomis once again has tens of millions to clear off the books before anything else can be done. This should -- and likely will -- mean early cuts of replacement-level vets like Bradley Roby (saves $9.5 million) and Mark Ingram ($2.3M). But it will surely also mean approaching some bigger names, like Malcolm Jenkins and Cameron Jordan, for pay cuts.
2. Get creative at QB
And no, this doesn't mean re-sign Jameis Winston just to deploy a cute three-man rotation with Ian Book and Taysom Hill. Who do you think they are, the Panthers? Winston absolutely deserves a second look as the potential QB1 considering the confidence he displayed early in 2021, and his price tag should be reasonable due to his unfortunate knee injury. But Payton and Co. also shouldn't settle on Winston as their only option. In fact, he should be Plan B, or just one part of Plan A. With the No. 18 pick in the draft, New Orleans needs to consider any top QB prospect that happens to slide within reach. And if, somehow, Payton's able to get a more proven starter like Russell Wilson or even Kirk Cousins, he shouldn't be afraid to pull the trigger.
3. Shop Michael Thomas
Some reports would indicate they started doing this a while ago, and it's entirely unclear what the former All-Pro would even bring in return at this point. Once one of the surest-handed targets in the NFL, the three-time Pro Bowler has played all of seven games the last two years. He's still just 28, though, and two seasons removed from a 1,700-yard season. But the Saints should be looking to both clear money and get younger and more reliable out wide. If they can designate him a post-June 1 trade -- or, in the event zero meaningful offers materialize, a post-June 1 cut -- they'll save almost $16M.
4. Retain Terron Armstead and/or Marcus Williams
In other words, their top two free agents. This won't be easy, as Loomis needs to trim something like $60M+ before addressing his own players. But it's imperative, if the Saints intend on competing in 2021, they secure at least one of these guys. Armstead has more value as a proven left tackle, especially if New Orleans is betting on Winston again or, better yet, bringing in a hotshot rookie or Pro Bowl veteran to take over. But Williams is also one of the game's rangiest young defensive backs, and Jenkins -- his top running mate -- could soon be nearing the end of the line at 34.
5. Invest at WR
This may appear to run counter to the earlier point about shopping Thomas, but remember, the Saints haven't had their No. 1 pass catcher on the field for most of the last two years. They need guys who can suit up. Money, as usual, is the dilemma here, unless Loomis really back-loads a deal for a big name like Allen Robinson or Odell Beckham Jr. One way or another, they need at least one starter added on the perimeter. Winston made things work early in 2021, but he or whomever is throwing passes in 2022 deserves better support through the air.