Cap issues leave defensive tackle, running back clear priorities for Saints
The euphoria surrounding the signing of Derek Carr remains but it has been tempered, just a bit.
The first day of free agency raided, if not pillaged the New Orleans Saints defensive line.
The duo of Terry Fontenot and Ryan Nielsen bit the hand that once fed them with the signings of David Onyemata and Kaden Elliss with the Falcons. The familiarity with players played a huge role in the duo going from being heroes to villains of black and gold fans.
Onyemata is one of those players whom you want to keep but simply could not afford to.
Atlanta made sure of that with its dynamic offer.
Onyemata has been a solid performer who has been on the precipice of breaking through to stardom but never quite got to that level.
The sample size is large with seven seasons in New Orleans.
The Saints will miss Onyemata’s size and durability as he played in all but two games he was eligible to play in with the Saints.
Elliss is a loss, a young player fully recovered from a knee injury at the start of his career.
Given his chance due to injury in 2022, Elliss had a breakthrough season, playing in all 17 games, starting 11. Elliss had 78 tackles, including seven sacks and seven for loss and he forced two fumbles.
Entering his fifth season in the league, Elliss may be ready to blossom, not unlike Trey Hendrickson.
Hendrickson blossomed in his fourth season with the Saints in 2020, recording 13.5 sacks.
Cincinnati made him a huge offer and Hendrickson departed.
With the Bengals, Hendrickson has 22 sacks in two seasons and is a disruptive force, a very good player.
The Saints did not pay him and stuck with Marcus Davenport, along with drafting Payton Turner.
Most moves take a few years to decipher whether they were good or not for an organization.
Sticking with Davenport and allowing Hendrickson to leave has not worked out.
Davenport never realized his vast potential in New Orleans and now he will try to do so in Minnesota.
Part of the reason was his availability.
Davenport missed 18 games in five seasons and played at less than 100 percent frequently.
After the 2021 season, where Davenport played well and had nine sacks, the feeling was the Saints made the right move with Hendrickson. The thought process was that Davenport would have a Pro Bowl-type season in 2022.
Nothing was further from the truth.
Davenport was a non-factor, disappearing, recording a total of 29 tackles and a half sack in 11 games.
Turner, another first-round pick, has shown little or nothing in two seasons.
Of course, Turner has played in just 13 games of a possible 24.
Most troubling is that on occasion, Turner has been a healthy scratch.
Turner has just 28 tackles in three sacks in two seasons.
Shy Tuttle, now a Carolina Panther, was one of the many good finds by the Saints as an undrafted free agent.
Tuttle gave the Saints solid service in four seasons, playing in 63 games while starting 33.
Perhaps most importantly, Tuttle was durable, playing in all 17 games in each of the past two seasons.
Tuttle is respectable against the run and not a pass rusher.
He is a rotation player, a replaceable part.
Onyemata and Davenport are replaceable as well but the key is to replace them.
The Saints need at least two, possibly three and as many as four defensive tackles.
In the draft, Jalen Carter of Georgia is the best of the lot but he will likely be a top five pick.
Bryan Bresee of Clemson is a risk, a player packed with potential who has been plagued by injuries.
Siaki Ika of Baylor could be there with the 29th overall pick if the Saints remain there. The former LSU player eats up space as a classic run-stuffer and he is agile enough to rush the passer. His weight, at about 350 pounds, is a bit of a concern.
Mazi Smith of Michigan is huge, has played against good competition, and is a classic run-stuffer, though he is not a pass rushing threat.
The end spot is not as much of a concern for the Saints with Turner, along with Tanoh Kpassagnon, Cam Jordan and Carl Granderson all returning.
Along with Hendrickson, the one player you wish the Saints could have retained was Marcus Williams.
Though he missed seven games injured with Baltimore last season, Williams had four interceptions, eight passed defended and a fumble recovery. He is a ball-hawk, a play-maker with 19 interceptions in six seasons, what you want from a free safety.
At wide receiver, Marquez Callaway was expendable.
While there is still a chance to bring him back on a lesser deal, Callaway played in just 14 games a year ago. He was targeted 32 times with only 16 catches for 158 yards and a touchdown.
The emergence of Chris Olave and Rashid Shaheed certainly helps at this spot but much will depend on what the Saints do with Michael Thomas and if he does return, can he stay on the field? If not, there is a need at wide receiver as well. Tre’Quan Smith returns as well as an asset in the run game with his blocking ability.
With the real prospect of Alvin Kamara being absent for a substantial portion of the 2023 season, there is a huge need at running back.
Veteran David Johnson is a free agent.
Dwayne Washington is a special teams player and a good one.
Eno Benjamin is a veteran player best suited for reserve duty.
The trend in the NFL is not to invest in running backs in the first round but there is a chance the Saints could buck that trend.
To get the best running back in the draft, New Orleans would have to do what it does often and trade up.
Bijan Robinson is the top-rated running back in the upcoming draft and, by all accounts, it is not even close.
Robinson has size, speed, quickness and can catch the ball out of the backfield.
Others to keep an eye on with the ability to start in the NFL are Blake Corum of Michigan, Tank Bigsby of Auburn, Sean Tucker of Syracuse, Zach Charbonnet of UCLA, Kendre Miller of TCU and Jahmyr Gibbs of Alabama and Tyjae Spears of Tlane.
Corum has the ability to make tacklers miss and is lowest to the ground of all prospects.
Bigsby is tough and a good one-cut runner.
Tucker has elite speed.
Charbonnet has excellent size, runs through contact and can catch.
Miller has good size and runs through contact.
Gibbs is simply a good runner who catches the ball well.
As for Spears, we know what he can do with good speed, outstanding quickness, cutting ability and is a plus receiver in the passing game. Spears is elusive at the second level. With an outstanding season at Tulane and an outstanding offseason, Spears has moved up to become a top 10 running back in this class.
Jameis Winston returning is good to see. Winston returns on a reasonable deal and a year removed from a host of injuries. He can still make all the throws and is a play away from being on the field again. Carr is a more accomplished player overall but Winston is perhaps a better option than Andy Dalton, at this point, given the contract situation, age difference and ability to make throws.
By all accounts, Winston, though disappointed in not playing after his initial injury last year, was a good actor and supportive of Dalton.
Winston likely gauged the marketplace and understood that being a backup in New Orleans in a familiar scenario was better than likely being a reserve elsewhere.
With eight draft picks, including three of the first 71 in the upcoming draft, the Saints are positioned to get three impact players.
Right now, the 2022 draft looks good, exactly what you want.
Olave was outstanding and should be for years to come.
Alontae Taylor was excellent and has a superb future.
If Trevor Penning pans out to what the Saints think he can be, last year’s draft will prove to be a huge reason for the long-term success of the franchise.
Of course, if the Saints see that player they love, they will trade up, for better or worse and we have seen both with moves made over an extended period of time with the brain trust of the organization.
Then, there is free agency.
The guess is here is that the Saints will wait until after the draft and look for reasonable deals with a veteran player or two in the attempt to fill holes, particularly up front on defense.
The Saints went all-in to win in 2020 and the remnants of that strategy remain with the lingering salary cap issues. It was the right thing to do, though the desired result did not follow.
The organization has chosen to try to reload, rather than rebuild.
Yes, it is not fun to see players go to division rivals as former Saints.
No, it is not the death of a defense, much less a team but it will take a few substantive moves to adequately replace players, if not to better the team for 2023.
It can happen.
- < PREV Baseball: Holy Cross, Hannan, Hammond, Central Lafourche post wins Monday
- NEXT > Report: Michael Thomas to stay with Saints on new one-year deal
Born and raised in the New Orleans area, CCSE CEO Ken Trahan has been a sports media fixture in the community for nearly four decades. Ken started NewOrleans.com/Sports with Bill Hammack and Don Jones in 2008. In 2011, the site became SportsNOLA.com. On August 1, 2017, Ken helped launch CrescentCitySports.com. Having accumulated national awards/recognition (National Sports Media Association, National Football…