Saints 2021 Preview, Part 1: The transition overview

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Sean Payton: Saints Training Camp
(File Photo: Stephen Lew)

The New Orleans Saints are beginning their most significant transition in 15 years. 

Drew Brees has retired and a dozen other key players from last year’s team are gone for a variety of reasons.  

As the start of the 2021 training camp looms in late July, the four-time defending NFC South champion Saints are still one of the more talented teams in the NFL. Sean Payton is still one of the longest-tenured and most-successful coaches in the league. 

But things are changing as New Orleans ventures into the post-Brees era. 

Crescent City Sports takes a comprehensive look at this transition in this series as a build-up to the start of training camp.

The 2021 season marks the dawning of a new era for the New Orleans Saints.

The Drew Brees Era is over. The most productive passer in NFL history and the most important player in Saints history retired in March.

For 15 seasons, Brees was the face of the franchise and largely the city. His partnership with head coach Sean Payton was the guiding force in by far the most productive period in the more than half a century of Saints football.

With Brees running Payton’s offense, the Saints won seven NFC South championships (including the last four), went to the playoffs nine times (winning nine games and losing eight), played in three NFC Championship Games and claimed New Orleans’ only Super Bowl title in its only appearance (after the 2009 season).

Things will be different beginning with this season.

Perhaps they will be as good or nearly as good. Payton is still here and he still has a lot of talent on his roster, though the Saints did lose eight starters (including Brees) and a handful of other contributors from last year’s team, which won a Wild Card Playoff before losing to eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay in a Divisional Playoff.

The next phase of the Sean Payton Era begins with more uncertainty than the Saints have faced in quite some time.

It’s unlikely that the franchise is entering what eventually will be known as the Jameis Winston Era.

It’s less likely that it will become known as the Taysom Hill Era.

It’s most likely that the period beginning in 2021 will be less defined by a quarterback – or any other individual player – than the last 15 years were.

Certainly, Winston and Hill will attract the most attention as they compete to be Brees’ successor, and whichever player is the starter on Sept. 12 against Green Bay and thus the first quarterback other than Brees to start a Saints season opener since Aaron Brooks in 2005 will be one of the most scrutinized players in the NFL during this season.

But the Saints evolution past the end of the Brees Era will be not just a team-wide effort, it will be an organization-wide effort.

Payton, Executive Vice President/General Manager Mickey Loomis and the rest of the personnel and front-office staff have navigated a treacherous challenge to building the first post-Brees roster amid major salary-cap challenges exacerbated by COVID-induced reductions in how much money teams could spend on player salaries for the 2021 season.

The result is that 14 players who participated in the playoff loss to the Buccaneers are no longer on the roster.

In addition to Brees’ retirement, one player (defensive tackle Malcolm Brown) was traded, six other departed via agency and seven others were released in order to get under the salary cap. On top of that, the Saints were minor players in the player-acquisition market – signing just three veteran free agents of note – fullback Alex Armah, defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon and tight end Nick Vannett.

But they drafted six new players – each at a position that was impacted by departure – and they have a bevy of young stars and hopefuls that will have opportunities to blossom into expanded roles to supplement a strong core.

In fact, therein lies the biggest factor in how well the Saints weather this first post-Brees voyage and whether they continue their playoff streak and perhaps even their division title streak: How many players in their early to mid-20s prove to be ascending players whose rising tide lifts the whole New Orleans boat?

Payton and his coaching staff – like their counterparts around the NFL – have had a more conventional though not totally conventional off-season to work with their players after being denied that opportunity last season.

This Saints offseason has featured an unusually large number of key players departing and an unusually small number of key players arriving.

This Saints team will look much different than recent ones.

The challenge is for it to produce familiar results.


See each part of the feature series leading up to Saints Training Camp here.

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Les East

CCS/106.1 FM/Daily Iberian

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…

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