Saints’ off-season start has replaced disappointment with excitement
METAIRIE – In less than seven weeks the New Orleans Saints have turned the disappointment of the 2022 season into surging excitement for the 2023 season.
Although the free agency period is just a few days old, the draft is more than a month away and no one knows exactly what will happen next season, the vibe around this team has changed dramatically in a short period of time.
On January 31, the Saints added a No. 1 pick in next month’s draft as part of a deal with the Denver Broncos to relinquish the rights to former coach Sean Payton.
Then last week they addressed their biggest need – a new starting quarterback – by signing former Raider Derek Carr, who was realistically the best quarterback option for them this off-season.
All he cost them was money – a ton of it to be sure, but no players or draft picks.
Former All-Pro wide receiver Michael Thomas expressed his enthusiasm for Carr’s arrival and he and the Saints agreed to a restructured contract that will keep him in New Orleans in 2023 after a previous restructuring had made the potential release of Thomas more financially viable for the organization.
That’s an elite player (when he’s healthy) who’s suddenly back in the picture at no cost.
Earlier this week the Saints re-signed special teams star J.T. Gray and promising young tight end Juwan Johnson.
On Friday they introduced two new free-agent signees – running back Jamaal Williams (Detroit Lions), and defensive tackle Khalen Saunders (Kansas City Chiefs) – and plan to introduce a third – defensive tackle Nathan Shepherd (New York Jets) – on Monday.
The Carr signing – and the accompanying retention of Thomas – set the tone for the start of the new NFL business year and Carr’s news conference set the tone for a more positive atmosphere as the start of the off-season program approaches.
Another unexpected development was the acquisition of Williams, a college teammate of Saints tight end Taysom Hill at BYU and the NFL leader in rushing touchdowns last season with 17.
“It came out of nowhere,” Williams said.
The running back said he received a “very disrespectful offer” from the Lions and jumped at the opportunity to accept the Saints’ offer.
“My loyalty goes to anybody who believes in me,” Williams said. “I’m trembling from excitement.”
Williams said all it took was the Saints explaining the role they envisioned for him as Alvin Kamara’s partner and a fair three-year contract offer – as well as his impressions of running backs coach Joel Thomas (“a great dude”) for him to accept.
“It’s crazy how easy it was,” Williams said.
Williams, who wore a hat representing Pokemon Eevee to his news conference, conducted a stream-of-consciousness session unrivaled in recent memory. But, he stressed, “I’m here for business.”
He knows his reputation among many observers is that he’s primarily a goal-line back.
“What I like to do,” Williams said, “is prove people wrong. I can’t wait to get in the open field.”
He added that his new quarterback already had texted him about getting to work.
“He means business,” Williams said of Carr.
As for Johnson, who joined the Saints as an undrafted free agent out of Oregon in 2020 and switched from wide receiver to tight end to years ago, said he was focused on getting a new deal done with the organization that gave him an opportunity.
“This is definitely where I wanted to be,” he said. “This offense can do a lot of incredible things.”
Gray, who has led the Saints in special teams tackles each of the last four seasons, also arrived as an undrafted free agent – out of Mississippi State in 2018. He said he wanted to remain a part of the Saints’ “culture.”
“I love it here,” he said.
Saunders, who was part of two Super Bowl champions in Kansas City, described himself as a “big-body” run stopper with deceptive athleticism.
He said he instructed his agent to find him “the best opportunity” on the open market.
The departure of Saints defensive tackles David Onyemata (to Atlanta) and Shy Tuttle (to Carolina) earlier in the week left New Orleans in need of additions as the position, though Saunders said he was unaware of those transactions when he accepted the Saints’ offer.
When his agent called back and said the Saints had ‘an opportunity” for him, he replied, “I don’t need to hear anything else.”
Saunders will be reunited with three former Chiefs teammates – safeties Tyrann Mathieu and Daniel Sorensen and defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon.
In addition to the Onyemata and Tuttle departures, the Saints also have seen linebacker Kaden Elliss (Falcons), defensive end Marcus Davenport (Minnesota Vikings) and return specialist/wide receiver Devonte Harty (Buffalo Bills) depart.
Quarterback Jameis Winston accepted a reworked contract to return as Carr’s backup while free-agent quarterback Andy Dalton went to Carolina.
So there is subtraction to balance the interesting additions.
But the off-season narrative is a lot more positive than it was in late January.
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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…