Saints’ temporary absences complicate roster overhaul
METAIRIE – It’s the New Orleans Saints’ first game week of the 2021 season.
When the Saints open the season on Sunday against the Green Bay Packers in Jacksonville, Fla., they will do so with 12 players that were not with the organization last season – subject to further developments.
Drew Brees is gone, working for NBC Sports.
The No. 2 wide receiver (Emmanuel Sanders) and a starting offensive lineman (Nick Easton) from last season also have departed.
The top two tight ends (Jared Cook and Josh Hill) were released.
Three important players on the defensive line (Malcolm Brown, Sheldon Rankins and Trey Hendrickson) have moved on.
A top linebacker (Alex Anzalone) and backup linebacker/special teams stalwart (Craig Robertson) also are gone.
Starting cornerback Janoris Jenkins was released in a salary-cap move during the offseason in perhaps the biggest non-Brees personnel loss, although that of punter Thomas Morstead might be worthy of that designation.
That turnover was sufficient to create uncertainty as to whether these Saints will be able to extend their streak of four consecutive NFC South championships.
They did have months to find replacements for the offseason departures, several of which were anticipated shortly after last season ended, if not sooner.
But there’s more.
A handful of other players that have returned and are expected to again be key contributors either are unavailable or potentially unavailable coming out of the starting gate.
“Every year there’s the saying ‘it’s always something,’” head coach Sean Payton said. “Every year, when you deal with a 90-man (training-camp) roster, there’s going to be incidents that come up. It’s no different than the middle of the season, the same things take place. You have to program yourself to deal with those situations and quickly find solutions.”
The Saints are still trying to solve some stuff.
Top wide receiver Michael Thomas is starting the season on the Physically Unable to Perform List as he works his way back from June ankle surgery. Tre’Quan Smith, a top-candidate to step into Thomas’ role during Thomas’ absence, missed most of training camp and both preseason games due to injury.
His availability for the opener is unclear.
Marquez Callaway has emerged as the presumed top receiver after an outstanding training camp and preseason.
Return specialist Deonte Harris could take on a bigger role as a receiver as any disciplinary action he might face from the NFL for a July arrest seems unlikely to kick in before the opener.
The same appears true for starting cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who also could face disciplinary action for an offseason arrest.
Starting defensive tackle David Onyemata will serve a six-game suspension to start the season for violating the NFL policy on performance enhancing drugs.
“Onyemata obviously is a huge part of what we do in the run and super productive and you certainly can’t replace what he does,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said, “but when we look at who’s coming in after him (Shy Tuttle, Malcolm Roach and Christian Ringo) and who’s going to fill that void, I don’t think we’re worried about what that looks like. Obviously we’re better with him on the field, but I think we’ll be fine.”
Additionally kicker Wil Lutz is unavailable after undergoing sports core surgery during training camp. The Saints kicker for the game against the Packers is not yet on the roster as two potential replacements didn’t work out and the Saints haven’t yet made – or at least announced – the hiring of a third.
Linebacker Kwon Alexander has been eased back from offseason Achilles surgery. He is ahead of schedule in terms of returning to practice but his game-day availability is unclear.
Jenkins, the Saints oldest player at 33, said he’s not fretting over the temporary absences.
“If you believe that the front office is doing what they can to make sure that they put people in place that can be a backup, that can fill those roles (then) it’s not a huge drop-off,” Jenkins said. “If everybody is doing their job and you know that you’re competing and preparing week in and week out you know that guys, even if they’re not in the lineup they’re still preparing like they are, then you have no worries if somebody’s not in the lineup.”
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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…