Da Boot Sports!
Article courtesy of Crescent City Sports
By: Lee East
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 guys passing the football will attract the most attention during the New Orleans Saints training camp as Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill compete to succeed Drew Brees as the starting quarterback.
But the development of the guys catching passes from Winston and Hill will also be a major aspect of training camp.
The passing game centers on Michael Thomas, a 2019 All-Pro wide receiver who was hampered all of last season by an ankle injury that limited his playing time and the Saints passing game.
The Saints are hopeful that Thomas, who missed nine games last season and caught 40 passes, fewer than half of his previous low total as a rookie in 2016 (92) and didn’t score a touchdown, and the passing game will be more consistently efficient this season, even without Brees,
“He’s here and been participating,” head coach Sean Payton said of Thomas during the Saints mini-camp two weeks ago. “He looks good. You still monitor it, pay attention to it and scan it and all those things. He’s receiving treatment and doing the things necessary. So, so far, so good.”
A healthy Thomas – who Hill called “one of the most unique players I’ve ever been around” – would be very significant, but the Saints need a lot more from the rest of their receiving corps to get the passing game to where they want it to be.
The Saints’ 3,758 passing yards last season were their fewest since Payton became head coach in 2006 and the 28 touchdown passes were the fewest since 23 in 2017.
No. 2 receiver Emmanuel Sanders (61 catches, 726 yards and five touchdowns) was released in an off-season salary-cap move as were veteran tight ends Jared Cook and Josh Hill.
The prime candidate to step forward as a clear-cut No. 2 receiver alongside Thomas is Tre’Quan Smith, who has shown glimpses of becoming a dependable receiver while battling through a series of injuries and missing eight games in his first three seasons.
Smith’s receiving stats don’t tell the whole story of his value because he is a very good blocker and has shown an ability to handle each wide-receiver position.
“He’s got a lot of versatility. He does a lot of things well,” Payton said of Smith. “He’s one of those players that I think details every aspect of playing that position. He’s not afraid to do some of the noisy work, but yet he’s someone that can stretch the field and he’s in good shape.
“I see a veteran player with him in the way he prepares, he carries himself. He is one of the leaders now in that room.”
Offensive Coordinator Pete Carmichael said the Saints were impressed by Smith’s “body of work” last season, which included a career-high 34 catches and four touchdowns, and they envision “a bigger role” for his this season.
Smith said he spent the off-season “focused on my core” in hopes of staying healthier. “I wasn’t as strong as I thought,” he said.
He added that he “appreciated” the confidence the Saints showed in him by not signing a major free agent at wide receiver and not using a draft choice on one until the seventh round when they grabbed Kawaan Baker of South Alabama, though salary-cap limitations contributed to the absence of a major free-agent signing.
Though Smith has yet to have a breakout season, he does have a stronger resume than any other receiver aside from Thomas.
Marquez Callaway and Juwan Johnson (unndrafted free agents last season), Lil’Jordan Humphrey (eight games played in two seasons) and return specialist Deonte Harris are all young receivers that will have an opportunity to assume bigger roles this season.
“They’re doing very well. I’m encouraged,” Payton said. “I like the way that room is coming together. There are a few guys that received more snaps a year ago because of some of our depth issues and I think that’s helped them.”
The Saints did sign former St. Paul’s High School, Oklahoma State and Tulane wide receiver Jalen McCleskey, who was briefly with Atlanta last season as an undrafted free agent.
Winston had the fewest reps with the starting receivers among the three quarterbacks last season. He tried to make up for lost time by organizing workouts with several teammates – including Smith, Johnson, Callaway, second-year tight end Adam Trautman and incoming free agent tight end Nick Vannett – prior to mini-camp.
“They’re eager to work and I’m eager to get to learn them,” Winston said. “I’m reading guys’ body language, how they come in and out of breaks. It’s important for anticipation and timing. With anyone, you’re going to learn something new about them every single day.
“You are always trying to connect with your guys when they have time, to build timing, camaraderie and just get together. I think that’s the best part of being a quarterback, coordinating guys together and going out there executing and having fun and seeing it come to fruition when the bullets really come.”
Trautman said he has always “put my heart and soul into every snap” and is hoping for a bigger role this season by continuing to earn the coaches’ trust.
Vannett, who played three seasons in Seattle and one each in Pittsburgh and Denver, called Payton’s offense “very complex in a great way” because of the way it creates mismatches for receivers.
This is the first time Vannett, who has never caught more than 29 passes in a season, has played for an offensive-minded head coach, which he hopes will give him a “legit shot to make plays in the system.”
The Saints are counting on multiple players to emerge as more productive receivers, and the presence of a healthy Thomas for an entire season would make that more likely.
“If you get stuck or there’s indecision on what’s going on,” Taysom Hill said, “you know that if you get Mike T a catchable ball, you know he’s going to catch it, he’s going to do everything he can to compete for it.”
Winston and Hill both provide a better opportunity for deep completions than was the norm in the latter stages of Brees’ career, but they won’t be reluctant to continue to utilize the short game, especially with running back Alvin Kamara, who caught a team-high 83 passes last season after catching 81 in each of his first three seasons.