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State of the 2021 New Orleans Saints: How will Sean Payton navigate life after Drew Brees?

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2021? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Saints organization, Who Dat fans around the world and those who appreciate Acme Oyster House but would rather meet you across the street at Felix's:

It's the end of an era. The greatest run in franchise history has come to a close with the retirement of Drew Brees. That's not to say there isn't some talent left on this roster. And the coach is pretty good, too. It's just that things are going to be different, that's all. And it's not just Brees' departure. The salary cap crunch forced the Saints to part with a lot of high-profile players who made New Orleans one of the best teams in the league in recent years. So it's a new day in NOLA.

How the Saints got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2020 season.

The highs:

  • Swept the regular-season series with the Buccaneers. New Orleans took the Week 1 bout, 34-23, ruining Tom Brady's debut with his new team. Eight weeks later, the Saints absolutely obliterated the Bucs, 38-3, on Sunday Night Football.
  • Improved to 10-2 on the season by completing a sweep of the Falcons in Week 13. With the Packers sitting at 9-3, the Saints were in the driver's seat to secure the NFC's No. 1 seed and -- in the new playoff structure -- the conference's only first-round bye.
  • Beat Chicago, 21-9, on Super Wild Card Weekend. Back-to-back three-point losses in mid-December cost New Orleans the top seed, but the Saints won their postseason opener -- and hey, Michael Thomas scored his one and only touchdown of the season!

The lows:

  • Ending another season with a disappointing playoff loss. This time to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, whom you swept during the regular season. And for the third straight year, the season ended with a defeat in the Superdome.
  • Drew Brees taking that one last look at the Superdome. You just knew he was going to retire. Exiting the field after the Divisional Round loss to the Bucs, Brees paused and stole one last glance before heading into the tunnel. A short time later, NFL Network's James Palmer captured quite a scene that really hammered home Brees' impending retirement: With the 42-year-old QB back out on the turf in street clothes, soaking up an empty Superdome with his family, Tom Brady came out to exchange hugs and throw a touchdown pass to Brees' kid. Pretty amazing, bittersweet stuff.

2021 VIPs

Head coach: Sean Payton. I've always liked Sean Payton. And I've long considered him one of the top coaches in the NFL. OK, as a Bears fan, I was kind of annoyed when he "borrowed" a trick play Chicago ran against him in the Wild Card Round (it failed) and ran it the following week against Tampa Bay (it obviously worked), but this is what makes him one of the best, right? All that said, it's worth noting that when you peer up into the Superdome rafters and see that "World Champions" banner, it's hard not to think that 2009 was a while ago. And it reminds me of an exchange between Linus Caldwell (Matt Damon) and Bruce Willis in Ocean's Twelve in the midst of the faux Julia Roberts hijinks. In a winking reference to the time that has passed since Roberts' lone Academy Award win for Erin Brockovich, Caldwell quips, "That little statue on the mantel starts smirking at you after a while -- you know what I'm saying?" The Saints' first and only Super Bowl-winning season was undeniably epic ... but that was a dozen years ago. I'm not even sure if Twitter was a thing back then. There comes a time where you have to stop living in the past and prove what you've got today. And now, in the wake of Drew Brees' retirement, Payton has to do it without his gridiron soulmate. Which, to me, is kind of exciting. I'm not saying Brees was holding Payton back. But it does feel like the coach has more freedom now -- for better or worse -- than he has in years. I'm fascinated to see what he's going to do with a new quarterback. Of course, this doesn't always go well. Remember what happened with Bill Belichick and The Patriot Way last season after Tom Brady departed to collect another ring in Tampa? When a true icon at the game's most important position exits stage, the resulting void is gargantuan. Who'll fill it in the Big Easy? Well ...

Quarterback: Jameis Winston/Taysom Hill. Replacing a legend is never easy. Just ask Doug Yule. (Sorry, I randomly got into The Velvet Underground during the last year. I'll call this a quarantine silver lining.) After Brees' retirement, Payton expressed that he was satisfied with the duo of Winston and Hill. And New Orleans backed up this sentiment by not drafting a quarterback. Now these two signal-callers -- with extremely different talents -- will compete for the starting job in the coming months. And Jameis is out here preaching the grind to the kids:

Winston still has work to do in terms of cutting down on the turnovers. In his last season as a starter, the guy put up some big numbers: 5,109 passing yards, 33 touchdown passes ... and 30 interceptions. I believe Payton can iron out the inefficiency in that stat line. And inherently, I think Winston earns the starting gig, while Hill continues his role as the touchdown thief who ruins Alvin Kamara's fantasy production. Yes, Hill was the starter during Brees' injury absence last year. And he wasn't horrible at it, as evidenced by his 3-1 record and 100-plus passer rating in three of four starts. But still, I think Winston's skill set projects better for the Saints over a full, 17-game season. Hill's a spectacular athlete with playmaking ability, but some things work better in moderation. Like MacGruber. Great as an SNL skit. Not my favorite movie. Sorry, Will Forte. (But I loved The Last Man on Earth.) That's Taysom Hill to me.

Projected 2021 MVP: Terron Armstead, left tackle. It would be super obvious to go with Alvin Kamara right here. But let's give a little bit of love to Armstead, who has become one of the best left tackles in the game. You think it's easy to just block for three quarterbacks who are completely different from each other? And then you have to pave the way for guys like Kamara to get their opportunities. Given how much we will debate the quarterback situation through the summer, having a stud left tackle is one less worry -- and it will be a godsend for whoever does earn the right to replace Brees.

2021 breakout star: Malcolm Roach, defensive tackle. The interior defensive line was an underrated part of the Saints' defense in recent years, but the salary cap has ravaged it. Sheldon Rankins and Malcom Brown are gone. New Orleans didn't draft a DT and hasn't added anyone of note at the position in free agency. All of this means Roach, an undrafted free-agent signee one year ago, is likely to be pressed into a substantial role. He played sparingly in 2020, but clearly left a big enough impression for the Saints' coaching staff to trust him. Time for the former University of Texas team captain to answer the bell.

New face to know: Ian Book, quarterback. Sorry, I failed to mention this amid all the quarterback chatter above, but the Saints drafted Book in the fourth round. Finishing his college career with the second-most passing yards and passing touchdowns in Notre Dame history, Book is also the school's winningest quarterback ever. And, I mean, Notre Dame's had some pretty good quarterbacks, right? Still, no one expects Book to play much this season. But it's Payton, so you never know. Not to mention, Book has been the kind of guy who has always been counted out. As a three-star recruit coming out of high school, Book arrived in South Bend with minimal fanfare. But he went on to rewrite the record books and guide the Fighting Irish to a pair of College Football Playoff appearances. And if there's one team, one coach you'd expect to squeeze the most out of an undersized passer like Book, it's Payton and the Saints.

The 2021 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: HIGHER THAN YOU THINK. There is a new quarterback. And for some franchises, that would be an opportunity for a growing period. But the Saints will be afforded no such luxury.

Three key dates:

  • Week 1 vs. Green Bay Packers. For years, this would have been a marquee matchup between Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. For all we know right now, this could end up being Blake Bortles vs. Jameis Winston (or Ian Book).
  • Week 5 at Washington Football Team. I like these barometer games against teams in the conference who are on a similar level. I'm curious to see if either one of these squads should seriously be considered in the top half of the NFC.
  • Week 8 vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Jameis Winston revenge game. The first chance to see the Super Bowl champions. As mentioned above, the Saints swept the regular-season series, but the Bucs won when it mattered most.

Will the Saints be able to ...

Get the old Michael Thomas back? In 2018, Thomas led the NFL with 125 receptions. In 2019, he set an NFL record with 149 receptions. Last year was a little different. Limited by injury and a team suspension, the wideout hauled in just 40 grabs for 438 yards and no touchdowns. NONE. Well, as I noted a thousand or so words ago, he did score in the playoff win over the Bears. But no TDs during the regular season. Pretty wild for a guy who averaged eight touchdowns per year over his first four campaigns. Part of this is likely my fault for having him ranked as my top fantasy wideout (though I did have him behind Travis Kelce in my overall rankings, thankfully). But now we are left to wonder where he goes from here. Especially without Brees. Thomas only eclipsed 100 yards in two games last season, though both came with Taysom Hill at quarterback. Both also came against the Falcons. But that's still a professional football team. Honestly, with a clean bill of health, I think Thomas is going to be just fine this season. He's 28 years old and highly motivated after last year's dud. He's also going to be a fantasy steal of sorts, because a lot of folks in your league will be spooked by 2020.

Find a No. 2 receiver? The Saints entered this offseason in cap hell, which meant it was time to part with some very productive players. Defensive tackle, as noted above, experienced some painful attrition. But the team also lost Emmanuel Sanders, who had 61 receptions for 726 yards and five touchdowns. Seeing how the Saints didn't attack the position in free agency or spend a draft pick on a receiver until the seventh round (snagging South Alabama's Kawaan Baker at No. 225 overall), they are apparently content with a smattering of complementary wideouts that's highlighted by Tre'Quan Smith, Marquez Callaway and Deonte Harris. Of those guys, I kind of like Callaway the most. As an undrafted free agent out of Tennessee last year, Callaway battled through some knee issues, but still managed to catch 21 passes for 213 yards.

Find a No. 2 corner? Like Thomas at wideout, the Saints have a shining star at corner. Marshon Lattimore, the 2017 Defensive Rookie of the Year, has made the Pro Bowl in three of his first four NFL campaigns (including this past one). And he's actually on the fifth-year option, but that's a pending problem for another day. In the here and now, the Saints need to find a running mate to fill the CB2 hole vacated by another cap casualty, Janoris Jenkins. Patrick Robinson is the veteran option, but I'm intrigued by rookie Paulson Adebo. The Saints traded up to grab the Stanford product in Round 3, and I won't be surprised if he wins the job at some point this year.

One storyline ...

... people are overlooking: The Saints' tight end room could be something. I know this is a running theme, but New Orleans had some salary cap issues. Jared Cook: Also released. But that just means there's opportunity for somebody else to step up. Like when Kofi Kingston had to jump into the main-event picture a few years ago. The Saints did bring in Nick Vannett. You might remember him from my "That Helps No One" segment from NFL Fantasy Live. He's a former third-round pick who has some ability. Five career touchdowns. Vannett tops the depth chart right now, but the Saints also have second-year man Adam Trautman out of Dayton. If I'm being honest as a Bears fan, a small-school tight end named Adam gives me Adam Shaheen flashbacks. Trautman appeared in 15 games as a rookie, finishing with 15 receptions for 171 and a score. But he has some upside, and the Saints are going to need TE production, unless MT is going after 150 receptions again.

... people are overthinking: Alvin Kamara and the "Taysom Hill's stealing his touchdowns!" thing. All right, this might just be a thing among fantasy enthusiasts. And yes, I made a wisecrack on the matter in the quarterback section above. But it's funny: Nobody was complaining on Christmas when Kamara scored six touchdowns, which undoubtedly sealed your fantasy championship before it really even started. Alvin did have 15 total touchdowns in the other games, as well, so I wouldn't worry too much about it. Instead, maybe we should be worried about what number he is going to wear this season:

For the 2021 season to be a success, the Saints MUST:

  • Get to the playoffs. Is that going to be enough? I would think so. The Saints are coming off a streak of four consecutive seasons with double-digit wins. But again: At some point, the Saints are going to need to get back to the Super Bowl. There is something special about being a two-time Super Bowl winning coach. I mean, it's cool to win a Super Bowl. But even Mike McCarthy has a ring. The key is getting that second title.

In closing

So what's it going to be, Saints? Now, the retirement of Drew Brees could be something that brings this team closer together, inspires everyone to play their best football. Or it could go the complete opposite way. New Orleans finishes in last place for the first time since 2008, Sean Payton retires and the roster's torn down to the studs. OK, maybe I'm being a bit melodramatic. Honestly, I truly believe this is going to rally the Saints. I mean, just look across the NFC South to Tampa Bay. The Bucs got rid of their longtime quarterback last season and it worked out pretty well for them. And yes, they allowed Winston to leave and replaced him with Tom freaking Brady. But if you're looking for a narrative to follow, I was just trying to throw you a bone. Or a beignet, if you will.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter.

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