The 2021 NFL season was a rough one for the New Orleans Saints, who missed the NFL Playoffs for the first time since 2016.
The Saints suffered through numerous injuries and inconsistent performances at the quarterback position. It didn't help that the Saints were not able to utilize the star playmaking abilities of wide receiver Michael Thomas, who was sidelined all season with an ankle injury.
Despite the headaches they encountered in the regular season, there are reasons to believe they may have an even harder time during the off-season.
There is no easy way to analyze the off-season situation for New Orleans other than that the Saints are in salary cap Hell. The Saints are projected to be $71 million over the 2022 NFL salary cap when the 2022 NFL season starters. They currently have a salary cap of $-71,129,103. This gives them no wiggle more to make a big pickup in free agency or trade.
Heading into last off-season, the Saints had to shave $111 million in salary cap space. They were in terrible shape last season, but that doesn't mean they are heading into a better situation this off-season, especially since the situation has affected their performance on the field where they finished with an overall record of 9-8.
Some of the biggest reasons for their salary cap problem are the over-saturated contracts for star players like cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Michael Thomas, running back Alvin Kamara, offensive tackle Ryan Ramcykz, guard Andrus Peat and flex quarterback Taysom Hill. These are contracts they will have to potentially reconstruct in order to have some breathing room with the salary cap.
It doesn't help that the Saints had to pay $45 million in dead cap to players who were not on the roster last season including quarterback Drew Brees' $11.15 million. This off-season, the Saints will have to pay $12.4 million to former players including $11.5 to Brees.
It will be tough to convince unrestricted free agents like offensive tackle and three-time Pro Bowler Terron Armstead to return to New Orleans. Armstead had another great year and could go to a team with the highest salary cap possible like the Miami Dolphins, who have a terrible offensive line.
Other free agents that will be unrestricted for New Orleans include safety Marcus Williams (who was franchise tagged by the Saints last off-season), quarterback Jameis Winston, linebacker Kwon Alexander, defensive back P.J. Williams and quarterback Trevor Siemian. Wide receiver Deonte Harris will be a restricted free agent after finishing the 2021 season second on the team in receiving yards (570) and third in receptions (36).
It has been a frustrating year for the Saints organization as they wanted to have Thomas contribute on the field, but he was out all year on an ankle injury that could have taken care of early.
New Orleans also gave Winston a one year deal to try out to become the franchise quarterback. He looked great in the beginning of the season until he suffered a torn ACL on Oct. 31 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The offense for New Orleans continued to devolve as they found inconsistent play from Taysom Hill, Trevor Siemian and rookie Ian Book.
The Saints will either to find a way to get Winston to sign another deal or use their franchise tag if he is healthy. They could trade for eight-time Pro Bowl quarterback Russell Wilson, who has been disgruntled this season with the Seattle Seahawks. This type of trade for an expensive contract may involve trading wide receiver Michael Thomas and another star. This will be difficult for New Orleans to pull off as they will replace one expensive contract with another and they will not have a reliable receiver.
Their biggest goals this off-season will be to restructure their expensive contracts, create extensions for some of their defensive stars like defensive end Cameron Jordan and cornerback Bradley Roby and convince free agents like Winston, Harris, and Marcus Williams to stay. If they can convince Terron Armstead to stay, that will also be big.
New Orleans has a talented and elite coaching staff hoping to create a playoff caliber team for next year's NFL season. They need their star players to be willing to work with the front offices to create potential deals where they can get paid extensively while giving the team the availability to get other impact players.