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The New Orleans Saints are going to see plenty of familiar faces lining up against them in 2021. They’re scheduled to play against the AFC East and, if NFL owners approve the expected plans during league meetings at the end of March, the Tennessee Titans in the new seventeenth regular season matchup.
And former Saints players and free agents have found their way to several opposing squads on their upcoming schedule. Pieces are still moving as available players reach deals with new teams around the NFL, but here are the ex-Saints we know will be wearing different jerseys in 2021:
WR Emmanuel Sanders, Buffalo Bills
Dec 25, 2020; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Saints wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (17) makes a catch in front of Minnesota Vikings strong safety Harrison Smith (22) in the second half at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
Well this didn't take long, and it's because of the long-standing mutual attraction between Sanders and Buffalo. The Bills nearly signed him as a free agent a year ago, opting instead to trade for Stefon Diggs, and now they've got both receivers once Sanders reached a deal with them after the Saints cut him. Even after he signed with New Orleans, Sanders spent his off days studying the Bills' game tape and admiring electric young quarterback Josh Allen. He'll figure into the offense right away behind Diggs and Cole Beasley, and probably give the Saints secondary some trouble in the fall.
CB Janoris Jenkins, Tennessee Titans
Jan 5, 2020; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Saints cornerback Janoris Jenkins (20) before kickoff of a NFC Wild Card playoff football game against the Minnesota Vikings at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
The salary cap crunch forced the Saints' hand, and they had to make some tough decisions in pursuit of cap compliance -- like releasing their most consistent cornerback, who found a landing spot just a few days later once the Titans gutted their secondary. And with the NFL expected to expand its schedule to include a seventeenth regular season game, the proposed formula would have the Saints flying out to Tennessee. That puts their receiving corps on a collision course with "Jackrabbit."
CB Justin Hardee, New York Jets
https://twitter.com/MySportsUpdate/status/1372650847616786443 New Orleans also lost one of its best special teams players in the opening minutes of free agency, with the Jets hurrying to snap up Hardee. While he was never more than a depth piece on defense with the Saints, Hardee was often the first man to fight his way downfield on punts and kickoffs, and his presence was felt by how opposing squads reacted to him in specializing coverage to slow him down with double teams. That's a tough loss to accept, and the Saints will have to prepare second-year punter Blake Gillikin for the challenge of facing up against Hardee.
OL Cameron Tom, Miami Dolphins
Aug 17, 2018; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints center Cameron Tom (63) during the second half against the Arizona Cardinals at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
It might be a long shot for Tom to get on the field when the Saints play against Miami, but you never know. Especially given how much of a work-in-progress their offensive line is. Tom spent the 2020 season on the Saints practice squad and could be in for a real competition to start for the Dolphins in 2021; we'll just have to wait and see.
DT Sheldon Rankins, New York Jets
Aug 26, 2017; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) and defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins (98) react to a play against Houston Texans at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. New Orleans Saints won 13-0. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports
So this might be a problem. The Jets invested heavily in their defensive line, pairing Jordan with powerful interior lineman Quinnen Williams while paying top dollar for former Bengals pass rusher Carl Lawson. First-year head coach Robert Saleh did a great job putting his players in position to succeed along the 49ers defensive line, so between the coaching and personnel around him this is a great landing spot for Jordan. The Saints will play both New York teams this year, hosting the Giants while making the trip to see the Jets.
FS Erik Harris, Atlanta Falcons
Terry Fontenot got one of his former CFL finds to join him in Atlanta, though Harris is a few years removed from playing with the Saints (having joined the Raiders and won a starting job in the meantime). Harris has a good opportunity to continue starting with the Falcons given the sad state of their roster and how few resources Fontenot has to work with in rebuilding.
TE Dan Arnold, Carolina Panthers
Nov 22, 2018; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints tight end Dan Arnold (85) celebrates after a touchdown catch against the Atlanta Falcons during the third quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
The Panthers have poached more former Saints than anyone over the last year, ever since former assistant Joe Brady was hired as Carolina's offensive coordinator under Matt Rhule. And now they've added Arnold to the mix as an athletic, big body who can make plays through the air downfield. Arnold flamed out in New Orleans but had a nice breakout year for himself with the Arizona Cardinals last season, and now he might be looking for payback.