Stay or go? Predicting the future for top Saints free agents

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John Sigler
·7 min read
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Big changes are ahead of the New Orleans Saints, which feels like an understatement when you consider everything piled up in front of them this offseason. Between Drew Brees’ likely retirement, a dearth of draft picks, and a plummeting salary cap, it might be tough for the Saints to remain competitive in pursuit of another NFC South title.

But they’ve hurdled challenges before. And it’s a safe bet that they’ll find ways to maneuver the cap and target key rookies while keeping their core intact. That begins with re-signing free agents, which is easier said than done. Let’s take a quick look at the biggest names on their list and predict who stays and who leaves for greener pastures.

FS Marcus Williams

Nov 18, 2018; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints safety Marcus Williams (43) prior to kickoff against the Philadelphia Eagles at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Re-signing Williams should be the Saints' top priority in free agency -- yes, even above retaining Jameis Winston (who we'll get to in a bit). He's given the team several years of high-level performance and finally ironed out the few wrinkles left to his game in 2020 by cutting down on the missed tackles and blown coverages. He's already tied for tenth in team history with 13 interceptions, which leads all Saints defenders over the last decade. Every-down impact defenders like him are hard to come by. Could a tag be in play for him? Maybe, if the transition tag is only valued at around $9.5 million, as is expected. That's an affordable number for him to play at in 2021 and the opportunity for another team to set his market is worth exploring. Ensuring the right to match a contract offer has its value. One way or another, he should remains in New Orleans, even if doing so complicates their salary cap outlook. Prediction: Stay

DE Trey Hendrickson

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) is pressured by New Orleans Saints defensive end Trey Hendrickson (91) as he throws a pass during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Jason Behnken)

It's tough to see your sacks leader go, but Hendrickson probably played his way out of the Saints' price range after producing so well in 2020. But consider how we regarded him before that: an athletically gifted, injury-prone backup who hadn't made a lot of noise. He went into training camp competing for his job with Carl Granderson and Margus Hunt. So what a world of difference he made for himself by breaking out when he did. Hendrickson figures to be one of the more sought-after pass rush specialists on the open market. It would be surprising if the Saints can make a competitive offer to retain him. Prediction: Go

QB Jameis Winston

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - JANUARY 03: Quarterback Jameis Winston #2 of the New Orleans Saints shares a smile as he greets teammate quarterback Taysom Hill #7 during the second half of their game against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium on January 03, 2021 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Could Winston be signed by another team? Sure. He has the kind of resume and starting experience that almost any team should be interested in. The real question is whether he'll have real opportunities to start again. Teams like the Steelers, Rams, Lions, Colts, and Eagles have either recommitted to their incumbents or made moves to clarify their depth chart. That's going to lessen the demand for Winston's services. So you have to survey the field and ask who can offer him anything of substance. The biggest challenger might be the Chicago Bears, where former Saints personnel exec turned Bears G. M. Ryan Pace has actively targeted players after leaving New Orleans before, signing everyone from Jimmy Graham and Akiem Hicks to Mario Edwards and Ted Ginn Jr. Winston could be next, but his positive experience with the Saints and openness to sign a below-market deal could keep him in town. Prediction: Stay

TE Jared Cook

Dec 20, 2020; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Saints tight end Jared Cook (87) is defended by Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Charvarius Ward (35) as a pass is out of reach during the second half at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Cook's second year did a lot to explain why he's moved around so often in his NFL career. After initially playing well in limited time with Drew Brees in 2019, he came back looking less comfortable in the offense in 2020. Every catch looked difficult. While Cook had the speed to compete with anyone, too often he didn't create enough separation to keep defenders from making things tougher than they should have been. At his price point and with his performance trailing off, it's time the Saints look to other directions. Prediction: Go

DT Sheldon Rankins

New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins (98) stretches during NFL football training camp in Metairie, La., Friday, Aug. 21, 2020. (David Grunfeld/The Advocate via AP, Pool)

It would be nice to keep Rankins. He's been a solid part of the interior rotation with more highs than lows, but his injury history and the budget there will probably leave him on the outside looking in. David Onyemata's extension last summer makes paying Rankins highly, too, quite a tough sell. Especially with backups like Shy Tuttle and Malcolm Roach elbowing their way into the lineup and deserving more minutes. Hopefully he can go somewhere far from New Orleans and enjoy a long, healthy, productive career. Prediction: Go

LB Alex Anzalone

Oct 8, 2018; New Orleans, LA, USA New Orleans Saints linebacker Alex Anzalone (47) against the Washington Redskins during the first half at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA Today Sports

Anzalone had an opportunity to, like Hendrickson, put it all together and impress in a big spot in 2020. But he didn't have as much success in coverage as we've seen from him before and too many mistakes in the run game forced New Orleans into trading for Kwon Alexander. Now Anzalone is probably on his way out. Like Rankins, he'll be hoping for good health to help secure a spot on a new team. He's a decent special teams player (that mishandled would-be fumble recovery for a touchdown aside) and could clean up his flaws with the right coaching. Prediction: Go

OL Nick Easton

New Orleans Saints offensive guard Nick Easton (62) runs through drills at their NFL football training facility in Metairie, La., Wednesday, June 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

It really shouldn't shock anyone if Easton hangs up his cleats and pads and enjoys a nice long retirement of bike riding and grilling. The back-to-back-to-back series of concussions he suffered last season are a legit career-jeopardizing issue, and he seriously needs to evaluate his health before signing a contract with the Saints or any other NFL team. But he can return to New Orleans if he chooses to do so. The question is whether the Saints can pay him what he wants while sticking to their budget. For context, they released him recently to save almost $6 million against the cap, so they won't make any offers even close to that kind of payout. It might take more than they're willing to pay to keep him from retiring. Prediction: Go

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