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Football is back, and the New Orleans Saints have put themselves in a tight spot. No team waited longer to draft a wide receiver this year, or in the years prior — three teams passed on the position in the loaded 2019 and 2020 cycles, with the Miami Dolphins investing a 2021 first-round pick in Jaylen Waddle while the Green Bay Packers cut their drought short at No. 85 with Amari Rodgers. The Saints didn’t address the position until the draft’s closing minutes, finally selecting Kawaan Baker at No. 255.
To illustrate it a little differently: the Saints didn’t pick a wide receiver between Tre’Quan Smith’s selection in 2018 (at No. 91) and Baker’s end-of-draft pickup in 2021. They evaluated two entire draft classes and decided what they had was good enough.
It’s tough to buy the idea that things are good enough right now. Five wide receivers saw 25-plus targets last season, and as many as three of them won’t be on the Week 1 roster. They cut Emmanuel Sanders, whose 82 targets led the group. Michael Thomas has been one of the NFL’s best receivers when healthy, but his ongoing absence from ankle surgery raises serious questions. Deonte Harris has been a rare undrafted gem and he could be out a few weeks with a suspension.
That leaves Smith as the best-qualified player in a group of unproven role players (Marquez Callaway, Juwan Johnson, Lil’Jordan Humphrey) and journeymen (Jake Lampman, Easop Winston, Jalen McCleskey), with pro lacrosse player Chris Hogan putting his pads back on at the last minute. Is that group really setting up Taysom Hill or Jameis Winston for success?
So why the complacency? A lot of it is ego and hubris. Sean Payton has posted top-tier offesnes with undrafted, no-name receivers for decades, owing to the strength of his scheme and an all-time accurate quarterback in Drew Brees who could elevate the talent around him. But now he doesn’t have Brees. And the group he’s working with now is weaker than what he fielded with Teddy Bridgewater or Taysom Hill or Luke McCown or any other backup. Is he challenging himself?
It’s tough to figure out. Maybe the Saints gambled that Thomas would get healthy and the young players would improve. They’ve lost that bet so far, or at least put even more pressure on Smith and Callaway to outplay starting-quality cornerbacks. But it’s even tougher not to look back at past drafts and wonder how players like Justin Jefferson, Brandon Aiyuk, A.J. Brown, or Mecole Hardman (all of whom picked around New Orleans’ draft slots) could change the landscape at receiver right now. Even a rookie like Rashod Bateman or Terrance Marshall Jr. would help build confidence in the group.
But Payton insists he doesn’t see the position as a priority. He and Saints general manager Mickey Loomis both tossed out their maxims that they “like the guys they have right now” or that they “feel real good about those players” in pre-training camp press conferences. Either they’re being dishonest, delusional, or they seriously think Smith, Callaway, etc. can double or triple their production with a new quarterback. Here’s hoping that optimism is justified. If not, it’s going to be an ugly start to the season.