For most of his career with the New Orleans Saints, QB Drew Brees has made middle receivers look good and good receivers look good. WR Marques Colston’s seventh-round draft pick and undrafted spreader Lance Moore turned out to be rough diamonds. For the most part, Brees has elevated receiving bodies with his elite precision and timing.
In the last few years of his career, Brees’ physical abilities declined little, but just enough that he needed more talented receivers to work with.
The 2014 first-round WR Brandin Cooks and TE star Jimmy Graham have each had a few exceptional seasons with the Saints. However, the two would ultimately be traded with little to replace their production.
New Orleans passed a second-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft against WR Michael Thomas of Ohio State. Thomas went on to become the league’s top wide range player, breaking several NFL productivity records in his first four seasons.
When the opposing teams managed to contain Thomas, the team’s attack failed due to the lack of weapons around him.
Thomas was limited by a serious ankle injury in 2020 that even caused him to miss nine games. Without the star receiver and due to injuries and a decline in Brees’s ability, New Orleans’ passing game has often stuttered.
The team’s inability to add competent wide receivers around Thomas and RB Alvin Kamara has hampered them for the past three years and has crippled the offense so far this season.
Thomas will miss at least the first six games this season after ankle surgery. Former first draft pick Jameis Winston replaced the retired Brees as quarterback. It’s only been two games, but the Saints are an appalling 32nd in terms of passing distance and total attack. Unheard of in the days of Sean Payton.
WHY EARLY SEASON FIGHTINGS?
Winston and the offensive line
Winston was instrumental in his decisions in an opening week win over Green Bay. He pitched for just 148 yards on 20 attempts, but had five touchdown passes and made no mistakes. In last week’s loss to Carolina, he completed just 50% of his passes totaling 111 yards without touchdowns and two ugly interceptions.
Winston, 27, deserves a fair share of responsibility for last week’s result, but received little help from his offensive line. Carolina pressured Winston 11 times and sacked him four times, keeping him under duress throughout the game.
Winston’s offensive line gave him a rough ride last week, but the quarterback will have to show he can avoid turnovers in the future.
Another major reason for the team’s early struggles was the appalling performance from the wide receivers.
The Saints’ main receiver is RB Alvin Kamara, who has seven catches for just 33 yards. That Kamara is the primary receiver is no surprise, but it’s the putrid production of the wide receiver position that is the problem.
The New Orleans wideouts accounted for just 42% of the team’s completed passes in two games. They have a total of 11 receptions for 164 yards and two touchdowns. Deonte Harris has the best production of the group to date. Harris has 3 catches for 81 yards, including 55 on a long shot from Winston.
Undrafted WR Marquez Callaway had a fabulous training camp after a strong rookie campaign. Callaway has the tools to be a productive addition to Thomas upon his return. However, he only has 3 receptions for 22 yards as the best receiving option against opponents’ top cornerbacks.
Veterans Ty Montgomery, Chris Hogan and Lil’Jordan Humphrey were also unable to secure separation for their quarterback. They combined for just five catches and 61 yards.
Kenny Stills, added to the practice squad last week, would pose a downline threat that Montgomery, Humphrey and Hogan don’t. Seventh-round rookie pick Kawaan Baker, undrafted rookie Easop Winston and veteran Kevin White are also on the practice squad with Stills.
New Orleans may promote one of its training strengths to give the receiving corps a boost. The answer does not appear to be in the tight end position.
Converted wideout second-year TE Juwan Johnson has great chemistry with Winston and appears to be a solid fighting weapon. 2020 third-round selection Adam Trautman has had a poor start to second year.
WHERE ARE THE ANSWERS?
The Saints could look to trade for a large receiver before next month’s trade deadline. Given the team’s salary cap issues, however, they might want to keep their draft picks. It would also take a new receiver at least a few weeks to fully learn the Saints offense.
There are some intriguing free agent options still available at the position. Veteran WR Golden Tate is a player who would instantly improve the receiving body. Antonio Callaway, Alshon Jeffery, John Brown and Javon Wims are other successful free agent veterans in the league.
Inconsistent fourth-year WR Tre’Quan Smith is eligible to come out of the injured reserve next week. Smith is a good blocker and a potential deep threat. He has never been able to achieve a consistent separation at the NFL level and has often been a non-factor.
Michael Thomas is eligible to drop off the PUP roster in time for the team’s Week 7 game in Seattle. If he’s healthy, Thomas takes the offense to another level. Until then, the Saints seem stuck with the pieces they have at the wide receiver and tight end.
New Orleans will undoubtedly involve Kamara more in the passing attack over the next few weeks. Callaway and Harris can also emerge as strong weapons, but the team desperately needs a consistent pass-catching threat for Winston.
Sean Payton’s stubborn refusal to invest more in the receiving position has arguably cost his team in Brees’ later years. This failure to provide Jameis Winston with viable threats is a loophole that could hamper the Saints throughout the 2021 season.
Follow Bob Rose on Facebook and Twitter @ bobbyr2613.