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It’s hard to win a division in the NFL, let alone do it four years in a row. But that’s the feat the New Orleans Saints have pulled off, winning the NFC South each year since 2017 and compiling a 49-15 record over that period in time. While the regular season has been a success, the post-season has been a different story. The Saints haven’t made it past the Divisional Round in any of the four seasons, including 2020, where the team lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Saints swept the Buccaneers during the 2020 regular season, a big part of the reason why they won the NFC South. But Tom Brady and company bested the Saints when it mattered most and went on to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. Typically, the preview series begins with the defending Super Bowl champion, but in this case the Saints won the division, but lost the larger war. The question is, can they do better in 2021?
The Saints not only fell short in 2020, but they also bid farewell to their franchise quarterback. Drew Brees suffered broken ribs during the season that kept him off the field for a bit and likely played a factor in him deciding to step away. Brees announced his retirement shortly into the off-season, leaving the Saints with a big void to fill in 2021 as returning quarterbacks Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill compete for the starting spot.
The Saints also saw veteran defenders Janoris Jenkins and Sheldon Rankins depart in free agency, while receiver Emmanuel Sanders signed with the Buffalo Bills and tight end Jared Cook moved on to the Los Angles Chargers. The Saints, meanwhile, struggled with salary cap issues that prevented them from making any major additions. The Saints had a quiet draft, too, adding a few players to the defense and snagging Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book, a development project, in the Fourth Round.
The biggest question is who starts at quarterback. When Brees missed time in 2020, the Saints turned to Hill, who went 3-1 as a starter. He finished with 928 yards passing, 4 TDs and 2 INTs, adding 457 yards rushing and 8 TDs. He was QB6 during those starts from Weeks 11 to 14. But the team brought back Winston as well. While Winston didn’t play in 2020, when he started for the Buccaneers in 2019, he posted more than 5,000 yards and 30 TDs. He also threw 30 INTs, and his penchant for negative plays likely cost him a spot in Tampa Bay. Both quarterbacks figure to compete in the pre-season, and my guess is that they end up splitting in the regular season. If I knew either would be THE GUY, I’d like them to be at least a QB2. As it is, I have Winston as QB31 and Hill as QB34. I think it’s going to be a frustrating split for fantasy players all year.
A place where there are fewer questions is in the backfield, where Alvin Kamara is not only the man in New Orleans, but one of the best backs in the league. He rushed for 932 yards and 16 TDs, adding 83 receptions for 756 yards and 5 TDs. He finished as RB1 in 2020 and figures to be a Top option in 2021 as well. I think he takes a small step back in 2021 as the offense is less robust but have him as RB6. I think Latavius Murray continues to be a contributor as well. He added 656 yards and four TDs in 2020 and should be an RB3/4.
The passing game is more of a question. Sanders led the team in 2020 but he’s gone to Buffalo. Michael Thomas, meanwhile, underwent ankle surgery in June and will miss at least the first month of the season, possibly longer. Health was an issue in 2020, so this is a major blow to the Saints and fantasy players who’ve rostered Thomas, once the top-ranked option at WR. I suspect if he misses half a season he’ll struggle to crack the Top 50 at the position. There is a host of players competing for targets, but I think fourth-year player Tre’Quan Smith leads the bunch. I suspect he finishes in the WR4 range. Also at receiver is Deonte Harris, who is more of a return specialist and gadget player, and Marquez Callaway, who is a raw prospect. I like Callaway best of the two, especially with a possible suspension looming for Harris, but I think it’s also possible if not probable the Saints add a player at the position at some point before the regular season.
At tight end, Hill could compete in that role some in 2021, but second-year man Adam Trautman figures to be the focal point of the passing offense while Nick Vannett handles more blocking duties. I think Trautman takes a step up but I like him as more of a TE2. I currently have him as my TE15 thanks to more opportunity with Thomas out.
I think the Saints’ run as NFC South champions comes to an end. The Buccaneers were the better team down the stretch in 2020 and return intact. Tampa Bay figures to handle the division. The Saints will go as far as the quarterbacks can take them, but this is still a strong roster with coach Sean Payton at the helm. I suspect the Saints find a way to win nine or 10 games and make it into the post-season while producing a great fantasy asset at running back.
Matthew Fox is a graduate of the Radio, Television and Film program at Biola University, and a giant nerd. He spends his free time watching movies, TV, and obsessing about football. He is a member of the FSWA. You can find him @knighthawk7734 on Twitter and as co-host of the Fantasy Football Roundtable Podcast.