METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints open 2021 NFL training camp Wednesday at their practice facility. Here's a closer look at a few storylines:
The question that will dominate camp as the Saints choose a new starting quarterback for the first time in 16 years following Drew Brees’ retirement. Winston and Hill both have tantalizing upside, but both need to prove they can be trusted after battling turnovers and inconsistency in the past.
Hill got the starting nod last year when Brees was injured for four weeks -- but that was based on Hill’s experience in the system and a promise from coach Sean Payton that he would get such an opportunity if it arose. This time Winston should have a slight edge since he is younger (27 vs. 30), he arguably has more upside as a former No. 1 overall draft pick, and the Saints would have to adjust their offense more to suit Hill’s talents as a passer/runner. Plus, Hill could continue to be used as a RB/TE/WR if Winston is the quarterback. But Winston won’t be handed the job unless he earns it.
Will wide reciever Michael Thomas return to form?
No matter who’s playing quarterback, this question might be even more important to the Saints’ prognosis. Thomas is likely to miss the start of the season after having surgery in June to repair the ankle that plagued him throughout last season. The Saints have huge question marks in the passing game after releasing veteran receiver Emmanuel Sanders and tight ends Jared Cook and Josh Hill during a salary-cap purge this offseason. So they desperately need Thomas to get back as soon as possible – and as close as possible to the form that earned him the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year award in 2019, when he shattered the league record with 149 receptions.
Did the Saints lose too much defensive talent during their salary-cap purge?
New Orleans’ defense might have taken an even bigger hit than the offense, losing No. 2 cornerback Janoris Jenkins, DE Trey Hendrickson, DTs Malcom Brown and Sheldon Rankins and LBs Kwon Alexander and Alex Anzalone among others. Standout DT David Onyemata is also scheduled to serve a six-game suspension. Individually, all of those players could be deemed replaceable. But that’s a tremendous number of holes to fill all at once -- and the Saints didn’t have any money to spend in free agency to help fill the void. They’ll be counting on some breakthrough performances in the front seven, starting with fourth-year DE Marcus Davenport.
Is the championship window still open?
The answer is yes -- despite the daunting questions that topped this list. Remember, the Saints have gone 8-1 over the past two years without Brees at quarterback. And they went 12-4 last year without their typical level of elite QB play while Brees battled nagging injury issues all season. They made a commitment this offseason to keep most of their elite players despite their cap issues, and they still have one of the NFL’s most talented rosters led by Thomas, RB Alvin Kamara, a loaded offensive line, LB Demario Davis, DE Cameron Jordan, DT David Onyemata, CB Marshon Lattimore and safeties Marcus Williams, Malcolm Jenkins and C.J. Gardner-Johnson.
It’s unclear how long the window can stay open with guys like Jordan, Davis, Jenkins and left tackle Terron Armstead getting older and more big contracts coming due. But for now, they should still be very much in the hunt for a fifth straight NFC South title.