METAIRIE, La. -- Now that the New Orleans Saints have missed out on quarterback Deshaun Watson, they find themselves ... pretty much exactly where they were one week ago before Watson became a realistic option in the first place.
Sure, the Saints might have some egg on their faces after falling short in such a tenacious and high-profile recruiting effort -- not to mention turning off portions of their fan base by pursuing Watson despite the 22 lawsuits filed against him by women alleging inappropriate conduct and sexual assault.
But from a purely football standpoint, the Saints’ roster is talented enough to contend for a title in the NFC South division, where none of their rivals wound up landing Watson either. And now they have about $30 million in salary-cap space to work with, in addition to all of their draft picks.
Of course, New Orleans also still has a gaping hole at quarterback, which remains as big of a priority as it was one week ago, one month ago -- and frankly, one year ago when Drew Brees retired.
Here is a look at the Saints’ most pressing priorities:
Where do they turn at quarterback?
Surprisingly, most options are still available after the first week of free agency, because much of the quarterback carousel was put on hold while several teams pursued Watson.
Free agent Jameis Winston remains the best bet to return as New Orleans’ starter. The Saints no longer have free agent Teddy Bridgewater as a backup option, because he signed with the Miami Dolphins. But the trade market has actually become richer, because Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield will now be available along with the San Francisco 49ers’ Jimmy Garoppolo and possibly even the Atlanta Falcons’ Matt Ryan.
Winston still makes the most sense because he offers by far the best combination of upside and reasonable contract demands. His salary should be more affordable than any of those trade options, and the Saints wouldn’t have to give up any draft picks.
Nothing is off the table, however, as the Saints proved while pursuing Watson. They have made it clear throughout this offseason that their No. 1 priority is choosing the best possible quarterback who can help them win now.
And as general manager Mickey Loomis explained recently, it “would be difficult” to count on landing a quarterback they like in the NFL draft because they pick 18th.
“You just don’t know what’s going to fall to you, No. 1, so it’s hard to target someone,” Loomis said. “And even if you decide you want to make a move forward, you’re limited in moving ... into the top eight or 10 picks. It’s really difficult. It’s expensive in terms of the draft capital you have to give up. It’s unrealistic, typically.
“It can happen. It’s not impossible, but it’s pretty difficult to predict.”
Where else will they spend?
Left tackle Terron Armstead -- ESPN’s No. 1 rated free agent -- has also been waiting to see how Watson’s situation played out. There were indications Armstead would be more likely to re-sign with the Saints if they landed Watson, so he might look elsewhere now. On the flip side, the Saints have more cap space available, so maybe they’ll decide to use it on their three-time Pro Bowl left tackle.
New Orleans did already let another free agent who commanded a high-priced contract get away -- free safety Marcus Williams to the Baltimore Ravens. But it quickly replaced him with an alternative on a more affordable contract in former New York Jets safety Marcus Maye.
Receiver remains another top priority, though the Saints should have some good options in the draft as well now that they have retained their first-round pick.
Did Saints hurt themselves by clearing so much cap space?
Not at all. The Saints cleared out an enormous total of nearly $30 million in cap space over the past few days so they could potentially fit Watson’s salary. And they did it by restructuring a total of 14 current player contracts -- mostly converting salaries into signing bonuses and pushing cap charges into future years.
However, the Saints can carry over any unused space into 2023, so they basically just moved money from their savings account into their checking account.
In other words, the Saints don’t have to go out and use all $30 million of that cap space. They believed Watson was worth that enormous cost. But they will continue to pick their spots and look for value, like they did at free safety.
Will the Saints do any damage control with fans?
If Watson had chosen the Saints, they would have been inundated with questions about their willingness to pursue Watson despite the allegations against him. Many fans were vocal throughout the week about their disappointment. The Saints should address why they felt comfortable making such a polarizing move even though they missed out.