Saints' biggest needs: Their own versions of Gronk and Edelman

The Saints' offense could use more playmakers at receiver besides Michael Thomas, who accounted for 33 percent of New Orleans' completions in 2018. USA Today Sports

METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints could really use their own version of Super Bowl LIII MVP Julian Edelman.

The only thing that would help them even more would be their own version of New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.

The good news for the Saints coming off their crushing loss in the NFC Championship Game is that they don't have too many roster holes to fill this offseason. However, their biggest need is a glaring one -- another reliable pass-catcher (or two) to help take the load off receiver Michael Thomas and running back Alvin Kamara.

Tight end and slot receiver rank No. 1 and 2 on the list, especially for an offense led by 40-year-old quarterback Drew Brees, who feasts on midrange throws and an astronomical completion percentage.

Unfortunately, the free-agent tight end market is slim pickings this year, led by veteran Jared Cook and a lot of question marks. But there should be several intriguing slot receivers available on the open market, including Golden Tate, Randall Cobb, Adam Humphries, Jamison Crowder and Cole Beasley.

Thomas caught a Saints franchise-record 125 passes in 2018, which was outstanding. But it also accounted for 33 percent of New Orleans' completions. Kamara ranked second on the team with 81 catches. Tight end Benjamin Watson (who has announced plans to retire) was a distant third with 35.

Veteran deep threat Ted Ginn Jr. should play a bigger role in 2019 after a knee injury limited him to just five regular-season games. And the team is hopeful that Cameron Meredith will have a breakthrough, now two years removed from a major knee injury with the Chicago Bears. Young receivers Tre'Quan Smith and Keith Kirkwood should continue to develop.

Maybe the Saints will even consider bringing back veteran Dez Bryant as he tries to recover from a torn Achilles tendon.

But they could still really use a "go-to" guy at tight end or in the slot (or both) to make all of these players more complementary options.

Brees made history in 2018 by throwing touchdown passes to 15 different players -- including nine undrafted players. But as impressive as that feat was, it also illustrated the Saints' need for a more reliable option. The lack of proven pass-catchers hurt New Orleans' offense as it sputtered a bit down the stretch in December and January.

Over the first 12 weeks of the season, the Saints led the NFL with 37.2 points per game and ranked fifth in the league with 416.6 yards per game.

Over their final six games (not counting when they benched their starters in Week 17), they averaged just 20.7 points and 316.7 yards per game.

Brees went from 29 TD passes, two interceptions, 285 yards per game and a 127.3 passer rating over his first 11 games to seven TD passes, five interceptions, 234.5 yards per game and an 88.7 passer rating over his final six.

So what can the Saints do to help this offseason?

New Orleans doesn't have a first-round draft pick (or a third-rounder or a fourth-rounder). So, it's hard to count on any rookie coming in and making an immediate splash.

That leaves free agency, where the Saints are projected to start the offseason with somewhere around $8 million to $11 million in salary-cap space, with a manageable list of their own free agents to re-sign. They might need to save some of that money if they want to retain running back Mark Ingram, defensive end Alex Okafor or possibly backup QB Teddy Bridgewater, among others. But they could also find ways to carve out some space if they get ambitious.

Tight end is the Saints' biggest need, especially with Watson retiring. But Cook, who turns 32 in April, is the only free-agent option who looks like a candidate to play a big role in the passing game. And though he had his career-best season with the Oakland Raiders in 2018 (68 catches, 896 yards, six touchdowns), Cook has battled inconsistency while bouncing around the NFL over the past 10 years.

Beyond Cook, the Saints will have to put their scouting department to the test to try and identify the best fits. Cincinnati Bengals veteran Tyler Eifert has a high ceiling, but his career has been plagued by injuries. Other options could include the Bengals' C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Kroft, the Pittsburgh Steelers' Jesse James, the Denver Broncos' Jeff Heuerman and the Kansas City Chiefs' Demetrius Harris. Others could still be released by their teams (though the Green Bay Packers reportedly intend to keep former Saints star Jimmy Graham).

At receiver, the dream scenario would be for Meredith to be healthy enough in 2019 to live up to his lofty potential after the Saints signed him to a two-year, $9.5 million contract this past offseason.

But New Orleans should still strongly consider an upgrade at slot receiver -- especially with so many enticing options to choose from.

Tate, Cobb, Humphries, Crowder and Beasley all rank among the top-11 wide receivers in catches from out of the slot over the past four years, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Tate, 30, had at least 90 catches in four straight years with the Detroit Lions from 2014-17 before a midseason trade to the Philadelphia Eagles last year was met with mixed results.

Cobb, 28, was a Pro Bowler with the Packers in 2014 before battling a series of injuries over the past four years. Humphries, 25, has become a bigger part of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense in recent years (and as an added bonus, the Saints could steal him away from a division rival). Crowder, 25, has been a coaches' favorite with the Washington Redskins, but he hasn't fully reached his potential while battling injuries. Beasley, who turns 30 in April, has been a steady contributor for the Dallas Cowboys.

The Saints could also look at receiver options outside of the slot, especially with Ginn getting older. If they go that route, top free agents include John Brown, Tyrell Williams and Devin Funchess.