NFL free agency is off and running, and we're keeping track of every major signing, trade and release of the 2021 offseason, with analysis from our NFL Nation reporters and grades from our experts. The new league year began March 17, meaning free-agent signings could be made official after that. The first round of the 2021 NFL draft begins April 29 on ESPN.
The Saints won’t be big spenders in free agency since they were hit harder by the NFL’s reduced salary cap than maybe any other team in the league. New Orleans began the offseason nearly $100 million over the salary cap before releasing veterans WR Emmanuel Sanders, CB Janoris Jenkins, LB Kwon Alexander, P Thomas Morstead and TE Josh Hill.
However, they did pay up for one free agent they didn’t want to lose, placing the franchise tag on safety Marcus Williams. They could fill a few of those new vacancies with some bargain veterans that come available around the league.
Jameis Winston, quarterback
Winston has reached agreement on a one-year deal worth up to $12 million.
What it means: Winston will have every opportunity to replace Drew Brees as the Saints’ next starting QB. No, the deal wasn’t big enough to guarantee that role (just one year, with a maximum of $12 million including incentives, a source told ESPN's Adam Schefter). But it’s still a blockbuster opportunity for Winston to revive his career -- and it proved that the Saints meant everything they said publicly about how much they liked him during his audition as a backup last year. Winston will have to beat out Taysom Hill to secure the job. And the Saints will continue to explore all avenues at quarterback -- including long-shot possibilities like trading for Russell Wilson or moving way up in the draft. But Winston is probably the front-runner now since he just turned 27 (three years younger than Hill) and arguably has a higher ceiling.
What's the risk: Winston is obviously a huge risk-reward proposition, considering that he became the first QB in NFL history to throw for at least 30 TDs and 30 interceptions in a season in 2019 -- and that the Buccaneers won a Super Bowl the year after they decided to replace him with Tom Brady. Many other QB-needy teams around the league have now passed on Winston over the past two offseasons. But it’s hard to deny how huge Winston’s upside is if coach Sean Payton and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. can help cure Winston’s accuracy and ball-control issues. And the Saints aren’t married to either him or Hill beyond this year. So they can continue to explore other options while betting on a huge payoff.
Tanoh Kpassagnon, defensive end
Kpassagnon agreed to a two-year deal.
What it means: The Saints needed to add another defensive end to the rotation at a bargain rate after they let Trey Hendrickson go in free agency -- and that’s exactly what they did here. Kpassagnon isn’t likely to match Hendrickson’s ridiculous production from last year. But the 6-foot-7, 289-pounder is a former second-round draft pick who has started 23 games over the past two years and has the versatility to slide inside on pass-rush downs. He will likely serve as a rotational backup behind starters Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport and along with fellow backup DE Carl Granderson. But the Saints like to rotate a lot of bodies on the defensive line – and they needed more experienced depth after also losing DTs Malcom Brown and Sheldon Rankins.
What's the risk: Kpassagnon hasn’t really lived up to his potential over the past two years, ranking as one of the NFL’s least productive pass-rushers according to both Pro Football Focus and NFL NextGen Stat’s “pass rush win rate” formula. But he is still just 26 years old and has plenty of experience under his belt, logging more than 60% of the Chiefs’ defensive snaps last year. And Saints defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen has been one of the best in the league over the past four years at maximizing talent.
Ty Montgomery, running back
Montgomery agreed to terms on a one-year deal.
What it means: Montgomery proved to be a good fit as a versatile backup RB/WR when he joined the Saints last summer and cracked their 53-man roster. He didn’t play much, partly due to injury. But he came through in a huge way with 105 rushing yards in Week 17 when the rest of the RB room was inactive because of COVID protocols. Montgomery had actually spent most of that week practicing with the WR group -- illustrating his versatility. And his skill set is a nice match to run some of the same plays that Alvin Kamara runs if needed.
What's the risk: Basically zero on a one-year veteran minimum deal. The Saints could face a tough choice when it comes to keeping Montgomery on the 53-man roster ahead of someone like veteran RB Dwayne Washington, who has been more of a core special-teams player over the years, or a young developmental back. But they have plenty of time to decide that.
Dwayne Washington, running back
Washington agreed to terms on a one-year deal.
What it means: Washington has been a core special-teams player for the Saints over the past three years after beginning his career with the Detroit Lions. And they clearly value him in that role since they’re pinching every penny this offseason while trying to get under the salary cap. Washington did flash his RB chops when he ran for 108 yards on just 11 carries in Week 17 of the 2018 season while the Saints rested their starters -- and he could fill in there if needed in a pinch. But the Saints also just re-signed veteran backup RB/WR Ty Montgomery, so it appears that their vision for Washington is primarily on special teams.
What's the risk: None. This is likely a minimal contract that will cost the Saints only slightly more than a rookie. The Saints could potentially move on if enough newcomers stand out in training camp. But they have placed a premium on upgrading their special teams in recent years, and it has paid off in the results.
James Hurst, offensive lineman
Hurst re-signed with the Saints on a three-year deal.
What it means: Hurst is technically a backup, but having a reliable veteran who can fill in at both tackle and guard is a must. And that role was a pressing need for the Saints after they released another versatile veteran backup, Nick Easton, earlier this offseason. Hurst, 29, joined the Saints in free agency last year and proved to be a great fit. He started two games at left tackle, one at left guard and two as New Orleans’ sixth offensive lineman in jumbo formations. Before that, the 6-foot-5, 310-pounder spent six years with the Baltimore Ravens, starting a total of 44 games at both tackle and guard.
What's the risk: Minimal. Terms of the deal were not immediately available, but the Saints probably didn’t have to spend too much after Hurst was available at a bargain rate last year. The Saints will probably add even more offensive line depth in free agency or the draft -- especially a center/guard type. And offensive tackle could be a priority in the draft since veteran starters Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk are both heading into the final year of their contracts.
Alex Armah, fullback
Terms of Armah's deal were not disclosed.
What it means: The Saints needed a fullback because A) they’re one of the NFL teams that still actually uses a fullback on occasion, and B) their own fullback Michael Burton is an unrestricted free agent. So they plucked one away from a division rival who they should have a pretty good scouting report on. Armah (6-foot-2, 255 pounds) has primarily been valued as a blocker during his four years in Carolina. But the 26-year-old has the versatility to play H-back. He has 21 career carries for 35 yards and three TDs, plus eight catches for 29 yards and a touchdown.
What's the risk: It remains to be seen if this means the Saints are parting ways with Burton, who was solid while playing about 15 offensive snaps and 10 special-teams snaps per game for them last year. So there is some risk in trading out a known quantity for an unknown. But the investment shouldn’t be too expensive, and there is a definite chance Armah proves to be an upgrade.
P.J. Williams, safety
Williams agreed to a one-year, $2.3 million deal.
What it means: Williams has developed into a valuable and versatile backup during his six-year career with the Saints. Although the 6-foot, 196-pounder didn’t pan out as a starting cornerback early in his career, he has been a better fit in recent years as both a nickel corner and a dime safety, playing a lot of snaps in both roles. And he can fill in when needed at just about every DB position. That depth is especially valuable after the Saints released starting CB Janoris Jenkins -- though that is a vacancy they may still try to fill in free agency.
What's the risk: Every dollar the Saints spend comes with some risk considering they have absolutely zero wiggle room left under the salary cap. But $2.3 million (as the NFL Network reported) is good value if he continues to play the same kind of role he has been in recent years.
Nick Vannett, tight end
Vannett agreed to three-year deal.
What it means: This fills one of the Saints’ more obvious needs after they parted ways with their top two tight ends from last season -- Jared Cook and Josh Hill. The Saints are excited about the potential of their second-year pro, Adam Trautman, as both a pass-catcher and a blocker. But they needed some experienced depth, and Vannett immediately provides that. The 6-foot-6, 261-pounder, who turned 28 earlier this month, has served mostly as a blocking tight end during his five years with the Seahawks, Steelers and Broncos. But the former third-round draft pick out of Ohio State also has 75 catches for 686 yards and five TDs in his career.
What's the risk: Financial terms weren’t immediately available, but this likely didn’t break the bank for a Saints team that is severely hamstrung by the salary cap. This appears to be a solid addition that provides needed depth at a reasonable rate. If there’s any “risk” it’s that the Saints decided to move on from a similar veteran in Hill, who was so reliable in a variety of roles over the past eight years. But it’s likely that Vannett could do the same thing.
Will Clapp, guard
Terms of Clapp's deal have not yet been disclosed.
What it means: Clapp will compete for the same versatile backup role he has played over the past three years as a guard/center and occasional tackle when needed. The former seventh-round pick from LSU has also been used on occasion as a sixth lineman in jumbo packages, appearing in a total of 25 games with four starts. The Saints released veteran guard/center Nick Easton after last season, so the competition for that swing backup job should be wide open.
What's the risk: The Saints decided not to tender Clapp as a restricted free agent this year. But they are presumably bringing him back at a more affordable rate. So there should be no risk at all with this signing.