METAIRIE, La. — Replacing Drew Brees just got a whole lot more difficult.
New Orleans Saints receiver Michael Thomas is likely to miss the start of the 2021 season after having ankle surgery in June, which means whoever wins the QB battle between Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill will be without their ultimate security blanket.
To make matters worse, the Saints’ offensive cupboard was already uncomfortably bare after they parted ways with veteran receiver Emmanuel Sanders and veteran tight ends Jared Cook and Josh Hill during a salary-cap purge this offseason.
Here is a look at the most burning questions facing coach Sean Payton and New Orleans’ offense as they head into the start of training camp next week:
What is the outlook for Thomas?
The exact timetable for Thomas’ recovery and specific details of his surgery have not been defined (or why he waited until June to have surgery). But ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported in January that Thomas was expected to have surgery to repair a torn deltoid and other ligaments in the ankle that plagued him throughout all of last season.
ESPN injury analyst and physical therapist Stephania Bell said the healing of the deltoid will likely be the ultimate driver in Thomas’ progression back to football activities.
“If a high ankle injury extends to involving the deltoid ligament, which is responsible for the inner side of the ankle’s stability, it becomes more imperative to get it fixed,” Bell said. “It’s unfortunate that there was this time lapse. But ultimately if the goal is to have one of your best players performing at the highest level, this gives him the best chance to do so.”
Bell suggested that three months would be the most optimistic timeline, which could have Thomas back on the field in September. But she said it differs from player to player depending on the specific details of each surgery and each individual’s recovery. And the Saints would obviously want to make sure Thomas doesn’t rush back too soon with his long-term health in mind.
Will they add a veteran free agent?
This feels like a must, since the Saints already had a void in their receiving corps even with Thomas in the fold. Fourth-year pro Tre’Quan Smith is the Saints’ projected No. 2 receiver, with young backups like Marquez Callaway, Deonte Harris, Lil’Jordan Humphrey, Juwan Johnson and seventh-round draft choice Kawaan Baker competing for roles. But none are proven.
A veteran slot receiver would make the most sense — and there are still some good ones available, like Golden Tate, Danny Amendola and Dede Westbrook. Plus, the Saints finally have more than $10 million in cap space to work with after they recently signed offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk to an extension and restructured cornerback Marshon Lattimore’s deal.
However, the Saints also have glaring needs at cornerback and defensive tackle. So they aren’t working with an unlimited budget.
Who steps up on the current roster?
Running back Alvin Kamara is the obvious answer, since he has caught more than 80 passes in each of his four seasons. But it’s hard to imagine him stepping up even more than he did in his sensational 2020 season, when he set career highs with 1,688 yards from scrimmage and 21 touchdowns.
Smith and second-year tight end Adam Trautman are the two guys who should step into much bigger roles — and generate the most fantasy buzz as a result.
Smith, 25, has shown flashes of his big-play potential throughout his first three seasons, with a total of 14 touchdowns in 40 games played. But he has also battled injuries and inconsistency while maxing out with career highs of 34 catches and 448 yards last season. His role is secure, though. Coaches love Smith’s blocking ability and how well he has learned to play every receiver position.
The same goes for Trautman, who caught only 15 passes for 171 yards and one TD last year as a rookie. The 2020 third-rounder should be on the field a ton since the Saints value his blocking ability as much as his pass catching. Trautman (6-foot-5, 255 pounds) came on strong late last season, and the Saints were impressed enough with his development that the only other tight end they added to replace Cook and Hill was veteran blocking specialist Nick Vannett
Trautman was a terrific pass-catcher at Dayton, with 70 catches for 916 yards and four TDs as a senior.
Callaway and Harris are the other names to consider in deeper fantasy leagues. Callaway (6-foot-2, 204) earned a roster spot last year as an undrafted rookie — and stepped up in a big way with eight catches for 75 yards in a game when both Thomas and Sanders were sidelined. And the Saints have talked for the last two years about getting the dynamic Harris (5-6, 170) more involved in their offense after he has been so good as a return specialist.
How will this affect Winston and Hill?
This hurts either quarterback quite a bit, obviously. Thomas was every bit as much of a go-to guy for Saints backups Hill and Teddy Bridgewater as he was for Brees over the past two years when they filled in as injury replacements. Even hobbled by his ankle injury last year, Thomas still had two games with nine catches and more than 100 receiving yards with Hill at quarterback.
The physical 6-foot-3, 212-pounder leads all NFL receivers with a catch rate of 80.9% over the past three years — four percentage points ahead of anyone else. That kind of reliability can’t be replaced.
However, Winston and Hill could both bring unique elements to New Orleans’ offense. Hill could obviously rely on his running ability quite a bit, and Winston should look to attack defenses deep down the field with his big arm more than Brees did in his later years with the Saints.
And one area of the Saints’ offense that hasn’t been depleted is their loaded offensive line, led by All-Pro tackles Terron Armstead and Ramczyk. That’s an underrated reason why New Orleans should still be a playoff contender.