METAIRIE, La. -- Trey Hendrickson's timing couldn’t have been any better. The New Orleans Saints' defensive end had one of the NFL’s most surprising breakouts in 2020 with 13.5 sacks -- just before he was set to hit free agency.
As a result, Hendrickson might draw more interest around the league than Saints safety and fellow free agent Marcus Williams.
But for the Saints' money, Williams is probably the one they would rather invest in long term because they have held him in higher esteem over the course of four years -- and they are thinner at the safety position than they are at defensive end.
Unfortunately, the Saints will have to make those types of choices this year because of their severe salary-cap constraints. They have already released longtime veteran staples such as punter Thomas Morstead and tight end Josh Hill. And they are still projected to be more than $60 million over the salary cap before a wave of contract restructures and player releases in the coming weeks.
So it’s possible the Saints will not re-sign several free agents from a group that includes Hendrickson, Williams, quarterback Jameis Winston, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, tight end Jared Cook and linebackers Alex Anzalone and Craig Robertson.
Here is a look at which free agents should rank among their priorities:
QB Jameis Winston
Winston won't make the most money of anyone on this list. But he has to rank first among the Saints' priorities since they will need a new starting quarterback for the first time in 15 years if Drew Brees retires as expected. And they have made it clear that they want to re-sign Winston to compete with Taysom Hill for the gig.
Of course the Saints would explore the idea of trading for a superstar such as Russell Wilson or Deshaun Watson if either becomes available. But those guys are extreme long shots, especially since the Saints don’t have any premium draft choices to offer. It seems even less likely that such a deal would come together before the start of free agency.
So the Saints will want to make sure to secure Winston. What remains to be seen is whether they’ll face any serious competition for his services. Winston didn’t draw much interest in free agency last year before he opted to sign a minimal one-year deal in New Orleans. But the Saints should offer him a decent raise -- likely one that includes several incentives based on starts and achievements -- since he has the chance to become their starter.
S Marcus Williams
Williams should be New Orleans’ other top priority on this list. Unlike Hendrickson, Williams has been a full-time starter at free safety ever since the Saints drafted him in the second round out of Utah in 2017. The Saints have always held him in high esteem even though he has never quite broken through to the Pro Bowl level. Plus, he is only 24 years old and arguably just had his best season to date.
Unfortunately, Williams is best known for the biggest mistake of his career -- his missed tackle against Stefon Diggs during the “Minneapolis Miracle” playoff loss at the end of his rookie season. But inside the building, the Saints recognize what a big part the 6-foot-1, 195-pounder has been in their defensive improvement over the past four years. Analytical services like Pro Football Focus have always held him in high regard, rating him seventh among safeties in 2020 and fourth in 2019.
Williams has 13 regular-season interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown, plus another pick in the playoffs. Combined, those 14 picks tie him for eighth in the NFL and fourth among safeties over the past four years. He admitted that tackling was his biggest shortcoming during his first three seasons, but he noticeably improved in that area in 2020.
Just as importantly, the Saints don’t have a replacement in waiting since backup P.J. Williams is also a free agent. If the Saints don’t re-sign either Williams, free safety will immediately become a top need.
DE Trey Hendrickson
Some NFL team will pay up for what they witnessed in 2020. Not only did Hendrickson tie for second in the NFL with 13.5 sacks, but he ranked sixth with 53 pressures and 37 hurries, according to NFL NextGen Stats, despite playing in just 15 games and playing fewer than 60% of New Orleans’ defensive snaps. And he was consistent from start to finish, with at least three sacks in each quarter of the season.
Hendrickson, 26, was a third-round draft pick out of Florida Atlantic in 2017. But he appeared in just 17 games his first two seasons and didn’t make his first career start until late in the 2019 season. The 6-foot-4, 270-pounder had a total of 6.5 sacks in those first three seasons, plus one more in the playoffs.
There were some legitimate reasons for his 2020 breakout. First and foremost was opportunity. He started the season in place of injured former first-round pick Marcus Davenport and held on to the starting job because of how well he was playing. Coach Sean Payton also credited him with getting to the “perfect weight and strength" in 2020 after he got a bit light earlier in his career.
However, the Saints themselves didn’t see this level of breakout coming. Otherwise they wouldn’t have heavily pursued free agent Jadeveon Clowney a week before last season started. So with decent depth at the position in Cameron Jordan, Davenport and Carl Granderson, among others, it seems likely that Hendrickson could get priced out of New Orleans.
DT Sheldon Rankins, LB Alex Anzalone, TE Jared Cook
Rankins has the higher profile among the two defensive players on this list. He was a first-round draft pick in 2016 (Anzalone was a third-rounder in 2017). Rankins showed a much higher ceiling with a Pro Bowl-caliber performance in 2018 that included eight sacks. They have similarities in that both have battled a series of nagging injuries, and both began their careers as starters before moving into rotational roles. The Saints could definitely bring either guy back at the right price. But if another team offers starting-caliber money, they’ll probably let them go.
As for Cook, he seems even more likely to move on after the Saints officially terminated his contract earlier this week (essentially a procedural move based on how his deal was structured). Cook was a great fit during his two seasons in New Orleans, but his production dropped off a bit in 2020. He is about to turn 34, and the Saints have a replacement ready in Adam Trautman.
P.J. Williams could return as a versatile backup safety and cornerback -- especially if the Saints lose Marcus Williams. Fullback Michael Burton, running back Ty Montgomery, offensive lineman James Hurst, safety D.J. Swearinger and cornerback Ken Crawley could all potentially come back as role players if the contracts are minimal.