One of the New Orleans Saints' greatest needs this year is to find a “Willie Snead type” of receiver.
One of the biggest questions is whether Snead himself can be that guy.
Snead, who is a restricted free agent, flirted with 1,000 yards in both 2015 and 2016. But he practically dropped off the map last year, finishing with only eight catches for 92 yards in 11 regular-season games after beginning the year with a three-game DUI suspension and a nagging hamstring injury.
Snead did add three catches for 25 yards in the playoffs, though, including a huge fourth-and-10 conversion that set up a potential game-winning field goal attempt at Minnesota.
Now the Saints must determine if that was a sign of better things to come for Snead.
The Saints must offer Snead a one-year contract worth nearly $2 million to maintain the right to match any other offers he receives from other teams. But if they really want to secure his rights by forcing other teams to pay a second-round pick to steal Snead away, the Saints would have to offer Snead nearly $3 million. Or they could try to negotiate a new contract from scratch.
A year ago at this time, the second-round tender would have seemed like a no-brainer. The undrafted free agent from Ball State, who was cut by both the Cleveland Browns and Carolina Panthers in 2014 before landing in New Orleans, had 141 catches for 1,879 yards and seven touchdowns in two breakout seasons with the Saints.
Most importantly, Snead proved to be a fantastic possession receiver, leading the Saints with exactly 25 catches on third downs in both 2015 and 2016. Last season, Snead had only four catches on third downs while the Saints plummeted to a shocking 19th in the NFL in third-down efficiency (37.6 percent).
The Saints, who have routinely led the NFL in third-down percentage over the past decade with coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees, must find a way to improve in that area. We’ll find out soon if they expect Snead to be part of the solution.
That’s why the receivers come in at No. 5 in my position-by-position ranking of the Saints’ offseason needs, even though they have a Pro Bowl receiver in Michael Thomas and they had the fifth-best passing offense in the NFL in 2017.
Current depth chart:
Michael Thomas. Age 24, signed through 2019. 2018 salary and bonuses: $915,362. 2018 salary-cap number: $1.396 million.
Ted Ginn Jr. Age 32, signed through 2019. 2018 salary and bonuses: $3.5 million. 2018 salary-cap number: $4.5 million.
Willie Snead. Age 25, restricted free agent.
Brandon Coleman. Age 25, restricted free agent.
Tommylee Lewis. Age 25, scheduled to become restricted free agent in 2019. 2018 salary and bonuses: $630,000. 2018 salary-cap number: $631,668.
Austin Carr. Age 24, scheduled to become restricted free agent in 2020. 2018 salary and bonuses: $555,000. 2018 salary-cap number: $555,000.
Josh Huff. Age 26, signed through 2018. 2018 salary and bonuses: $785,000. 2018 salary-cap number: $705,000.
Paul Turner. Age 24, scheduled to become exclusive-rights free agent in 2020. 2018 salary and bonuses: $555,000. 2018 salary-cap number: $555,000.
Travin Dural. Age 24, scheduled to become exclusive-rights free agent in 2020. 2018 salary and bonuses: $480,000. 2018 salary-cap number: $480,000.
Dan Arnold. Age 22, scheduled to become exclusive-rights free agent in 2020. 2018 salary and bonuses: $555,000. 2018 salary-cap number: $555,000.
The Saints don’t have to go overboard at wide receiver this offseason, since Thomas has quickly developed into one of the NFL’s best receivers and Ginn proved to be a very solid No. 2 after signing in free agency last year to replace Brandin Cooks.
Thomas set the NFL record for most receptions in the first two seasons of a career with 196. He set the Saints’ franchise record for most catches in a single season with 104. And he added an exclamation point with a monster playoff performance (15 catches for 216 yards and two touchdowns in two games).
Ginn, meanwhile, was three catches and 3 yards shy of his career highs with 53 catches for 787 yards and four touchdowns. And he added another 12 catches for 187 yards in the playoffs, including an 80-yard touchdown against Carolina.
Coleman is a solid backup who moved ahead of Snead on the depth chart because of his ability to block (even though he still hasn’t consistently turned his 6-foot-6 frame into enough of a red zone threat). Lewis is primarily a special-teams asset who moonlights occasionally on offense. And Carr is an intriguing young prospect at slot receiver whom the Saints signed in Week 1 after he had a terrific preseason with the New England Patriots.
The Saints could bring back the same six guys next year and be OK -- especially if they invest heavily in a pass-catching tight end who could boost their third-down offense and make defenses respect the deep middle of the field.
However, it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see the Saints try and upgrade their receiver depth in free agency or in the first round of the draft -- for now and for the future. Although Ginn was a very good addition, he is 32 years old. And there’s no guarantee that Snead or Coleman will stick around long term even if they do sign one-year tenders this year.