METAIRIE, La. – First quarterback Jameis Winston, then wide receiver Michael Thomas. The New Orleans Saints have lost two of their biggest offensive stars to injuries for the remainder of the season over the past four days.
The only saving grace is that the Saints were already depending more heavily on their defense, run game and offensive line during their impressive 5-2 start to this season. They have already proven they can win in other ways, while ranking 31st in the league — only ranking higher than the Chicago Bears — with 180.9 passing yards per game.
Still, there is no sugarcoating the fact that New Orleans just lost the NFL’s 2019 Offensive Player of the Year for an entire season in his prime because of a setback in his recovery from June ankle surgery.
Here’s a look at what this means for the two sides now and beyond this season:
Will Thomas be back with the Saints in 2022?
Thomas is due $15.8 million in salary and bonuses in 2022 – with his base salary of $15.35 million guaranteed. So there would be no financial incentive to release him. And his trade value could be affected by the size of his salary and time missed with injury.
Thomas is due a total of $51.95 million in the final three years of his contract from 2022-2024, with only the 2022 salary guaranteed.
The idea of a trade can’t be ruled out, considering the Saints’ severe salary-cap limitations — and considering the tension that brewed between player and team over the past two years. (Thomas was suspended one game for punching a teammate in practice in 2020, then both sides expressed frustration this past summer after Thomas’ first ankle surgery was delayed for several months.)
However, that tension seems to have simmered in recent months. Thomas was on the sideline during Sunday’s 36-27 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Caesars Superdome. There has been no indication that either side is blaming the other for this latest injury setback. And both sides spoke favorably of the other Wednesday.
Thomas wrote in a statement that “the team and I have worked diligently day and night to rehab and get me back on the field.” And coach Sean Payton stressed multiple times that Thomas was “working his tail off” and the setback “isn’t anything he can control.”
One other obvious reason why the Saints might not want to trade Thomas: He’s one of the NFL’s best receivers when healthy, and their cupboard remains extremely bare at the position. Current starter Tre’Quan Smith is also scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent next year.
Where do Saints turn at WR?
They could potentially look for outside help – especially if Cleveland Browns receiver Odell Beckham Jr. winds up being released. ESPN’s Kimberley Martin reported Tuesday that the Saints and Browns had discussions about a possible deal before Tuesday’s trade deadline, but they couldn’t reach an agreement because of how much money Beckham is owed. However, Payton said the Saints only did “homework” on potential trade candidates at all positions and, “There was never any, ‘We got down to the wire and just couldn’t agree on the price.’”
Payton also expressed confidence in New Orleans’ current receivers – especially since Smith and Deonte Harris recently returned from injuries. Payton also listed some positive traits of starter Marquez Callaway and backups Kenny Stills, Kevin White and Lil’Jordan Humphrey.
“Look, these guys are tough, competitive and I like ‘em,” Payton said. “I’m not interested in your PFF grades or any of that other stuff. I like this group.”
Payton was being kind, however.
In addition to the lack of passing yards, the Saints rank second-to-last in the NFL in completion percentage (58.8) and dead last in receptions by wide receivers (7.9 per game) and receptions by tight ends (2.4 per game).
It’s still unclear who will start at quarterback Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons (1 p.m. ET, Fox) or beyond. Unfortunately for whoever starts, Thomas could have been a hugely important security blanket for either Taysom Hill or Trevor Siemian.
Thomas is exactly what the Saints have been missing most as a receiver who can get open on short and intermediate routes and make contested catches. He was a go-to guy for both Teddy Bridgewater and Hill when they served as injury replacements for Drew Brees in 2019 and 2020.
Are the Saints still playoff contenders?
Absolutely. This is the same answer I gave following Winston’s injury. The Saints have already proven they can win games on the strength of their coaching staff, defense, run game and offensive line – with the passing game playing a supporting role.
Not only has that been true in 2021, it was also true in 2020 when they went 12-4 and won a playoff game despite Brees battling injuries all year and not playing to his usual standard before retiring. Thomas only appeared in seven regular-season games last year, too, after initially suffering his ankle injury in Week 1.
Obviously the Saints’ degree of difficulty has gone up severely. But their roster has been getting more intact overall with the recent returns of starters like Smith, left tackle Terron Armstead, center Erik McCoy, defensive tackle David Onyemata, defensive end Marcus Davenport and linebacker Kwon Alexander.
And they have already handled a lot of adversity in impressive fashion this year – being displaced for a month in Dallas after Hurricane Ida; winning their first “home game” in Jacksonville, Florida, 38-3 over a Green Bay Packers team that hasn’t lost since; and most recently winning at the Seattle Seahawks on a Monday night, then returning home to beat the reigning Super Bowl champion Buccaneers on a short week after losing Winston in the second quarter.
That level of resiliency has to count for something.
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Ebron injured a knee last week against the Los Angeles Chargers, apparently during his fourth-quarter touchdown. He is expected to miss extended time with surgery, a source told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler earlier this week.
Ebron was a co-starter along with rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth. He has had a reduced role this season with just 12 catches for 84 yards and a receiving touchdown as well as a rushing TD.
Hassenauer, who was starting in place of guard Kevin Dotson, injured a pectoral muscle early in the loss to the Chargers. Tackle Joe Haeg replaced Hassenauer a week ago, but the Steelers are likely to turn to B.J. Finney, a veteran interior offensive lineman, to replace him in the long term.
With both Dotson and Hassenauer now on IR, the Steelers signed practice squad offensive lineman John Leglue to the active roster.
Tennessee Titans place wide receiver A.J. Brown on injured reserve
Brown suffered chest, rib and hand injuries during last week’s 22-13 loss to the Houston Texans. He played 40 offensive snaps and finished with five receptions for 48 yards on nine targets.
“Walking by faith as always. GOD makes no mistakes,” Brown posted on social media after the news broke that is headed for IR.
Brown will now be out for the next three weeks. The earliest that Brown will be able to return is when Tennessee faces the San Francisco 49ers on Dec 23 on Thursday night football.
In 10 games, Brown has 46 receptions for 615 yards and three touchdowns. He also missed Tennessee’s Week 4 loss to the New York Jets because of a knee injury.
The Titans signed veteran free agent receiver Golden Tate to their practice squad last Tuesday. But they did not elevate him to the active roster after he practiced with the team on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
The Titans will likely turn to rookie Dez Fitzpatrick to start in place of Brown. Tennessee utilized the COVID elevation to make receiver Cody Hollister available to them on Sunday against the Patriots.
Mike Vrabel, Bill Belichick set for Round 3 as the Tennessee Titans travel to the New England Patriots – Tennessee Titans Blog
With just under six minutes left, Titans punter Brett Kern assumed his position to field the snap, but it didn’t come as the final seconds ticked off of the play clock. The Titans got a delay of game penalty.
The clock then started running and linebacker Wesley Woodyard drew a false start penalty, thus wasting more time. Before the Titans could commit another delay of game, the Patriots went offside and wasted even more time.
The television cameras portrayed a visibly irritated Bill Belichick spewing expletives at the officials. An additional minute bled off the clock before Kern punted the football.
Vrabel, who played eight seasons for Belichick with the Patriots, outfoxed his former coach to seal a 20-13 win, thus ending New England’s season.
That game was the only time Vrabel faced off with Belichick other than a 34-10 win for the Titans in 2018.
“The tradition and history is not going to win or lose the game for anybody,” Vrabel said of his former team ahead of another matchup against them. “I think we all know where the banners are and the success that organization has had over the last 20 years.
“What will win or lose [Sunday’s] game is playing sound, fundamental football, taking care of the football, penalties, playing with great technique.”
However, Vrabel downplayed any idea of him going against Belichick when asked about the coaching matchup.
“Bill and I won’t be squaring off to determine this game,” Vrabel said. “This game will be won, like it always is, by the players.”
Belichick and the Patriots (7-4) will look to get their first win against a Vrabel-led Titans (8-3) team Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS) at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
“Mike’s done a great job at Tennessee,” Belichick said in his weekly interview on sports radio WEEI. “I have always had a lot of respect for Mike, and certainly had a ton of respect for him when he was a position coach and as a head coach, for sure. It will be a big challenge. Tennessee is obviously a good football team, one of the best teams in the league. Other than when we play him, I’m rooting for him. But not this week.”
Tennessee was tied for the best record in the NFL and had the best record in the AFC entering last Sunday’s game before losing to the Houston Texans, who had the worst record in the conference.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, the Titans’ loss to the Texans was the latest into the season a team with the outright worst record in a conference has beaten the team with the outright best record in that conference. The prior latest was in Week 7 of the 1979 season when the Cincinnati Bengals beat the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Five turnovers proved to be the ultimate equalizer in what was supposed to be a lopsided matchup. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill‘s first of four interceptions occurred in the red zone and was returned to the Titans’ 6-yard line. Chester Rogers had a punt bounce off of his foot that was downed at Tennessee’s 5-yard line. The turnovers resulted in 10 points.
Although the Patriots have forced 13 turnovers during their five-game winning streak — which is now the longest in the NFL after the Titans lost — and the Titans’ five turnovers cost them Sunday, Belichick doesn’t expect Vrabel’s Titans to be as careless.
“They turned the ball over against the Texans, which is hard to count on,” Belichick said. “That’s not what they do, so I don’t think we’ll get that. It’s a typical Mike team – they’re tough, they’re physical, they make you beat them, they don’t make many mistakes. They know what they’re doing. They’re sound. They’re a good fundamental team.”
The Titans experienced a similar surge in turnovers when they had 11 takeaways during their six-game winning streak which was ended by Houston.
The two coaches offered up scouting reports on each other’s teams on Monday. It’s no coincidence they mentioned similar attributes.
“They are turning the football over,” Vrabel said. “Guys understand where to create turnovers at and they are good on the edges. Guys play with great technique up front. They are running the football and marrying that with the play-action game. Receivers all block, they are all selfless, they all understand that their effort is going to help whichever back they have in the game at the time run the football. The quarterback is accurate.”
“Tough, physical team,” Belichick said. “They tackle well. The backs and receivers run hard with the ball. The quarterback’s athletic. They’re sound in the kicking game. We’re going to have to play a good football game in all three phases.”
Going back to New England is special for Vrabel. Of course, he’ll enjoy returning to Gillette Stadium. But it’ll also be a chance to spend time with his son, Tyler, who plays offensive line for nearby Boston College.
“Coaching in this league and being involved in the National Football League is special,” Vrabel said. “The opportunity to get to coach this football team, to get to travel to other stadiums, certainly this one, having spent eight years there. Tyler’s going to be there since he is going to school there. I think it will be cool.”
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