Now that the Super Bowl has been played and free agency is only weeks away, the Last Word On Sports NFL department will be looking at the top three needs for each team. Today, the New Orleans Saints are the focus. The Saints have the 11th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft and a few key players that will hit the free agency market this year, most notably defensive tackle Nick Fairley and cornerback Sterling Moore. In a crucial campaign for the Sean Payton–Drew Brees tandem, New Orleans looks to return to postseason contention after three straight 7-9 seasons.
New Orleans Saints 2017 Off-Season: Top 3 Needs
Cam Newton and Matt Ryan has represented the NFC South as the reigning league MVP’s and NFC representatives in consecutive Super Bowls. Their individual excellence in career-best years, coupled with the reliable production of key skill position players, catapulted their teams to championship-level heights from 2015-2016. The downfalls they suffered in the big game, however, were not much from their personal doings but rather the influence of an opposing pass rush. In Super Bowl 50, Von Miller and the Denver Broncos overwhelmed Newton, sacking him seven times in their 24-10 triumph. Although Super Bowl 51 was headlined by the improbable comeback of the New England Patriots, the defense beat the Atlanta Falcons offensive line for five takedowns on Ryan.
In short, the Saints must obtain an edge rusher if they want to neutralize Ryan and Newton. Two of the team’s most notable years on defense came in 2009 and 2013. Although they placed 25th in total defense, the Saints benefited from the presence of the late Will Smith and Charles Grant, who combined for 18.5 sacks in the championship run. The fourth-ranked defensive unit from 2013 had Cam Jordan and Junior Galette each posting 12 sacks. Having that game-altering edge disruption will take immense pressure off of a consistently-underwhelming secondary. Cam Jordan has made two Pro Bowls in the last four seasons, but he needs help fast. Fortunately, the free agent class at this position is very respectable.
If Jason Pierre-Paul doesn’t resign with the New York Giants, New Orleans can lure him in if the price is right. Jabaal Sheard is another talented player who will easily be more affordable. His 11 sacks since 2015 isn’t spectacular, but he would be a clear upgrade for the Saints defensive front.
Surprisingly enough, New Orleans finished 14th against the run in 2016, only eight spots worse than the Carolina Panthers out of the NFC South teams. The huge difference, though, is that Carolina has Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis at their second level of defense. While placing ahead of Atlanta and Tampa Bay against the run last year, the Bucs have a Pro Bowler in Lavonte David as Deion Jones is a promising young star for the Falcons.
After tallying a rookie-leading 112 tackles, two forced fumbles, a sack and an interception in 2015, Stephone Anthony appeared to be the next Jonathan Vilma. Although he played out of position in 2016, he took a vast step backwards. The James Laurinaitis experiment was a disaster. Craig Robertson, Dannell Ellerbe and Nate Stupar collectively provide quality production, but neither are transcendent figures. That said, the Saints have the opportunity to grab Alabama’s Reuben Foster in April’s draft. A physical, sideline-to-sideline defender, Foster would be an instant improvement for the subpar New Orleans defense with his athleticism, explosion and hard-hitting.
Most Saints analysts would argue that the guard position is a top-three necessity for the team, but the offense should be last in line for roster additions. The Saints have religiously struggled on the defensive perimeter since 2006. The revolving door including the likes of Fred Thomas, Jason David, Patrick Robinson and Brandon Browner have plagued New Orleans at the cornerback position. Along with the inconsistent outputs, Saints corners have struggled with remaining healthy. Young star Delvin Breaux was lost last year, and the perpetually-hindered P.J. Williams missed time. If the Saints opt to use their top pick in this area, they have a plethora of choices. Florida’s Teez Tabor and Ohio State’s Marshon Lattimore are excellent prospects, but Marlon Humphrey of Alabama would fit New Orleans seamlessly. Boasting the appealing package of speed, size and aggressiveness, Humphrey is a versatile defensive back who can thrive in both man and zone coverages. Another plus is that he doesn’t carry the troublesome and injury-laden baggage that Tabor and Lattimore have, respectively.
To quickly readdress the guard spot, adding the eventual replacement for Jahri Evans wouldn’t hurt, but building a better defense is always the biggest off-season priority in New Orleans.