With Sean Payton back at head coach, the New Orleans Saints returned to one of the elite forces in the NFC this past season. While the Saints finished 1-game back of the Carolina Panthers for the top spot in the NFC South, their 11-5 record was good for fourth best in the conference. New Orleans was able to go on the road and defeat the Philadelphia Eagles in the Wild Card round, but would fall 15-23 at Seattle the following week.
For the most part the Saints were able to keep their core intact. They used the franchise tag on star tight end Jimmy Graham and were able to resign starting right tackle Zach Strief, outside linebacker Parys Haralson, wide receiver Robert Meachem and backup quarterback Luke McCown.
New Orleans did lose some key pieces of last year’s roster, including running back Darren Sproles (traded), center Brian De La Puente, safety Malcolm Jenkins, corner Jabari Greer, defensive end Will Smith, safety Roman Harper and wide out Lance Moore. The only two notable additions that were made in free agency were big ones. The Saints sured up the backend of their secondary by adding safety Jairus Byrd and added in veteran corner Champ Bailey.
While the Saints could compete at a high level with their current roster, there’s still some upgrades needed to make them a legit Super Bowl contender. New Orleans will look to fill those holes in the NFL Draft, where they will select 27th overall in the first round. The Saints have seven selections total. They don’t have any picks in the 7th and final round, but will select twice in the 5th. Here’s a quick look at the five positions I think New Orleans needs to target when they are on the clock.
Anytime you have an elite quarterback like Drew Brees, the top priority is to make sure he’s well protected. That becomes even more important when you factor in that Bree’s just turned 35 and his body is at the point where it could start to let him down. Left tackle gets a lot of attention as the most important position on the offensive line, but the unit as a whole is only as strong as the center. New Orleans needs to make sure they leave the draft with someone who is capable of stepping in right away and starting for the departed De La Puente.
New Orleans could use another edge rusher on the outside to team up with Junior Galette. Victor Butler could be the answer, but he’s a big question mark coming off a torn ACL. The Saints could also use an upgrade over current starting inside linebacker David Hawthorne, who has disappointed in his first two seasons with New Orleans.
Keenan Lewis has emerged into a top level starting corner, but he’s the only sure thing on the roster. Replacing Greer with Bailey looks good on paper, but Bailey turns 36 in June and is coming off a season where he was limited to just 5 games. Patrick Robinson, who is currently the No. 3 corner and former 2010 first round pick, has been a major bust. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the Saints used their first round pick to fill this void.
One of my biggest concerns with the Saints going into next season is how they will replace the production from Sproles. Not only was he a dynamic weapon out of the backfield as both a runner (220 yards, 2 TDs) and a receiver (71 receptions, 604 yards, 2 TDs), he was the team’s primary returner. While Pierre Thomas caught 77 passes last year as a running back, he doesn’t put fear in opposing defenses the same way as Sproles. I expect the Saints to look to draft someone with the same dynamics as Sproles, plus consider adding someone who can help improve their 25th ranked rushing attack (92.1 ypg).
I don’t believe this is as pressing of a need as others. New Orleans returns their top two receiving threats in Graham and Marques Colston, plus the brought back Meachem and I could see Kenny Stills playing a much bigger role in his second season. However, this is a deep class at the receiver position and it would make a lot of sense for the Saints to take advantage and use one of their picks to bring in another weapon for Brees.
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