With the 2013 season coming to a close, it’s exciting to again look forward to the possibilities available to the Saints through the Free Agency and the Draft. We all know of the cap situation this season as well as notable contributors becoming unrestricted free agents -- Jimmy Graham the obvious headliner. It’s safe to say that the Saints have been in this situation before, and Loomis will more than likely still try to make aggressive, under-the-radar FA moves to help in areas of need. Additionally, unlike years prior, we have a lot of draft equity with a pick in each of the first 6 rounds. Picking at 27th overall, there are several different positions the team could choose to address, largely depending on FA.
Before the frenzy of Free Agency and Mock Drafts begin, I wanted to get a pulse for what areas of need the CSC community thought were the biggest problems and what should be addressed and when. I first will give my list of the perceived biggest areas of need:
5. Outside Linebacker
I'll start the list off with probably one of the more controversial positions on my list. Most people probably see Outside Linebacker as a higher need on the list but I will try to make a good argument for why I have it so low. I still think it is very possible for Loomis and Peyton to go Outside Linebacker in the 1st round provided there is a special talent worth taking and I still think it is a position we need to add depth to. However, I would say there are several needs more pressing.
It is truly incredible what Rob Ryan did with the defense this past year. Ryan put up a statistically top-5 defense with several notable injuries throughout the season: Victor Butler, Kenyon Coleman, Jabari Greer, Will Smith, and Kenny Vaccaro. Junior Galette seems to be a star in the making having a breakout year this past season with 12 sacks. Though Parys Haralson was definitely serviceable this season, it might be nice to get some talent on the other side of the field. Victor Butler should come back this next season, hopefully adding another pass-rushing piece to Ryan’s scheme. The Saints still cannot really go wrong by adding depth to the linebacker position in general though. Ryan Shazier seems like a do-it-all linebacker that could make plays all over the field so he might be a name to add in the first-round mix. Whether in the draft or in free-agency, look for the linebacker position to be strengthened this Spring.
This is probably a popular spot to put Outside Linebacker (or even lower) but I’m going to make the argument that Safety is a more pressing need. Kenny Vacarro was a perfect pick at the 15th spot last year and has made plays all over the field, finishing 3rd in voting for the Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. Malcolm Jenkins started the year strong but had a less than desired finish (grading out at -6 by ProFootballFocus down the stretch). Add onto this Harper’s preposterous 2014 salary and the fact that both Malcolm Jenkins and Rafael Bush are free agents this year and we can see the great vulnerability at the position. Remember, it was only a year ago that the safety position was debatably our weakest unit (Jenkins and Harper rated the two worst safeties in the league, according to ProFootballFocus). Though Vaccaro has played exceptional, this unit still stands to improve.
After seeing the absolute dominance Seattle showed on the biggest stage with their Legion of Boom, I can only think of how dominant the Saints would be with their traditional offense and a punishing secondary. Kenny Vaccaro and Keenan Lewis seem like great building blocks to work around. Just picture what the secondary would look like if Loomis and Peyton drafted a 1st-round Corner (Gilbert, Dennard, or Verrett) and a mid-round safety (possibly Ahmad Dixon) alongside Vaccaro and Lewis. That unit paired with the impressive pass-rush of Cameron Jordan, Junior Gallette, Akiem Hicks, and (hopefully) Victor Butler could be devastating for opposing offenses. There’s no question that the Saint’s Offense can go toe-to-toe with any team in the league, but, with that kind of Defense, we could be looking at the 2014 champions.
3. Wide Receiver
Ryan Edwards wrote a great article outlining the Wide Receiver’s drop in production in the 2013 season as well as the current outlook for the upcoming 2014 offseason. It seems Marques Colston was really starting to catch up with his production in seasons past with his play down the stretch (tallying an impressive 144 yards and a score in the Seahawks game). Kenny Stills also showed great promise with an impressive 641 yards in the regular season, also adding 5 touchdowns and an insane 20 yard per catch average.
Though there were some bright spots, there are still some major concerns with this unit. With the cap situation, it seems that Lance Moore could possibly be on his way out. Additionally, Toon has yet to make notable strides in his production on the field and Joseph Morgan, though he has shown great potential as a deep threat, is coming a knee injury which creates some uncertainty.
It is no secret that what has characterized the Saint’s success under Peyton is the remarkable offense, and so it’s important that the wide receiver, as well as the offensive line, units are consistently restocked. Though the cornerback and offensive line positions might be in just has much need of some youth and depth, it would not surprise me at all for the Saints take a wide out in the 1st round considering the current depth at the position. Though there are notable Free Agents available to sign (Hakeem Nicks, Julian Edleman, Eric Decker), those options might prove too expensive. Possible draft options include bigger-bodied early-rounders like Kelvin Benjamin, Jordan Mathews, or Allen Robinson while smaller options can be seen in Oregon State's Brandin Cooks as well as LSU's Odell Beckham Jr.. Some other late-round options might be L’Damian Washington, Josh Huff, Ryan Grant, or Tevin Reese.
2. Offensive Tackle
I have Offensive Tackle at the number 2 spot for a number of reasons. First, Zach Strief is hitting the open market and, after excelling throughout the season (rated as Pro Football Focus #1 Right Tackle), he might command a fairly steep price tag. Bryce Harris and Marcel Jones could be potential in-house replacements. Beyond that though, there isn’t a whole lot of depth with rookie Terron Armstead still developing as a future left tackle and Charles Brown probably on the way out.
Though Terron Armstead, a small-school recruit, showed great improvement following the first half of Week 16 throughout the postseason, he is still developing into a more refined product. This gives the team and its fan reason for optimism, however it is a seemingly a perennial need to restock the Offensive Line for a realistic play-off run.
As is the story with most positions this offseason, this replenishment will have to be done on the cheap. Whether it be through rookie contracts made possible through the draft or good-value FA contracts, the tackle position will have to be addressed in the upcoming months. With the success the franchise has had developing later-round prospects, Loomis might be able to get away with taking a tackle in the later rounds --some potential prospects being Ja’Wuan Harris out of Tennessee, Seantrel Henderson out of Miami, or James Hurst out of North Carolina. Depending on the pending status of Strief at right tackle however, the position remains uncertain.
It seems that there has been some consensus on CSC and elsewhere (Mike Triplett of ESPN) that cornerback is the biggest area of need for this Saints this offseason (though Mel Kiper and Todd McShay's latest mock drafts have offensive tackle as the most pressing need). As we saw in the postseason, if Keenan Lewis went down along side Jabari Greer, we would have had to play the Seahawks with Corey White and Rod Sweeting (UDFA), exposing the lack of depth at the position.
Loomis really did a great job picking up Keenan Lewis in FA last year who proved to be a borderline lockdown cornerback and solidifies the #1 cornerback spot. Outside of Lewis, the spot is more uncertain. Jabari Greer was dependable at the #2 corner position for the duration he held it and Corey White excelled in the nickelback spot. Greer’s midseason knee injury was a huge blow to the unit however, and White seemed somewhat inconsistent and overaggressive at times after assuming Greer's role.
With Greer in his early 30s and coming off a knee surgery, it is probably best to look for a potential replacement. Though Free Agency has a good number of cornerbacks hitting the market (Rogers-Cromartie, Brent Grimes among others), it might be a better option to go with a younger, more affordable option via the draft. Further, there are currently thought to be three top corners at the moment in Darqueze Dennard, Justin Gilbert, and Jason Verrett. Additionally, in the same vein as the bigger bodied Seahawks corners, Stanley Jean-Baptiste (Nebraska) and Keith McGill (Utah), both around the 6’3" range, seem to be good mid-round options. Essential to Ryan’s defense is excellent corner play, so whether through FA or the draft, expect the cornerback position to be a major area of concern this offseason.
As the Saints are about to go into Free Agency and the Draft, what do you think the biggest needs for the Saints are? Additionally, while negotiating a tough salary cap situation, when do you think these needs ought to be addressed?
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