Heading into Week 16, the Saints are sitting at 6-8 and have a 0.01 percent chance of making the playoffs. That chance – we’re saying there’s a chance – notwithstanding, many fans have rightfully turned their eyes towards better opportunities in 2017.
In the spirit of this holiday season, here’s my personal wish list for the 2017 New Orleans Saints: the players they should invest in through free agency and the upcoming rookie draft.
Nick Fairley, Defensive Tackle
This goes without saying, but defensive tackle Nick Fairley (6-foot-4, 291-pounds, 28-years old) has earned a contract extension once his current deal expires in February. He’ll likely command a high number (current estimates gauge his average annual value between $8 and $10 million), which the Saints aren’t shy about handing out.
Fairley is a stout interior lineman who can disrupt from any alignment between each guard’s outside shoulder, and keeping him around as a veteran presence for younger teammates like Sheldon Rankins, Tyeler Davison, and David Onyemata to rally around is worth it. That’s not to mention Fairley’s own production; his 5.5 sacks rank sixth-leaguewide at defensive tackle, and his 8 tackles for loss are tied with five others for tenth at the position.
A.J. Klein, Linebacker
Carolina Panthers linebacker A.J. Klein (6-foot-1, 240-pounds, 25-years old) has filled in admirably for Luke Kuechly’s absence, though there’s no mistaking one for the other. Klein may be the fastest linebacker on a stacked roster (if GPS-tracking technology from practices are to be believed) and was defensive coordinator Sean McDermott’s first choice to fill in at middle linebacker because of his knowledge of the defense and ease of communication to get everyone lined up. Those are important traits that will appeal to the Saints, who don’t have a true middle linebacker on the roster. Klein would fit in well and has the skills to be an under-the-radar upgrade to a team in need of players like him.
Nick Perry, Edge
Green Bay Packers edge rusher Nick Perry (6-foot-3, 265-pounds, 26-years old) has become his team’s best pass-rusher behind all-time great Julius Peppers. Perry leads the squad in sacks despite having missed recent games to a hand injury. Perry has quietly built an impressive resume after a number of foot and shoulder injuries. He’s blossomed as a disruptive player on the edge, leading the team in tackles for loss (9) against the run and sacks (8) when harassing quarterbacks.
Already playing out 2016 on a one-year deal, the former first round pick may be on the outs in Green Bay because of his injury history. If so, the Saints could pick him up on an incentive-laden contract similar to what they gave Nick Fairley, who has since turned in a career year.
A.J. Bouye, Cornerback
Houston Texans cornerback A.J. Bouye (6-foot-0, 191-pounds, 25-years old) has been a slot specialist for most of his career, but he’s really come into his own in 2016. His twelve pass breakups are a career-high, and Bouye is allowing a hair over fifty-percent of targets into his coverage to be completed; and those passes that have been caught are only netting about eight yards per catch. Bouye’s burn rate is third-lowest in the league behind Janoris Jenkins and Richard Sherman.
The increased snap count and assignments at the right cornerback position have turned Bouye into a lightning-rod. The Saints will need a veteran corner, and while a bigger name like Stephon Gilmore will be tempting, Bouye’s trajectory is going in a better direction and he likely won’t be as expensive. Besides, we’re all pretty sick of adding former Buffalo Bills.
Cordarrelle Patterson, Wide Receiver/Returner
Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson (6-foot-2, 220-pounds, 25-years old) hasn’t turned into who the team envisioned he would be since drafting him in the first round back in 2013, but Patterson still has interesting traits. His combination of height, weight, and speed (Patterson logged a 4.42-second 40-yard dash at the combine, and his play speed is obvious) aren’t to be found on the Saints’ roster, though rookie sensation Michael Thomas comes close.
Patterson fields kickoffs, though not punts, and has averaged 31.5 or more yards per return in every year but his slumping sophomore season. Patterson has also cameoed at running back, catching passes out of the backfield and motioning around the formation. There’s no telling what he could accomplish with a creative playcaller like Sean Payton dialing up touches.
Ronald Leary, Guard
Dallas Cowboys guard Ron Leary (6-foot-3, 317-pounds, 27-years old) joining the Saints feels like a formality after the Baton Rouge native connected with Saints players on social media before trade talks fell apart this summer. With La’el Collins returning soon from injury and the Cowboys going into 2017 with the league’s least projected salary cap space, Leary looks like a shoe-in for a vacancy at guard in New Orleans.
Nominally a left guard, the Saints should have an idea about whether he would continue to play there or move to right guard shortly after pads come on in training camp. Either way, signing Leary would push fringe-roster guys like Tim Lelito off the roster and save poor Khalif Barnes from checking in and out of the team hotel all season.
The 2017 NFL Draft
Tre’Davious White, Cornerback, LSU
LSU Tigers cornerback Tre’Davious White (5-foot-11, 191-pounds, 21-years old) could very well be the guy to end the Saints’ streak of drafts without a prospect from their own backyard. The weird lack of a pipeline from Baton Rouge, which regularly hits high marks in high school recruitment, to New Orleans’ talent-deficit pro franchise is going to end sooner or later.
I’m not even an LSU fan but I can appreciate White’s ability: the fiery ballhawk (6 career interceptions, 33 deflections) hasn’t missed a game and led the defense in passes deflected (13) his senior year. White is also an experienced punt returner, averaging 11.2 yards per return before a bad year in special teams blocking held him to just 7.1 yards per return in 2016. Maybe White’s addition could spark the Saints in more than just pass defense.
Taylor Moton, Offensive Tackle, Western Michigan
Western Michigan Broncos offensive lineman Taylor Moton (6-foot-5, 328-pounds, 22-years old) is big, scary, strong, and enjoys moving people around. He’s been the Cotton Bowl-bound Broncos’ best lineman and has started full seasons at right tackle and right guard whenever or however the coaching staff has asked him.
Moton looks ready to start at either position, though his immense strength and tenacious blocking make him a better fit inside at right guard. Maybe in the long run he or Andrus Peat can be the future at right tackle once Zach Strief hangs up his cleats. The more I study Moton and dig into his background, the more appealing he looks as a draft prospect. I would bet the Saints share the sentiment.
Harold Landry, Defensive End, Boston College
Boston College Eagles edge rusher Harold Landry (6-foot-3, 245-pounds) had some preseason hype due to great spring workouts, and he delivered on all promises. The athletic specimen tore up his opponents with 15 sacks, 20.5 tackles for loss, and a gnarly seven forced fumbles. The year before that, Landry posted an impressive 16 tackles for loss but didn’t find his way to the quarterback with only 3.5 sacks.
Now he’s playing as more of a complete package with the quick-twitch ability and serious bend around the edge that coaches covet. It remains to be seen if Landry will declare for the draft, but if he does this deep group of edge rushers could make him available in the third round.
Jaleel Johnson, Defensive Tackle, Iowa
Iowa Hawkeyes defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson (6-foot-4, 310-pounds, 22-years old) checks most boxes you can put up. The big senior has started each of the last two years after breaking into the rotation and is a wildly disruptive force. Sporting a good first step and devastating jab move, he’s put a career spent practicing against college football’s Joe Moore Award-winning best offensive line to good use.
Johnson’s racked up 11 sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss as a starter, leading the team in those categories in 2016. Johnson isn’t particularly explosive and will need a strong Senior Bowl outing to raise his draft stock, but I really like his fit as a nose guard to partner with Davison.
James Conner, Running Back, Pitt
Pitt Panthers running back James Conner (6-foot-2, 235-pounds, 21-years old) has one of the most inspiring backstories in college football. Conner survived a fight with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma that threatened his life, but survived to now live cancer-free and return to the gridiron. Conner was dominant in his 2016 revival, scoring 20 total touchdowns and 1,359 yards from scrimmage. In his career, Conner has run for 52 touchdowns at a rate of 5.6 yards per carry.
Conner runs with power but has the athleticism to plant and cut, as well as the vision to set defenders up for failure. He sports the meanest stiff arm this side of the Mississippi River and, like LSU’s own local hero, Leonard Fournette, Conner is eager to bring the hammer down on his opponents in punishing hits. He also proved himself a capable receiver in his final year at Pitt, snagging twenty receptions for 299-yards and four of his total touchdowns.
Tyrone Swoopes, Quarterback/Tight End, Texas
Texas Longhorns quarterback/tight end/halfback Tyrone Swoopes (6-foot-4, 249-pounds) is a low-risk, high-reward prospect. The former Longhorns passer reshaped himself into a running threat the last few years out of a wildcat-esque “18-wheeler package” deployed in the red zone.
Swoopes’ rare combination of size and speed (he has reportedly run a 4.51-second 40-yard dash in past workouts) made him a terror for opposing defenses and let him rack up 24 touchdowns on only 256 carries – a rate of 9.4 percent. Though he has played football since he was seven-years old, Swoopes has never recorded a reception in college, which is concerning. But his obvious athleticism and eagerness to learn could make him an intriguing talent to stash away and develop in New Orleans.