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A Very Merry Saints Offseason Christmas List, Part 1

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NEW ORLEANS, LA:  Running back Pierre Thomas (23) of the New Orleans Saints heads towards a lucky fan as he attaches a bow to the football after scoring on a four-yard touchdown run against  the Atlanta Falcons at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
NEW ORLEANS, LA: Running back Pierre Thomas (23) of the New Orleans Saints heads towards a lucky fan as he attaches a bow to the football after scoring on a four-yard touchdown run against the Atlanta Falcons at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Obviously the thing we’re all wishing for most is another Super Bowl trophy. And it’s not an impossible ask: parity is such a vigilant force in the NFL that the New Orleans Saints definitely have a chance at winning it all. Any team can win on any given Sunday. Keep the faith.

That said, I want to look ahead to the offseason put some of my thoughts into existence, mostly because it’s fun. It’s also fun to organize things. Sue me.

So in the spirit of the holiday season, I conducted a very unscientific poll by asking for ballots. I received 30+ votes on how the Saints should prioritize their roster needs in the spring, and then averaged them into a sketchy wish list.

Here’s what we came up with, broken into three tiers: Musts that have to be prioritized above all others, Needs that can be addressed if the value is there, and Wants that should be knocked off once bigger problems are solved.

  • Musts: Linebacker, Tight End, Wide Receiver
  • Needs: Defensive End, Quarterback, Defensive Tackle
  • Wants: Cornerback, Offensive Center, Offensive Tackle

I’ll break down the top draft prospects and available free agents for each of these positions in a trilogy of articles, this being the first.

Musts: Linebacker, Tight End, Wide Receiver

Linebacker

The consensus “gotta have it” vote for the Saints was at linebacker. So far the team has done well to sign every average guy on the market - Craig Robertson, Manti Te’o, Michael Mauti, Nate Stupar, Gerald Hodges, - to fill in for injured starters A.J. Klein and Alex Anzalone. But they definitely need a game-changing, blue-chip talent at the position. 40-yard dash times aren’t everything, but the Saints need an elite athlete there. It’s too easy for opposing quarterbacks (who are mediocre runners) to convert third downs because New Orleans can’t make hustle plays. Right now the Saints are fielding the slowest linebacker corps in a fast-paced league. The abilities of position coach Mike Nolan and coordinator Dennis Allen to hide these deficiencies have to give eventually.

There aren’t many enticing free agents under 30-years old. The leading name is Zach Brown (Washington) who is on his third team in three years and brags on Twitter about wanting to threaten his coworkers’ livelihood. He’s an idiot that the Saints haven’t pursued in the past and probably won’t look at in the future. A guy that fits the Saints’ profile better is Avery Williamson (Tennessee Titans), who has a nice athletic profile and rarely misses tackles, though he has been prone to missing his assignments in coverage. Preston Brown (Buffalo Bills), who has a reputation as a great run-defender but has played like a top-five coverage linebacker per Pro Football Focus. Brown is also just 25-years old and may be available considering the purging Buffalo has done to its roster. A problem is his lack of splash plays; he hasn’t forced any turnovers or created any sacks in 14 games. Nigel Bradham (Philadelphia Eagles) and DeMario Davis (New York Jets) are older options, while Tahir Whitehead (Detroit Lions) is the only other real standout.

This year’s draft class is looking great. One of the hottest names is Malik Jefferson (Texas Longhorns), who fits the athletic profile perfectly and rapidly developed his football I.Q. under a better coaching staff. Other underclassmen ranked ahead of him are Roquan Smith (Georgia Bulldogs) and Tremaine Edmunds (Virginia Tech Hokies). Rashaan Evans (Alabama Crimson Tide) is the top senior with ability to rush the passer as well as cover the middle of the field, and Micah Kiser (Virginia Cavaliers) has an impressive resume as a leader but struggles to make plays outside the hashes. I still believe in Skai Moore (South Carolina) as a pass-coverage specialist with elite ball skills - 14 interceptions in four years doesn’t happen by accident - but his medicals will be huge after he missed a year with a herniated disc in his neck.

Tight End

There’s a Jimmy Graham-shaped hole in the Saints offense. New Orleans lacks an athlete of his stature who can impact the game as a mismatch in the slot or threaten to run routes out of inline sets. Coby Fleener was signed to do that but he has a limited skills set and may be headed for retirement after his fifth concussion before his 30th birthday. Josh Hill has nice traits but hasn’t been up to the task when his number has been called. Michael Hoomanawanui is a great blocker like Hill, but they’re both just guys as receivers. At this point the Saints can’t complete a simple tight end out-route, much less find chunk plays down the seam.

The bad news is this year’s free agent class is lacking. The best under-30 options are the versatile Trey Burton (Eagles) and blocking tight ends Virgil Green (Denver Broncos) and Luke Willson (Seattle Seahawks), each of whom have been reliable pass-catchers in very limited sample sizes. Burton is rapidly gaining national awareness in the wake of Zach Ertz’s injury, averaging 43 yards and a score in his last three games. He’ll probably get paid average starter money just like Fleener received ($7-million per year or more). Willson is relatively young (just 27) and a very well-rounded athlete, so I can be convinced that he’s got untapped ability. The most-accomplished receivers in the group are Tyler Eifert (Cincinnati Bengals), who comes with significant injury concerns, and Cameron Brate (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), who is a restricted free agent and probably won’t be available.

The good news is the rookie class looks fairly dynamic, with as many as eight or nine prospects worth looking at early in the draft. The most-productive newcomers have made their marks in the small-school ranks, with Adam Breneman (UMass) and Dallas Goedert (South Dakota State) flashing big-play potential. But Mark Andrews (Oklahoma Sooners), Hayden Hurst (South Carolina Gamecocks), and Mike Gesicki (Penn State Nittany Lions) have each put up numbers against higher quality of competition. Gesicki in particular plays the ball in the air as well as anyone. I don’t know if Andrews has ever started a play with his hand in the dirt and ended it by catching a touchdown. He’s a huge slot receiver. Most of these guys are Senior Bowl participants so the Saints will get plenty of up-close looks at them. I’d rather target the best of that bunch rather than pursue any of the free agent options.

Wide Receiver

Okay, this one is tricky. The Saints are literally a piece away from fielding one of the most-feared wide receiver units in football. Michael Thomas is an elite lead-dog in the rotation. Ted Ginn Jr is finally living his football life to its fullest with the highest catch rate (78-percent) and yards per game rate (52.2) of his career. Brandon Coleman is a very reliable part-time option and a tenacious blocker. Sean Payton likes his wide receiver corps to be built like a basketball team, featuring different body types and skills sets. They have big-bodied possession receivers in Thomas and Coleman, and a flighty run-after-catch threat in Ginn, but lack someone who can consistently beat man coverage, make a play on third down, or separate to adjust to Brees’ awry deep passes. Without that guy, they’re an incomplete team.

It’s aiming high, but Jarvis Landry (Miami Dolphins) may be the answer in free agency. He’s a bully with or without the ball in his hands, bowling guys over and fighting tooth and nail on contested catches. Landry isn’t who you want to run the offense through (Thomas, Alvin Kamara, and Mark Ingram are) but he’s a consistent chain-mover who can make a dangerous tandem with #13. He also averages three more yards per punt return than the Saints have managed as a team - that’s nearly 100 hidden yards over the course of a season. Other veterans I like closer to the Saints’ price range are Taylor Gabriel (Atlanta Falcons), Paul Richardson (Seattle Seahawks), Donte Moncrief (Indianapolis Colts), and if he becomes available, Cody Latimer (Denver Broncos).

The draft class is very interesting. There aren’t many receivers built like NFL prototypes - the 6-foot-3, 220-pound athletes who can cover 40 yards in 4.4-seconds. Instead there’s a number of options who fit what the Saints need in the 6-foot-1, 200-pound range with sprinter’s speed. My platonic ideal is Dante Pettis (Washington Huskies), a Julian Edelman-like talent as a punt returner (he’s fielded 91 in his career, setting a new NCAA with 9 touchdowns!) who easily separates at the top of his vertical routes. Another prospect I expect draws the Saints’ attentions is Christian Kirk (Texas A&M Aggies), who looks to be one of the better pound-for-pound athletes in the draft. A few others include D.J. Moore (Maryland Terps), Anthony Miller (Memphis Tigers), and James Washington (Oklahoma State Cowboys).

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Stay tuned in the coming days for the second and third entries into this wish list and my early takes on upcoming free agents and draft prospects. Which positions do you think the Saints must address to win games in 2018? Are you already dialing in on any new talent?