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A Very Merry Saints Offseason Christmas List, Part 3

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The must-haves and need-to-get-it options have been taken out, so what’s left?

FOXBORO, MA:  New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler (21) celebrates a defensive stop against the Pittsburgh Steelers offense during the 2016 AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium.
FOXBORO, MA: New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler (21) celebrates a defensive stop against the Pittsburgh Steelers offense during the 2016 AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium.
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Hallelujah, we’re almost out of the wilderness. The New Orleans Saints are about to beat the Atlanta Falcons today and set themselves up for a second Super Bowl run. But that’s a couple hours away, and I’ve got one last entry in my offseason preview series to cross off my list.

To build this list, I asked my followers on Twitter to prioritize the positions they felt the Saints need to address most in the spring through free agency signings and the 2018 NFL Draft. 31 ballots later, I averaged those votes to find a very unscientific aggregate ranking.

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 once the value is there, and Wants that should be considered once bigger problems are solved. The positions shelved onto each tier go:

Wants: Cornerback, Offensive Center, Offensive Tackle

Cornerback

Okay, so the Saints are in a weird situation here. Marshon Lattimore is an elite talent, maybe the best cornerback in the NFL, and we all love him. But the knock on him coming out of college - and the main reason he was available at the Saints’ pick - was durability concerns. Specifically his hamstrings. Now, Lattimore has missed time this year but not related to a hammy; he was held out of an early-season game with symptoms of a concussion, and missed two more games recently with a badly-rolled ankle. So even though it’s not fair to him, you have to wonder if he’ll give you a full sixteen-game season after playing just one year in college and missing more time as a pro.

On top of that, Ken Crawley has seized his moment to play like a very proficient cover corner, learning from some of last year’s rookie mistakes, but he’s still prone to being grabby in coverage (Crawley leads the team with 10 flags, though four of them were declined or offsetting) and lacks effort in his tackling. Behind those two you have P.J. Williams, who has played decently in limited looks, and then not much else.

Given the lacking free agent options at positions the Saints will probably prioritize (linebacker, tight end), I could see them finally closing a deal with Malcolm Butler (New England Patriots). Butler is a smart player who plays violently, crashing down hard in run support and quickly attacking screens. He rarely gets penalized, drawing just four flags all year (and one of them wasn’t accepted, that’s cool). Butler’s reputation has soured among Pats homers who don’t want to see him get a big pay day after Bill Belichick refused to trade him to New Orleans, but his demise has been greatly exaggerated. Now that said, Butler is another year older and could come at a discounted price of the rumored $50-million they previously agreed to.

I envision Butler as starting over Crawley for the Saints, playing the boundary in base sets and sliding into the slot in nickel, with Crawley coming out to man the side opposite Lattimore. That gets all three of them in the best position to succeed, with the sure-tackling Butler closer to the action and Crawley left to focus on coverage, the strongest part of his game. With Saints safety and de facto slot corner Kenny Vaccaro likely on the outs after ending another year on injured reserve, the Saints could feasibly take the money they had set aside for his extension as part of one for Butler instead. But if they don’t go to Butler, the other options under 30 are slim: Rashaan Melvin (Indianapolis Colts), Morris Claiborne (New York Jets), and Morgan Burnett (like Vaccaro, he’s listed at safety but plays the slot for the Green Bay Packers) look like the best of the bunch.

The Saints usually draft a cornerback (or slot-safety) every year, having only missed on that kind of player in the 2016 NFL Draft. It’s something they prioritize, and I expect they’ll go that route again in 2018. The names to know early in the draft include Denzel Ward (Ohio State Buckeyes), Joshua Jackson (Iowa Hawkeyes), Jaire Alexander (Louisville Cardinals), Duke Dawson (Florida Gators), and Isaiah Oliver (Colorado Buffaloes). This class doesn’t look as talented as last year’s group, but the Saints can probably find some help in the middle rounds. For what it’s worth, Alabama Crimson Tide defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick would excel here in Vaccaro’s role as a do-it-all slot corner, but I don’t expect he’ll be available where the Saints are selecting.

Offensive Center

The talk of training camp was how badly the Saints struggled to get a clean snap of the football without Max Unger, who was recovering from offseason surgery on his foot. Every day reports flooded in from practice of Saints quarterback Drew Brees losing his cool with off-target snaps out of the shotgun and even fumbled exchanges at the line. Thankfully, things settled down once Unger worked his way back into the lineup. He was still clearly the weakest link earlier in the season due to poor conditioning after missing training camp, but things have since settled down. Still, the Saints need to be looking for his eventual replacement, though I suspect they like undrafted rookie Cameron Tom (Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles) more than they let on.

In free agency, the top options at center look like Weston Richburg (New York Giants), Travis Swanson (Detroit Lions), Spencer Long (Washington), and Brian Schwenke (Tennessee Titans). Each of those guys has spent time on injured reserve in their young careers, but Richburg especially has played at a high level when he’s healthy. I could see the Saints giving any of them a look in the offseason, but I doubt they’re the answer for life after Unger.

Billy Price (Ohio State Buckeyes) may be the most obvious connection to the Saints in the draft. Saints head coach Sean Payton’s infatuation with Buckeyes products is well-documented after his team’s pursuit of Lattimore, safety Vonn Bell, and Pro Bowl receiver Michael Thomas in recent years. Price is a highly-intelligent lineman who is always looking for work, set a new school record for consecutive starts (52!), graduated early with his degree in business administration, and was trusted to move from guard to center as a senior, per Ohio State tradition. He checks every conceivable box and looks like a prime “wait, the Saints are picking a lineman in the first round?” candidate in the footsteps of Ryan Ramczyk and Andrus Peat. Should the Saints not think Price is right, though, watch out for Mason Cole (Michigan Wolverines) and Frank Ragnow (Arkansas Razorbacks).

Offensive Tackle

Offensive line depth is a problem, but not a big problem. Terron Armstead is finally getting healthy for a stretch, but Zach Strief’s future in uncertain. The Saints don’t have a good third option at the position even though they can move Peat back from guard to tackle if they have to. Peat is much, much better playing inside and they need to be able to keep him there. So even if Armstead and Ramczyk can play 100-percent of snaps next year, you still want a good swing tackle who can help shoulder the load and play in a pinch.

Teams are valuing good offensive line play more than ever as spread offenses in college send less-prepared draft prospects to the pros. That exposes the NFL’s good-ole-boy hiring process where bad offensive line coaches like Tom Cable (Seattle Seahawks) and Chris Foerster (Miami Dolphins) turn out to not be good at their jobs. So the best free agent offensive tackles, if they even reach free agency, will likely be snapped up quickly: names like Nate Solder (New England), James Hurst (Baltimore Ravens), and Michael Schofield (Los Angeles Chargers). A veteran I like is Pittsburgh Steelers guard/tackle Chris Hubbard, who has filled in well while some starters have missed time.

The draft class features some intriguing names like Chukwuma Okorafor (Western Michigan Mustangs), Orlando Brown (Oklahoma Sooners), Martinas Rankin (Mississippi State Bulldogs), Martez Ivey (Florida Gators), Desmond Harrison (West Georgia Wolves) and Jamarco Jones (Ohio State). All of these guys need some polish, but they’re probably better than anyone NFL teams decide they’re alright with letting hit the open market.