It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the New Orleans Saints have some serious holes to fill over the offseason if they want the streak of consecutive 7-9 seasons to end at three. The question that has to be asked though is what needs take priority and how do you go about filling them. There are a lot of different ways the Saints could go about addressing their offseason needs, and some are more popular with fans than others. However, if we really want to see the Saints improve this year, then we have to prioritize which needs are at the top of the list.
It’s a fact that you can’t fix everything in a single season, even if you have FAR greater resources than the Saints have available to them this year, it would be nearly impossible to fill every hole and fill out the depth of the roster. Before I get into what I believe should be the way the Saints will/should prioritize filling holes over the offseason, I want to first explain what I consider to be a ‘hole’.
In some cases people will see a ‘hole’ or a need, as any position where the team doesn’t have a star player, or at least a fringe star player. This is especially true if in the recent history of the team there was player who filled the same role or position who WAS a star. This is true for every organization, and every fan base, and the Saints are no exception.
To me there is a big difference between a true need on the roster, and an area where the team could (and sometimes should) improve. In my opinion the best way to determine if a position is a need is to ask the question do the player(s) we have there now have sufficient ability to be good enough. It’s all about whether or not they meet that criteria and can go past the threshold, of being good enough or not. Star players are stars in large part because they are so good that their brilliance helps cover up for the weaknesses of their less gifted counterparts. However, in order for a star to be able to ‘enhance’ and cover up for a player that player has to at least be good enough to carry their own weight. They have to have at least some kind of skillset that allows them to be competent on an NFL field in a reasonable capacity.
When you don’t have players capable of delivering at least that much, then you have a real hole. That is when something moves from a need to a want. The other time when that change occurs is when a key position ages, gets hurt, or starts to deteriorate. There is an expression “the best time to get a new job is when you already have one”, and the same applies to upgrading talent in the NFL. The best time to replace a player is before that player falls off of a cliff, not after (unfortunately we don’t have crystal balls so its difficult to predict).
Now with all of that said, lets take a look at what I see as the Saints needs going into 2017:
This is very clearly the single biggest need that the Saints have going into next season. The reason for that is simple, there are two defensive ends on the starting defensive line, and the Saints only have one. In 2016, there was an absolute black hole opposite Cameron Jordan, and it cannot be stated enough how important a pass rush is in today’s NFL. The biggest reason why this is at the top of the list isn’t how impact a pass rush has on a defense though, it has to do with just how bad everything opposite Jordan was last year. As I discussed earlier, players have to meet a certain threshold of competence for a team to be confident they don’t need to replace them. The defensive end position not only failed to meet that threshold, it was staring up at it.
Defensive end is by far the biggest need for the Saints for both the reason of it being the unit with biggest hole, and because of its impact on the defense. Having a competent, or god forbid a quality defensive line is not only impactful on the opposing quarterback. It also directly affects the 7 men behind it. The best way for the Saints to instantly and significantly improve their defense is to upgrade the defensive end position opposite Cam Jordan.
The Saints showed some significant improvement at the linebacker position in 2016 with the additions of Nate Stupar and Craig Robertson. Both players showed the ability to ‘meet the threshold’ necessary to help the team. However, neither player showed an ability to be a playmaker or a difference maker for the defense.. The linebacker position remains one of the key positions in football, and in today’s NFL if you can’t cover, and you don’t have speed your value is limited.
The Saints lacked a linebacker capable of filling either of those roles (even the often injured Dannell Ellerbe failed to live up to it even when he did play). Whether it is in Free Agency or the draft the Saints absolutely MUST get at least one linebacker who has the ability to fly from sideline to sideline and cover. Saints fans need look no further than the rival Falcons whose defense improved by a bout 25 times over the previous season in large part thanks to drafting Deion Jones.
The Saints technically have two good starting guards in Jahri Evans and Andrus Peat. That is at least if you ask Pro Football Focus (which I don’t). The reality is that as much as we love him, and should, Jahri Evans caught lightning in a bottle and managed not be a negative for the team in 2016. Expecting him to produce a similarly miraculous performance two years in a row is a gamble no one should be comfortable with the Saints taking.
That doesn’t mean they should necessarily cut Evans, but the Saints have to bring in another guard to play the right guard spot on the (likely) chance Evans can no longer adequately fill the position. There is also the reality that most of the available free agents at the guard position would represent a significant upgrade at the spot at this point in his career. As long as Drew Brees remains the quarterback for the Saints they will be a pass first team, so protecting Drew is priority number one.
Based on the performance on the field in 2016 this would normally be the second highest highest offseason priority. However, while I am fully in support of the idea of adding at least one more talented corner to the unit, they do have some talent on the roster. The biggest issue the Saints had last year was a swarm of injuries. I’d like (and expect) the team to add a veteran corner in free agency, and this year’s draft is particularly deep at the position so one way or another the team should be able to add additional talent. If, and this is a big if at this point, Williams and Breaux can remain healthy this year they will be fine. However, they can’t bank on that and must both add talent as well as resign Sterling Moore who provided quality depth for them last year.
Saints fans are clamoring for the team replace Travaris Cadet and fill his spot with someone more suited for filling the ‘Darren Sproles’ role. They are obsessed with the player and the position without focusing on the impact and the why of Sproles impact for the team. The Saints don’t necessarily need another Sproles, they need an x-factor weapon that can be moved around the formations and can help them DICTATE coverage to the defense.
There are multiple players in this year’s draft who can fill this role, and a few of them are incredibly good fits for the Saints. This isn’t really a ‘need’ in a sense that the Saints will be worse off without it. But, the fact is that the Saints are an offense first team, and we just saw one of those make it to the Super Bowl....of course...the Saints won’t be giving up any 25 point leads with or without an x-factor.
The Saints are going to make a lot of moves this offseason, and I fully expect this list to alter over time as free agency and the draft happen. I trust the Saints to make the right moves far more than I did a few years ago, but my hope is that they prioritize their moves this year on bringing weak areas on the roster up to level before focusing on big toys.