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NFL Free Agency 2017: Saints should target Melvin Ingram as a top priority

This is a phenomenal draft class for edge rushers, but the Saints’ defensive needs run beyond rushing the QB. They need a player that can defend the run, read an offense and make plays away from the ball. Chargers’ free agent Melvin Ingram is that player, and the Saints should pay the man this offseason.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at San Diego Chargers Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

The Saints have just shy of $30 million to spend in their 2017 offseason. After years of piddling around with contracts and tweaks and restructures, they’re finally going into a free agency with money to spend. Obviously, there are some players to re-sign that put a bit of a black eye on that number (read: Nick Fairley), but it’s nice to feel relatively secure heading into free agency for once.

With that security, however, comes an entirely new host of questions. Who to spend money on being the predominate one? The Saints have oft talked about adding an edge player this offseason; in a league dominated by pressuring the quarterback who doesn’t need one? With this in mind, New Orleans should focus in on Chargers’ free agent Melvin Ingram.

There is one caveat to this signing: It does not preclude the Saints from drafting another edge player early. They can still get great talent in the third round, while also shoring up other needs (cornerback) in the first. Ingram falls more neatly into the mold of an edge setter. At South Carolina, when Ingram and Texans’ star Jadeveon Clowney shared a field, the Gamecocks would sometimes overload by lining Ingram up alongside Clowney on one side of the formation. Clowney would rush, while Ingram would stunt outside of him and set the edge. Ingram is comfortable playing in several different gaps on the line, but he’s at his best when he’s in a two point stance outside of the tackle or over the tight end.

As with any potential signing, first thing’s first: Where’s the fit? The 4-3/3-4 defense distinction is dying, rapidly. The Saints are listed at 4-3, the Chargers 3-4. However, with the emergence of edge rusher as a viable position, more and more teams are shedding that distinction and running multiple fronts/zones. With this in mind, this is both teams in their base, the only distinction being that the Chargers have rotated a safety down into coverage while the Saints have two safeties high. Ingram is lined up on the left tackle’s outside shoulder, not quite over the TE but nearly. He’s in his comfortable two-point stance.

Next: How does Ingram fit with the other personnel on the Saints’ defense. Edge setting was an issue for the Saints’ defense all season. Cameron Jordan was their one viable pass rush threat, while Daryl Tapp and Paul Kruger were largely held in check. Ingram instantly bolsters their pass rush, while also giving the Saints a viable player outside of the tackles. Dannell Ellerbe is worth mentioning in this equation, but his health is such a concern that it’s important to be able to supplant him should he go down again. Kasim Edebali saw extremely limited snaps last season, and with him being a restricted free agent that was the favorite to play alongside Jordan at end in 2016, he seems to have fallen out of favor.

The only big knock I have against Ingram is how long it took him to get started. It took Ingram three seasons of substandard play to finally break out in 2015. He’s 27 years old, and an Edge player’s shelf-life is volatile. Obviously there are players like DeMarcus Ware and Dwight Freeney that defy age, but they’re the exception to the rule. This is why the Saints should front-load Ingram’s contract. He’s in the midst of his prime now, and they have some money to toy with. If he falls off in year three or four for whatever reason, they can cut their losses.

One thing I love about defensive line play is that it’s straightforward. Obviously the technique isn’t, but the basis consists of “hit the guy with the ball.” One thing that I hate, however, is that it’s nearly impossible to know what’s freelanced and what’s scripted. This play is a Cover 3 defense in which Ingram lines up over the right tackle’s outside shoulder in a two-point stance (his base). The Raiders run an underneath In route to Michael Crabtree.

Make no mistake: Melvin Ingram is not best utilized in coverage. He’s good relative to an average edge defender, but that’s not where he shines. I’m not advocating for him to line up over tight ends. One thing that he does well, however, is work with the quarterback’s eyes at the line. San Diego’s topside corner is stuck in a backpedal, while Crabtree has tons of space underneath. The Chargers don’t get much push, and Ingram takes two steps towards the backfield, allows Oakland’s RT to stagger back, and squares his hips to Derek Carr.

The result is an easy incompletion that, had the ball been thrown a tad lower, could have easily turned into an interception. With Crabtree alone, Carr tries to hit him on the break, and Carr throws a classic Madden incompletion where the player is left wondering where in the world that guy even came from. Must’ve been a glitch. I’m going on record saying that this play’s script very likely called for Ingram to deke blitz and fall into coverage, because otherwise that leaves an entire flat wide open, and that’s pretty bad play design. Ingram had five deflections last year, one less than the Saints’ own Cameron Jordan.

Counter plays have some really neat unintended effects. For starters, they eliminate the need for a running back to read a defense. It has a single-cut built into it. It also works like a delay in the sense that it lets your blockers get to where they need to be. The Raiders have one of the best guards in the NFL in Kelechi Osemele, who singlehandedly elevated the game of his entire line, especially left tackle Donald Penn. Ingram lines up outside of the tight end on this play, once again in a two-point stance.

Osemele pulls across the formation as one would expect on a counter. Ingram is left as dead weight by the defense. Although you rarely want a defender flatfooted mid-play, this is really still pre-play for Ingram. He’s letting it unfold, as the Raiders have a lot of window dressing up front for the counter. He keeps his eyes in the backfield and stays at home patiently, while the rest of the Chargers’ front seven reacts to the play in real-time.

Richard is hard to see, his helmet is the little guy poking up above two giants. The Chargers overpursue, and Richard prepares to make his cutback. Ingram, however, has the play registered. He moves into the now vacant gap in the middle of the field, seeing the wide open lane, and makes a move on Richard.

All of the defensive discipline in the world means nothing if you can’t tackle. Ingram hits Richard a bit high for my taste, but nonetheless there is absolutely no way that Richard is getting out of that bear hug. Ingram saves his defensive back from having to make an open field tackle, and the Raiders get a comfortable four-yard gain on first down.

“But what about the New Orleans of it all?” you ask? Ingram’s edge setting is important, and I’m going to get back to him in a second. But this is why the Saints need a linebacker that can both set the edge and rush the passer. Stephone Anthony lines up outside. The Falcons run a misdirection play, in which Devonta Freeman takes the hand-off and makes a one-cut run across the formation.

The Falcons’ TE just got himself the easiest blocking assignment ever: a linebacker that’s taken himself out of the play through overpursuit that is now trying to change direction to mask his mistake. This is also phenomenal vision from Freeman, as it was clearly a zone run designed to go to the weak-side that he cut back due to the space on the other side of the field (which happens frequently in zone due to the offensive line shift).

A secondary player is isolated against a running back.

It doesn’t go great.

Rather similar situation here. With the Falcons in 12 personnel, the Saints’ brackets are Paul Kruger (4 pt. stance) and Anthony (coverage stance). Freeman runs his makeshift counter again, running a simple one-cut misdirection.

This time, Anthony is engaged and Kruger is the trail. Roman Harper (horizontal line) is crashing across the formation with reckless abandon, and Kruger is left untouched. He keeps going into the backfield, however, rather than setting his edge.

Freeman got out of this. This. Matters. Devonta Freeman isn’t going to just go away, the Saints are playing him twice a year for a long time, he’s just getting started. I know that I just said the same thing three times in a row, but it cannot be overstated: The Falcons are a good team, and they’re the team to beat in the NFC South right now. If the Saints can’t stop basic one-cut run plays, they’re in a lot of trouble. Kruger overpursues untouched, and the Falcons get nine yards on what should have been two to three yards tops.

The real reason that you get an edge rusher is for the pressure. On this play, Ingram is in a two point stance outside of the right tackle. He demonstrates pure power on this play to rush the throw.

Starting low, Ingram gets inside of and underneath the RT’s pads. He buries his helmet underneath his chin and drives, rather than trying to escape the grasp. Bear in mind, offensive linemen can hold and be within the rules on a swim move, which is why the bull rush can be so effective. It negates that option.

Osweiler’s own RT gets a hit on his QB on the play, as Ingram just drives him straight back. The bull rush is a great way to create artificial pressure on quarterbacks, and Osweiler is forced to rush this throw to the flat.

This play illustrates both a strength and a weakness of Ingram’s in the passing game. He gets good initial pressure, and he has an arsenal of moves. But when he gets into the backfield, he can sometimes forget where he is. This is my case for the Saints still drafting an edge rusher if they sign Ingram. He is capable of lining up inside of someone else on the line, and even if he weren’t, Jordan is. If the Saints have the ability to shuffle players on their line, they’ll be significantly more effective. As good as I believe Ingram is at containing the running game, it’s containing the quarterback that concerns me.

Jameis Winston isn’t a mobile QB, but even non-mobile quarterbacks have to run sometimes. In a division that faces Cam Newton, being able to contain the QB becomes extra important. If Ingram gives up this kind of space against Carolina, Newton is off to the races. Even as it were, Winston hits Mike Evans 22 yards downfield. It’s an absolutely beautiful initial move by Ingram, and if he can master that finesse spin he’ll be incredibly dangerous. But on this play it serves more to take him out of it since he can’t finish the sack. Ingram has the potential to utilize those moves, but he requires work on them. If the Saints line him up as a 5-tech with a 7-tech to complement him, I believe he’ll be more efficient in the passing game than he already is.

As it stands, when splitting duties with Bosa, Ingram just couldn’t seem to finish at times.

These plays came courtesy of Bolts from the Blues’ Derrick Browne, who wrote a piece about the Jekyll & Hyde nature of Ingram the pass rusher here. If you’re wondering about the hometown feelings towards Ingram, that’s an excellent place to start as it illustrates the bad and the good. Both of these quarterbacks have forced mobility. They don’t love to run, but as I stated above, sometimes a QB’s gotta scramble. Ingram’s hands and finishing ability on the rush leaves much to be desired, and it is part of why he recorded only eight sacks in 2016.

Signing Melvin Ingram opens up a world of possibilities for the Saints. They can use him as an edge setter on first and second down and use a mid-late round draft pick as a third down speed rusher. They can let Ingram play contain and crash on the ball. Or they can just set him loose and let him read the play. Ingram is being touted as a top three outside linebacker in free agency, right alongside Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins. He’ll fetch a hefty price tag, but the upside is well worth it.

As a pass rusher, I believe that Ingram is an amazing talent with some issues in discipline. I believe that he’s solid overall, and he has the potential to make amazing plays. But I’m not advocating to sign Ingram as a “pure” pass rusher. I’m advocating signing him as an edge player. Ingram is patient, he’s a good tackler and he’s sound. With all of these skills, he could be exactly what the Saints need. With instincts that Anthony lacks on the outside and speed that Kruger doesn’t have. He can read a quarterback and he isn’t afraid to let a play unfold in front of him. The Saints desperately need help on their front seven, there’s no question about it. But with Sheldon Rankins and Nick Fairley inside, along with Melvin Ingram, Cameron Jordan and a player to be named setting the edges, the Saints would be a very difficult team to face in 2017.