It’s not a secret any longer, but the New Orleans Saints are in a make-or-break season in 2017. Three straight 7-9 finishes absolutely has head coach Sean Payton on the hot seat, and the same could be said for general manager Mickey Loomis. However, the good news is that we've witnessed some major changes since the end of 2016 that has reason for optimism.
Payton has recently spoke to media outlets on the state of the team and some pressing needs heading into the new season, and whether you believe it or not, there’s areas he’s pointed out as ‘musts’ for the Saints. Those areas have included a pass rusher (obviously) and cornerback, but at the same time Payton has talked about the depth at running back and safety in the draft.
Here’s a few thoughts on the biggest needs the Saints have in 2017.
No. 1 - Pass Rusher
Call it a defensive end, edge rusher, or whatever else you deem appropriate, but this looks to be the biggest need for the black and gold in 2017. It’s not hard to deduce why either, as the Saints have consistently been at the bottom of the league in sack totals.
No one will like to admit it, but this defense has severely missed Junior Galette over the past two years. Obviously, what transpired is of no fault but his own. However, the fact remains that the Saints have turned in an average of just 32.0 sacks over the past three seasons, which is nothing to celebrate.
The Saints have tried to gain production by bringing in veterans on a dime and using a rotational committee approach, but it hasn't panned out. This is the season to give this area the attention it needs, but the bigger question is whether or not the Saints feel that answer will come from the draft or free agency. Both have appealing options to offer, but clearly the right one is what fans care about most.
If for some reason you still doubt the need, then all you have to do is go back to what Sean Payton told John DeShazier a few days ago. He said, "It's a must. We've got to find a pass rusher."
No. 2 - Linebacker
If there’s one thing the Saints have desperately lacked over the past several years, it has been a linebacker that offers the skill trifecta of speed, tackling, and coverage. I continue to see a growing narrative that all Dennis Allen’s defense needs to do is shore up the defensive line and add a cornerback or two to the mix, and the problem is solved for the defense. I emphatically disagree.
No matter how much the pass rush and secondary improves, the Saints can still be at a severe disadvantage with poor linebacker play. Just think about it. If the rush gets to the quarterback just a couple of seconds faster and the secondary provides stellar coverage and support over the top, then what's still out there? Checking it down and throwing it underneath to running backs and tight ends. Those are two problematic defenses the Saints haven't been so great at in recent years.
Once again, appealing targets in both the draft and free agency can present itself, and the team doesn’t have to shell out a ton of money to get quality upgrades there.
No. 3 - Cornerback
It was extremely unfortunate seeing Dennis Allen’s defense lose so many key starters and role players in such a short amount of time last season, but that’s just how it rolls sometimes. The Saints ended up losing Kyle Wilson, Jimmy Pruitt, Damian Swann, Delvin Breaux, and P.J. Williams to injury, but were able to somewhat compensate by gaining Sterling Moore and B.W. Webb while throwing in undrafted rookies Ken Crawley and De’Vante Harris.
Still, there was some major inconsistencies in the secondary, but at the same time some encouraging things. Most of the players lost during last season are set to return to the mix in 2017, but the reliability and durability of the group give us major question marks. Free agents like Wilson and Moore can and should be brought back on relatively friendly deals to compete on the depth chart, but the Saints need to target a veteran cornerback (Logan Ryan is my personal favorite) to start opposite of Delvin Breaux.
Now, something that can obviously be said about the position is that there’s certainly intrigue with CFL’s Forrest Hightower (Ottawa Redblacks) and Anthony Gaitor (BC Lions). However, it’s a mostly unproven group that Dennis Allen and secondary coach Aaron Glenn must find answers from.
No. 4 - Running Back
This may not seem like the largest area of need for some, but as mentioned in the 2017 running back outlook column, the Saints realistically have Mark Ingram and Daniel Lasco in the mix to help. Yes, Marcus Murphy is still there - but once again, his value to the offense is null and void. The futures of Tim Hightower and Travaris Cadet are unknown right now, and you won’t see Sean Payton go into a season with uncertainty from his skill positions.
Once again, this is an area Payton has talked about in interviews. Now, whether or not that’s a smoke screen is obviously up for debate. Still, the Saints won’t make Mark Ingram shoulder the load by himself, although he’s proven to be very capable as a three-down back. It’s a very attractive class for taking a running back during the draft, as many prospects fit the bill as a typical Payton prototype.
The ideal scenario would be to bring back Hightower as Ingram insurance, but at a better rate of compensation, and then turn to the draft to a player like a Elijah McGuire, Donel Pumphrey, or a Jeremy McNichols. The bottom line? Don’t be surprised to see the Saints use one of their six picks on a backfield talent.
No. 5 - Wild Card
I believe there’s a real debate here for the final spot. A safety would be something the team needs if they part ways with Jairus Byrd, and they’ll likely need to replace Roman Harper as it is and have a backup option for Erik Harris. The team could also be in the market for a guard depending on what Jahri Evans decides to do, and if the Saints would feel comfortable paying him or going with a younger player. There’s also a legitimate need to gain a stable kick and punt returner.
I don’t believe the Saints part ways with Jairus Byrd unless they have a stellar backup plan, and I could see Jahri Evans giving it one more go for the team. One of the things that has been absolutely atrocious for the team has been a good return game. There’s been flashes with players like Darren Sproles and those couple of times Marcus Murphy did things, but overall special teams has been a real problem for Payton and company.
Over the past three seasons, the Saints have averaged 41 drives per year starting inside their own 20-yard line. Now, it’s not always indicative of the returner, but maybe more so a product of poor coaching. Either way, a competent and experienced returner would be something welcomed in New Orleans.