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New Orleans Saints: How Free Agency Has Affected Draft Decisions - Part 1, The Defense

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The next wave of offseason activities are almost upon us. The NFL draft begins on April 27th. How have the Saints off season decisions affected the roster so far?

NFL: Preaseason-Pittsburgh Steelers at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Saints were widely believed to be one of the teams that "won" free agency. They added numerous players to fill positions of need, and did not have to put themselves back in salary cap purgatory to do so. Outside of trading away wide receiver Brandin Cooks, the Saints also did not suffer any significant losses to the talent already on the roster.

The Saints currently have 7 selections in the upcoming NFL draft, including five picks within the first three rounds. We will look over each of the New Orleans position groups to determine how they have been altered by the offseason thus far, and how the team's decision making during the draft may have been affected. In Part one of a two-part series, let's have a look at what has been the most scrutinized area of the Saints during most of the Sean Payton era: the New Orleans defense.

Defensive Tackle

  • Key additions: none
  • Key losses: none
  • Re-signed: Nick Fairley

This should be one of the strongest units on the team, and almost definitely the best unit on the defensive side of the ball. The re-signing of Fairley could prove to be the Saints' best transaction of free agency. The combination of Fairley and last year's top draft choice Sheldon Rankins were a disruptive force against opposing offenses down the stretch last season. The future looks bright for Rankins, who at times looked like a potential all-pro. Depth is solid here as well, with Tyeler Davison, David Onyemata, and Darryl Tapp all playing solid football inside. Defensive tackle is not a big priority for New Orleans in this draft.

Defensive End

  • Additions: Alex Okafor (Cardinals)
  • Losses: Paul Kruger (free agent), Kasim Edebali (Broncos)
  • Re-signed: Darryl Tapp

Cam Jordan is one of the most versatile linemen in the NFL. One of the biggest obstacles that have plagued this defense in recent seasons is the lack of consist pass rush on the opposite side of Jordan. New Orleans base defense is primarily a 4-3 alignment, but coordinator Dennis Allen will often run the defense out of various formations. Edebali and Kruger would be ends in some formations, stand-up linebackers in some others. The same will be expected from Okafor, Hau'oli Kikaha, and Obum Gwacham.

Kikaha and Gwacham are returning from injuries that cost them each their seasons in 2016. Tapp and Onyemata often slid over to a defensive end spot as well. More is expected from Kikaha, a second round draft pick in 2015 who showed promise his rookie season, but is coming back from his third major knee injury. The Saints hope that Okafor can return to his 2014 production, when he produced 8 sacks in Arizona. Onyemata is raw, but the coaching staff loves his potential along the defensive line.

The Saints will almost certainly address the edge rusher position high in the draft. Players such as Tennessee's Derek Barnett, Missouri's Charles Harris, Villanova's Tanoh Kpassagnon, Youngstown State's Derek Rivers and Wisconsin T.J. Watt are among the names being linked to the Saints early in this draft, and can also play the outside LB spot on passing downs. Expect New Orleans to nab at least one of these names within the draft's first two days. A mid to late round pick on a prospect like Keionta Davis from Chattanooga is worth a look here, as well.

Outside Linebacker

  • Additions: Travis Feeney (Reserve/Future - formerly of Steelers), Adam Bighill (CFL)
  • Losses: none

This position has been a mess for quite some time. The inability to provide any pass rush, and liability in all pass coverage has plagued the New Orleans defense in nearly every game. 2016 did show a bit of improvement, but the Saints are still lacking playmakers in this department. Dannell Ellerbe played the best football of his career; but the oft-injured linebacker still appeared in only 9 games, and simply cannot be counted on to remain healthy.

Craig Robertson came in as a free agent and played very good football on the outside before moving over to middle linebacker to fill another area of need. Stephone Anthony was moved to the outside in hopes of taking better advantage of the athletic ability he showed as a rookie. Anthony suffered a leg injury early and never seemed to grasp the defensive playbook, also putting into question his ability to read an offense. It is a make or break season for Anthony.

Nate Stupar played well at times for New Orleans, but is more of a depth player in both middle and outside spots. The additions of Feeney and Bighill bring athleticism and tenacity to a unit that has been lacking, and the ability of Kikaha and Okafor to rush from that spot at times should benefit as well.

The Saints desperately need playmakers at all linebacking positions, and should look to address this need early in the draft. Haason Reddick from Temple and UCLA's Takkarist McKinley would be great fits, both likely to go in the top half of Round 1. Alabama's duo of Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson are both capable pass rushers, but concerns about them could drop them to the second round or later.

Inside Linebacker

The Saints will go into their 4th consecutive year with a different starting middle linebacker. New Orleans signed Klein away from division rival Carolina in hopes that he will provide a playmaking force that they lacked with Stephone Anthony, James Laurinaitis and Curtis Lofton. Anthony remains on the roster, and the Saints are hoping that new linebackers coach Mike Nolan can get him to live up to the billing of a former first-round draft pick. Robertson provided stability in the middle last season, once it was clear that the Laurinaitis experiment had failed.

T'eo was brought in from San Diego to provide depth, and will hopefully stay healthy enough to do so. Most early mock drafts saw New Orleans selecting Alabama phenom Reuben Foster for the inside linebacker position. A talent like Foster, or Vanderbilt's Zach Cunningham would be hard to pass on. Given the Saints needs at other positions and the signing of Klein, it seems like New Orleans will not use an early pick here.

Cornerback

  • Additions: none
  • Losses: B.W. Webb (free agent)
  • Re-signed: Sterling Moore

This is probably the position group that has been subject to the most rumors this off season. Will the Saints trade for Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler? Will they draft one high? Will they draft TWO high? Or will they stand pat, content in the injured players that are returning to the lineup? Delvin Breaux returned to the lineup at mid-season after suffering a broken leg in the opener, but was just not the same player. A healthy Breaux is huge for this team, he has the abilities of a top echelon corner. P.J. Williams has skills that the coaches love, but he's only played one full regular season game in his 2-year career.

Damian Swann showed nice promise as a rookie, but also missed 2016 with his third concussion. His career is in serious question. The coaching staff loved last year's undrafted free agent crop of Ken Crawley, De’Vante Harris, and Jimmy Pruitt. Harris did not play well in his opportunities, and Pruitt was on injured reserve. Crawley received extensive playing time, and despite rookie struggles did look like he has a future in the league.

Sterling Moore was signed into the season because of the extensive injuries suffered at the position, and played very well at times. His return gives the Saints a steady, veteran presence. If New Orleans does not pull off a trade for Butler, then we can expect that they would add at least one cornerback in the draft. By all accounts, this is a deep and talented cornerback class, with as many as nine players expected to be drafted between the early first round and mid-second.

Safety

  • Additions: none
  • Losses: Jairus Byrd (free agent)
  • Re-signed: Shiloh Keo, Chris Banjo

The release of Byrd will not become official until later this off season, and it's possible that the Saints may even bring him back. Kenny Vaccaro and Vonn Bell are the unquestioned starters, but there is little behind them. Keo and Banjo were retained primarily for depth and special teams. Erik Harris did show promise last preseason after being signed from the CFL, but was injured early.

The Saints badly need a safety that can make plays and provide solid coverage down the middle of the field. This may even be a higher priority than corner, given the lack of depth that New Orleans has here. LSU's Jamal Adams and Malik Hooker from Ohio State will each be drafted in the top part of the 1st Round. Budda Baker of Washington, Marcus Maye from Florida, and UConn's Obi Melifonwu could all be late day one or day 2 selections. And Alabama's Eddie Jackson and Marcus Williams of Utah excelled in centerfield coverage throughout there collegiate careers, and may be available in the mid-rounds.

The Saints do have some good, young talent on the defensive side of the ball, and did show good improvement in some areas last season. Still, there are plenty of holes to fill. Thankfully, this seems to be a very deep defensive draft. Even with the talent added to the team in free agency, New Orleans has a good opportunity to build this side of the ball to match it's traditionally strong offense.

Next, we will look at how offseason decisions will dictate what the Saints do in the draft for the offense.