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The Saints and defensive needs approaching the NFL Draft

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A lot of key pieces are returning for the Saints defense, so what would be areas to address during the draft?

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Saints defense ended up being a major strength for Sean Payton and company in 2018, and was a huge reason for them getting back into the postseason for the first time since 2013. Through a combination of the draft, free agency, and coaching changes, the Saints became a unit to take seriously. So, with the NFL draft quickly approaching, what’s the most important positions of need for the black and gold?

For a list of thoughts on offensive needs, check here.

Linebacker

One big signing later of Demario Davis has many feeling pretty good. Davis is coming off a monster season with the New York Jets. Having just turned 29 in January, Davis cashed in on a 3-year, $24 million deal. Projections should have him anchoring the middle (or MIKE) spot for Dennis Allen’s defense. Davis hasn’t missed a game in his entire NFL career, dating back to 2012. The hope and belief is he brings that missing presence to the middle that simply hasn’t been there since Jonathan Vilma.

Outlook: Craig Robertson is playing out the final year of his contract in 2018, and there’s a varying opinion of A.J. Klein’s impact on the field (some have labeled him a free agent bust already). Manti Te’o proved that he was a fairly serviceable option when the Saints needed him last season, and Alex Anzalone should likely be the starting weak side linebacker.

With that being said, the Saints should look to get a versatile linebacker in the draft, preferably with speed in mind. Anzalone showed he can get across the field quickly, but are you willing to bet that he’ll make it a full 16 games?

The Saints are also getting back Nathan Stupar from injury in addition to returning players Michael Mauti and Adam Bighill. Behind them are guys who could end up doing something (Jayrone Elliott, Sae Tautu, and Shayne Skov), but we simply don’t know.

Defensive End

The Saints were able to bring back Alex Okafor, which is potentially good news assuming he’s fully recovered from his Achilles injury. Okafor was a consistent contributor at defensive end opposite of Cam Jordan up until getting hurt. Afterwards, the Saints used a few different looks with rookie Trey Hendrickson and veteran George Johnson being the primary beneficiaries for snaps.

Outlook: One would assume that Cameron Jordan is going to continue playing at a high level (likely elite), and the Saints managed to rack up 42.0 sacks in 2017 — which was their highest total since Rob Ryan’s first season as defensive coordinator in 2013 (49.0) and only the second time under Sean Payton the Saints have amassed 40 sacks or better. Hau’oli Kikaha enters the final year of his contract, with second-year Al-Quadin Muhammad and now official part of the competition Alex Jenkins set to compete as well.

After Bradley Chubb and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo (maybe even Marcus Davenport), there’s arguably a big drop off in defensive ends. Harold Landry is also a big name floating out there, but unless the Saints trade up, it’s hard to see them landing any of the top prospects. Still, there are appealing targets like Sam Hubbard who may not come in and be a dominant edge presence off the bat, but could find themselves working in the Saints rotation.

Defensive Tackle

Nick Fairley is officially out, and this might be an overlooked area where the Saints look to upgrade. Sheldon Rankins, who offered some versatility last season as a defensive end, should pair with David Onyemata and Tyeler Davison once again. Onyemata showed tremendous growth in his second season, and Davison is in a contract year, and has been a fairly underrated presence on the team’s defensive line. Devaroe Lawrence and Woodrow Hamilton will also battle for a spot in 2018.

Outlook: A real dark horse name to remember is Mitchell Loewen, who impressed the team during training camp and the preseason before sustaining a season-ending injury. He can rotate as both an interior and edge presence, and has big upside on special teams. Interior lineman is a spot where the Saints can simply get better, especially in terms of depth.

The Other Spots

  • Cornerback: While nothing transpired with Malcolm Butler, the Saints threw a curve ball by bringing back Patrick Robinson. Robinson most certainly fits as a slot option, as he’s fresh off of a Super Bowl. Perhaps what’s most interesting about free agency is that maybe there’s a bigger belief in Ken Crawley to hold down starting duties opposite of Marshon Lattimore. P.J. Williams is facing a contract year, while second-year players Justin Hardee and Arthur Maulet could likely threaten. De’Vante Harris is also still around, and the team also signed Bradley Sylve on a reserve/future deal back in January.
  • Safety: A departure of Kenny Vaccaro and Rafael Bush wasn’t exactly surprising, and the Saints did add Kurt Coleman prior to any of this happening. Vonn Bell seems to be primed for more of a role in 2018, and Chris Banjo showed he can fill in at times and isn’t just a special teams guy. Still, it wouldn’t shock me to see the team getting at least one or two safeties in the draft, one drafted in the later rounds and most assuredly an undrafted guy. Mykkele Thompson and Rickey Jefferson are both unknowns at this point.

Poll

Which area of need do you find most pressing for the Saints to address during the draft?

This poll is closed

  • 20%
    Linebacker
    (127 votes)
  • 55%
    Defensive End
    (343 votes)
  • 20%
    Defensive Tackle
    (129 votes)
  • 3%
    Secondary
    (22 votes)
621 votes total Vote Now