The New Orleans Saints had a disappointing 2010 in the season that they were in a position to repeat as world champions but were surprisingly upset by an inferior Seattle Seahawks team in the first round of the playoffs. The Saints overriding goals in this year’s off-season, including what to do with their twenty-fourth overall draft selection, will be directed at trying to add the pieces to get them back to that point atop the NFC South and the conference overall.
Under the leadership of Drew Brees, the Saints offense is among the strongest in the league. So it’s likely their primary focus will be on improving the defense. Their pass rush was fairly weak a year ago, and that is probably their most pressing need. They’ve already address it somewhat with the signing of Shaun Rogers, strengthening their defensive tackle position.
Their defensive success and it’s opportunistic play in 2009 was critical to their Super Bowl run, and I think they will try to get back to that by selecting UCLA linebacker Akeem Ayers with this pick.
The Saints tried to revamp their defensive end position a year ago, dumping Charles Grant and Bobby McCray, and replacing them with Alex Brown and Jimmy Wilkerson. Grant and McCray combined for 7 sacks in 2009, while Brown and Wilkerson only had 4. Coupled with Will Smith’s dropoff in production from 13 sacks in 2009 to 5.5 last year, it was clear that the Saints need to generate more pressure on the outside.
So adding a player like Georgia’ Justin Houston would make a lot of sense. Smith is fairly entrenched at the right end spot, so someone that can come in and push Brown on the left side, particularly substituting with him on passing downs. Houston is the ideal candidate for that role, with his speed off the edge. Ryan Kerrigan would also be a good choice for the Saints if available. They will also look at Adrian Clayborn, but concerns whether Clayborn can play on the left side due to his Erb’s Palsy probably makes him the least desired candidate.
While the team did add Rogers at defensive tackle, they could still look at other options there. Rogers should take over nose tackle position for the Saints, but he’s not considered a long-term solution. Remi Ayodele is still in the mix, but the team may want to find a more permanent long-term option at the posiiton to team with Sedrick Ellis in future years. They tried that a year ago when they drafted Al Woods, but he was cut in training camp. Corey Liuget would be the ideal choice, but likely to be off the board. Stephen Paea would also make quite a bit of sense, but that might be considered a bit of a reach for him. The best player on the board would likely be Temple’s Muhammad Wilkerson, but he would play the same position as Ellis does in their scheme, so he may not be the best fit.
Outside linebacker is the more likely position to be addressed should the Saints go in another direction on defense. Danny Clark was the starter on the strongside last year, replacing Jo-Lonn Dunbar in the second half of the year. Scott Shanle was the starter on the weakside, after Jonathan Casillas went down with an injury last year. Shanle is a free agent, as is Clark, and if the Saints can address this spot in the draft, won’t be necessary to bring back. Akeem Ayers is an intriguing fit because he can play the strongside, allowing the Saints to have Dunbar and Casillas compete for the starting spot on the weakside. Ayers is a gifted athlete and could be dangerous in the aggressive blitzing schemes of Gregg Williams.
The Saints secondary was not as strong in 2010 as it was in 2009, but they probably don’t perceive it as a pressing need. They used last year’s top pick on Patrick Robinson, who gives them three solid corners with Tracy Porter and Jabari Greer. Malcolm Jenkins looked promising at free safety. Roman Harper at strong safety is the main question mark because he’s a free agent. But they want him back, and there isn’t a good strong safety candidate that merits a first round selection.
Offensively, the Saints don’t need too much help. Their biggest issue is their play up front and their running game. But the team already locked up Pierre Thomas to a new contract and are expected to keep Reggie Bush for one more year. Alabama’s Mark Ingram is probably good enough to give them pause if he’s available. He would give them a strong power option that should certainly help their depth given Thomas and Bush’s durability concerns.
Up front, the Saints may look at offensive tackles. They drafted Charles Brown a year ago to man the left tackle position long-term, but it may be time to add someone that can push Jon Stinchcomb on the right side. Someone like Wisconsin’s Gabe Carimi would make a lot of sense and help improve their ground attack. Center is also a minor area of concern. Although the team seems content to develop Matt Tennant there, if Mike Pouncey was available he might get some consideration.
In the end, the Saints will have to make a decision to address their defensive needs most likely. And it will likely come down to drafting one of the defensive ends (like Houston) or upgrading their linebacker corps with a player like Ayers. And because Ayers is probably a better candidate to come in right away and handle a starting position, I think he would get the nod.