The status quo for the Saints in recent years had been a dominant passing game on offense that was weighed down by a sluggish running game and a total inability to stop anyone on defense. The last three years they had gone 7-9 and been at the bottom of nearly every defensive category, but all that changed in 2017. A strong draft and a few savvy free agent deals and sudden the Saints had a contender on both sides of the ball.
Dennis Allen’s defense was turned around by Marshon Lattimore, Marcus Williams, and a stellar campaign from Cameron Jordan. On offense the running game was sparked into life by rookie tackle Ryan Ramczyk and electric running back Alvin Kamara. The Saints were one of the most well balanced and dangerous teams in the entire NFL last season as they went 11-5 and won the NFC South. They were only knocked out of the playoffs by the new Minnesota Miracle Man Stefon Diggs.
Heading into 2018 expectations are sky high for the Saints, but they still have a lot of work to do in a highly competitive division and conference. To improve the team the Saints have $33 million in salary cap space, which is nice but a little misleading as the team need to get a new deal for Drew Brees done. They do however have eight draft picks to put to use. So where should they focus their efforts to improve the roster?
The Saints built a good defensive line and reworked their secondary last season, but the linebacking corps 7was left a bit thin. AJ Klein and Manti Te’o were bought in as bargain basement free agents, and while Klein worked out well for them, Te’o was something of a liability, and behind them there is very, very little.
The 2018 free agent pool is full of veteran inside linebackers like Brian Cushing and Derrick Johnson who can do a job against the run, though there is very little in the way of coverage skills in the free market. Pairing a veteran run-stuffer with an athletic rookie could be a good way for the Saints to restock the position and eliminate one of the major weaknesses on the roster.
Cameron Jordan was a monster in 2017. He led the team with 13 sacks, 17 tackles for loss, and 28 QB hits. In a non-Aaron Donald universe he could well have been Defensive Player of the Year. The problem is that behind him there was very little help when it came to harassing quarterbacks.
The next best sack-getter was Vonn Bell with 4.5. Kenny Vaccaro had the second-best tackle for loss number with seven, and no one else hit double-digits in QB hits. In short, the Saints need another pass rusher to pair with Jordan.
There are several options that could be available when the Saints are on the clock with the 27th pick, but with pressuring the QB being at such a premium in the modern NFL there could well be a run before they get their chance to take a quality option.
Someone like Sam Hubbard or Harold Landry could be available for the Saints, but they may have to reach on a Arden Key or Duke Ejiofor if they are determined to add a pass rusher early in the draft.
The offense is pretty well set, despite the reports that offensive tackle Zach Strief is expected to retire this offseason. However, the one spot that has been something of a bugbear for the Saints in recent years is the tight end spot.
The post-Jimmy Graham era has been led by Coby Fleener, but he has been inconsistent at best since arriving in New Orleans and saw just 30 targets last season. There are a couple of interesting tight end prospects in this draft class, but it may be a case of seeing if they can get a free agent like Tyler Eifert at a cut rate or try to make a star out of a late round pick. The offense is pretty well stocked for targets at the moment, and a quality middle of the field tight end would be a luxury more than a necessity at this point.
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