NFL DRAFT: Saints hoping draft bolsters beleaguered defense
METAIRIE, La. (AP) Saints coach Sean Payton has spent the past two seasons watching defensive blunders cancel out strong outings by the elite offense he designed.
It's reached the point where New Orleans' often secretive coach readily opens up about his hope that this year's NFL draft produces picks who create more problems for opposing quarterbacks.
''We need to find somebody that can rush the passer; I think we can find that in this draft,'' said Payton, whose team is slated to pick 12th overall in Thursday night's first round. ''We need to find help in that defensive front seven, and I think we can find that in this draft.
''There's that proverbial `must-needs-want' list,'' Payton added. ''There are a few musts here on that side of the ball.''
The Saints have ranked either last or second to last in defense in three of the past four seasons, including second to last in each of the past two campaigns.
New Orleans has missed the playoffs and finished with 7-9 records for two straight years, but who knows how much worse off it would have been if not for Drew Brees and Co. consistently keeping the Saints near the top of the league in total offense.
In 2015, the Saints' offense gained 403.8 yards per game, which ranked second in the NFL. New Orleans' defense gave up 413.4 yards per game.
A defensive overhaul in New Orleans began last year, when six of nine draft picks were used on defensive players. But New Orleans has a long way to go to even approach the type of defensive prowess that led Denver and Carolina to last season's Super Bowl.
If there is an area of concern on offense, it's the interior line. The release of Jahri Evans leaves the Saints with a pair of relatively young and unaccomplished projected starters at guard. Payton is considering various options to strengthen that position as well.
''There are a few linemen in this draft that are tackles and you could move them to guard,'' Payton said. ''If that opportunity presents itself for us, we wouldn't hesitate.''
Here are some other things to know about the Saints entering the draft:
THE EDGE: The Saints had 31 sacks as a team last season, which tied for 25th league-wide. Defensive end Cameron Jordan made a team-high 10 sacks, but opposing offenses were often able to focus on blocking him without paying a price. Another talented edge pass rusher to complement Jordan could make throwing against the Saints much tougher.
ON GUARD: As offseason workouts begin, New Orleans' top two guards are Tim Lelito, a fourth-year pro who started regularly for the first time last season, and Senio Kelemete, a four-year pro who made his first five career starts in 2015. When the Saints were their most potent in 2009 and 2011, they had a pair of Pro Bowl-caliber guards in Evans and Carl Nicks. Nicks left in free agency in 2012 and retired two years later because of injuries. Evans was released this offseason, so an elite interior lineman would be hard for the Saints to pass up.
PLUGGING GAPS: The Saints didn't just struggle against the pass last season. They ranked 31st against the run. So if an elite defensive tackle prospect is available when the Saints are on the clock, he could wind up in New Orleans, particularly if he's dynamic enough to be a run stuffer and provide push up the middle on pass plays.
OUT WIDE: The fact that Brees completed 68.3 percent of his passes for 4,870 yards and 32 touchdowns last season doesn't mean he couldn't use a new target downfield. The Saints released their all-time leading receiver, Marques Colston, so New Orleans' top three receivers are now third-year pros Brandin Cooks and Brandon Coleman, along with second-year pro Willie Snead.
UNDER CENTER: Brees, who turned 37 in January, says he believes he can play beyond age 40. That doesn't preclude New Orleans from drafting a perceived quarterback of the future. But doing so could strain relations with Brees while also raising questions about the wisdom of drafting QB Garrett Grayson in the third round last year.
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