Entering the second week of free agency, the New Orleans Saints have only added former Carolina Panthers fullback Alex Armah to their roster. They have re-signed some of their own players, but also had to release several contributors just to get under the salary cap before the start of the league's new year.
While a few free agent signings are expected, the Saints will likely look to retool their roster in the draft, which begins on April 29. Over the last four seasons, New Orleans has built a championship caliber roster mostly through the draft and shrewd free agent signings.
While much of that talent remains, here are the team's biggest questions on the defensive side.
Three-time Pro Bowler Marshon Lattimore is one of the best corners in the league and often takes an opponent's best receiver out of the game. However, the release of Janoris Jenkins creates a huge need for the team opposite Lattimore.
Chauncey Gardner-Johnson has given the defense terrific coverage in the slot, and could take on more of a traditional cornerback role in 2021. Veterans Patrick Robinson and newly re-signed P. J. Williams supply experienced depth, but each are targeted by opponents with frequent success.
The Saints could look to bring in a veteran free agent if they can get one on a reasonable deal. Casey Hayward, Kevin King, Gareon Conley, Richard Sherman, Malcolm Butler, and Bashaud Breeland are a few names still available.
New Orleans would be wise to look into spending an early draft choice on a cornerback. Jaycee Horn, Greg Newsome, Asante Samuel, Elijah Molden, Tyson Campbell, and Eric Stokes could all be available as 1st round picks or early on Day 2. Aaron Robinson, Camryn Bynum, Shaun Wade, and Rodarius Williams are also potential contributors that could slide into the middle rounds.
All-Pro LB Demario Davis is the heart, soul, and focal point of the New Orleans defense. Kwon Alexander was added in a mid-season trade, giving Davis an athletic running mate that helped propel the Saints defense into elite status. Alexander, who suffered an Achilles injury late in the season, was released for salary cap reasons. His return, along with experienced unrestricted free agent linebackers Alex Anzalone and Craig Robertson, isn't out of the question.
Along with Davis at the position, the Saints currently have 2020 3rd round draft choice Zack Baun and 2019 7th round pick Kaden Elliss. Coaches have high expectations for Baun, but he is inexperienced after playing predominantly as a stand-up defensive end in college. Elliss has good instincts, but is athletically limited in coverage.
If the Saints look to add an every down linebacker in free agency, then they could look to De'Vondre Campbell, Patrick Onwuasor, and Avery Williamson for less expensive alternatives, or K.J. Wright, or Reuben Foster if they're able to spend a bit more.
Tulsa's Zaven Collins would be an outstanding addition if the Saints look to add a playmaking linebacker with their 1st round choice. Nick Bolton would also be a first-round option, but lightening fast linebackers Chazz Surratt or Jabril Cox would be even better fits on Day 2 of the draft. Dylan Moses, Baron Browning, or Pete Werner are playmakers from big-time programs that could be available in the middle rounds.
The trade of DT Malcom Brown and free agent loss of Sheldon Rankins thins the impressive depth that made this defense formidable last season. David Onyemata is an emerging star, and former undrafted players Shy Tuttle and Malcolm Roach will be expected to play bigger roles after making key contributions.
New Orleans could bolster their depth here with an inexpensive free agent signing like Jaleel Johnson or John Jenkins. Players like Roy Robertson-Harris, Kawann Short, or Danny Shelton would cost more, but would team with Onyemata to make a formidable interior duo.
There is a drop-off after the top two rated defensive tackles in the draft. Players like Alim McNeill or Osa Odighizuwa would be excellent 2nd round options. Milton Williams and Marvin Jones highlight a strong second-tier through the middle rounds.
Despite the free agent loss of Trey Hendrickson, the Saints still have solid talent along the edge. Pro Bowl DE Cameron Jordan returns, the team hopes for a healthy Marcus Davenport, and Carl Granderson is a potential breakout candidate. Still, the most effective way to shut down opposing offenses is by constant pressure on the quarterback.
The team could add a young talent like Tanoh Kpassagnon in free agency, but it’s unlikely that they are willing to spend much money on this position. If a first-round talent like Gregory Rousseau or Jayson Oweh slips to New Orleans at 28, they could pull the trigger. Cameron Sample or Carlos Basham would also be intriguing options if available late on Day 2.
With the team applying the franchise tag on S Marcus Williams, they have a strong trio on the back end with him, Gardner-Johnson, and Malcolm Jenkins. However, Jenkins will turn 34 before the end of the season and Williams will be a free agent in 2022 if they cannot reach a long-term deal.
The Saints won't bring in a free agent because of their current talent and salary cap concerns needed to fill other needs. They may pull the trigger on a versatile safety in the draft to provide immediate depth with a potential starting role in 2022.
Coach Sean Payton reportedly met at length with the draft's top graded safety, Trevon Moehrig, at TCU's pro day recently. Other playmakers at the position like Paris Ford, Andre Cisco, Demar Hamlin, or Jevon Holland could also be added through Day 2 or early on the draft's 3rd day.
What do you think is the Saints’ biggest need on the defensive side of the ball?
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