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Saints Defensive Needs Loom Large as Free Agency Arrives

Sep 11, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen look on during the second quarter of a game against the Oakland Raiders at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Pass rusher / defensive end. Middle Linebacker. Cornerback. And now, a free safety. For the New Orleans Saints after the announcement of the pending release of veteran free safety Jairus Byrd; the numbered list of needs for their consistently bottom-of-the-pack defense for the past 3 seasons, continues to grow exponentially.

Now the question becomes: Can New Orleans piece together a competitive collection of talent for their defensive unit through Free Agency (beginning next week) and the upcoming NFL Draft later next month, and yet still somehow manage to contend for a Playoff berth in what many observers feel is a "make or break" season for the Saints in 2017?

That much remains to be seen.

But with approximately $31 million (30.86 to be more exact) to spend next week on unrestricted free agents, along with what some experts consider to be THE deepest defensive NFL Draft in recent memory; the opportunity nevertheless for the Saints to field a unit capable of at least keeping opponent's point totals down and games close every week --- is an obtainable goal.

Clearly, the Saints front office triumvirate of GM Mickey Loomis, head coach Sean Payton, and Director of College Scouting Jeff Ireland will be seeking to take an aggressive posture in their approach towards these next few weeks -- a period of time that for many who cover the team professionally -- consider it to be among the most critical in the franchise's 50-and-a-half year history.

Feb 19, 2015; Indianapolis, IN, USA; New Orleans Saints Director of College Scouting Jeff Ireland (left) and General Manager Mickey Loomis (right) at the 2015 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

With the top pass rushers already gone in Free Agency before it even had the chance to get started, one would imagine that the Saints will focus primarily on the secondary, with players such as Houston Texans CB A.J. Bouye and Arizona Cardinals safety Tony Jefferson at the top of their list, with perhaps middle linebacker (Super Bowl champion / New England Patriots star Dont'a Hightower is a favorite potential target among Saints fans) and offensive guard getting a hard look as well.

But it's the upcoming NFL Draft in late April that will provide a virtual cornucopia of available options, at a multitude of different positions on the defensive side of the football. It goes without saying: if there was ever a year for the Saints to have glaring deficiencies that NEED to be addressed immediately, this is the penultimate year for it to happen through the Draft.

At the pass rusher / defensive end position alone -- the position that most experts and analysts (including myself) consider to be the Saints' most pressing need -- there are a plethora of outstanding players that will be available to teams in need of help at getting more pressure on the opposing quarterback on NFL Sundays, Mondays, and Thursday Nights.

There of course are the "big" names like Myles Garrett of Texas A&M (the Draft's consensus top #1 rated pass rushing end), Derek Barnett of Tennessee and Solomon Thomas of Stanford, with the latter two both projected to the Saints at the #11 overall pick in a variety of recent Mock Drafts.

But then there are also names like Tanoh Kpassagnon (pronounced  “tawn-o | pass-N-yo”) of Villanova --- who is a chiseled, muscular 6-foot-7, 280 pound athletically gifted "freak of nature" that resembles a WWE wrestling champion --- and who as an FCS All-American defensive end completely terrorized the competition and sent NFL Scouts into a state of delirium at the Senior Bowl a few weeks back. 

Jan 25, 2017; Mobile, AL, USA; South squad offensive tackle Conor McDermott of UCLA blocks North squad defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon of Villanova (92) in a blocking drill during Senior Bowl practice at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Glenn Andrews-USA TODAY Sports

And who can forget an extremely underrated kid like Derek Rivers of Youngstown State, a 6-foot-5, 255-pound edge rush end who racked up 37.5 sacks and 56.5 tackles for loss over his four seasons at the FCS level and who USA TODAY's Luke Easterling says may have leapfrogged from a Day 2 pick straight into the bottom of Round #1.

The bottom line is that the Saints will have a lot of options; not only just at the edge rusher position but at several positions.

The Saints would love to have Alabama middle linebacker Reuben Foster in the 1st Round, but would gladly settle for a player like Temple's Haason Reddick -- a phenomenal athlete who is a converted defensive back that bulked up to play defensive end and has now become perhaps the Draft's best PURE linebacker (along with his ability to rush the quarterback off the edge, play any of the LB positions on the field, and including his remarkable tally of 21.5 tackles for loss last season alone) -- in Round 2.

The Saints would love to have Ohio State cornerback Marshon Lattimore at #11 overall, but likely wouldn't be offended by Michigan CB and play-maker Jourdan Lewis at the top of Round 3. And they'd no doubt be downright giddy to have LSU safety Jamal Adams if he fell to them at #11, but likely wouldn't hesitate to scoop up Utah safety Marcus Williams with their subsequent pick (#42 overall) in the 2nd Round.

Yes ---- it's THAT deep.

Nov 21, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Temple Owls linebacker Haason Reddick (58) dives to make a tackle on Memphis Tigers wide receiver Jae'lon Oglesby (19) during the first half at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Make no mistake about it: the Saints' defensive needs 'loom large' as Free Agency arrives within the next few days, and then the NFL Draft following not far behind late next month. But the opportunity to satisfy many of those same needs is abundantly ripe for the taking, assuming the Saints aren't somehow inexplicably hesitant to pull the proverbial trigger and grab them when the chance presents itself.

But as it is, when one considers that the upcoming football season in several months from now potentially could "make or break" the future direction of the franchise?

It would seem that they really don't have much of a choice..........


Saints News Network featured columnist and Big Easy Magazine contributing writer Barry Hirstius is a 52-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and writer previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 45 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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