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Barry Hirstius

The Rams Are Building a “Super Defense” Out West — and the Saints Need to Keep Up

If you're a fan of the New Orleans Saints but happened to miss yesterday evening's late-breaking NFL news: for the 2nd time in as many weeks, the Los Angles Rams — who along with the Saints last year were one of the League's most improved teams last season — pulled off their 2nd "blockbuster" trade in this month already, when they acquired former All-Pro CB Aqib Talib from the Denver Broncos in exchange for a 5th-round pick.

Additionally, the Rams also convinced the Broncos to eat Talib’s contract as is: $11 million for the 2018 season, and $8 million for the 2019 season.

As a result, the trade of Talib puts the Broncos over $35 million in projected space, according to Overthecap.com, and in better condition to make a run at free agent QB Kirk Cousins next week, when 2018 NFL Free Agency "officially" gets underway next Wednesday (March 14th).

But for the Saints and the rest of the teams in the NFC, it was bad news because now Los Angeles has nabbed not one but TWO "elite-caliber" players to add to their already top-notch defense, which is run by long-time NFL defensive coaching "guru" and Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.

Photo courtesy of The Los Angeles Times

Just in case you missed it: a week earlier the Rams acquired Kansas City Chiefs former All-Pro CB Marcus Peters in exchange for a 2018 4th round pick and a 2019 2nd round pick; which means that just since last Monday, the Rams have now managed to grab arguably the League’s best cornerback tandem completely out of thin air— and they did it without the cost of mortgaging their future in order to pull it off.

While Talib, at age 32, may have "lost a step" compared when he was a part of Denver's Super Bowl run three years ago, he is still more than capable of thriving on the same field as an elite player like the 25-year-old Peters.

You'd now have to believe that now with both Talib and Peters on board, Los Angeles will have the #1 cornerback duo in the NFC. Pro Football Focus ranked each of them among the Top 20 cornerbacks in the NFL last season; and when you combine that with an already-impressive high-octane offense run by head coach / offensive "guru" Sean McVay, the Rams’ most recent personnel moves could push Los Angeles all the way to the forefront of an already-highly competitive NFC (National Football Conference).

The Rams defense already had 2017 NFL Defensive Player of the Year and All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald (11 sacks, 34 hurries, 27 quarterback hits, and 5 forced fumbles), along with top-notch safeties LaMarcus Joyner and Mark Barron, not to mention newly-signed former Pro Bowl and Green Bay cornerback Sam Shields among others; and the additions of Peters and Talib only make them better than they were before.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

And the worst part for the Saints and the rest of the NFC:

The Rams and their General Manager Les Snead, probably aren’t done adding even more talent to that side of the ball in the upcoming days, weeks, and months ahead.

Long story short: the Rams are starting to put together and build a "super defense" out in Los Angeles this off-season, in an concerted effort on their part to remain a viable Super Bowl contender (and maybe even the favorite to win it all every year) for the forseeable future — and the Saints will need to keep up with them if they expect to have any chance to win the Super Bowl for themselves.

Photo courtesy of The Orange County Register

With 2018 NFL Free Agency starting next week and the 2018 NFL Draft coming up late next month, the Saints should have to opportunity to do just that. 

It's been suggested in recent days that New Orleans plans on being one of, if not THE most "aggressive" teams, in the off-season process this year; for a team that finished at (11-5), won the NFC South Division title, and missed making it to the NFC Championship (and having a shot at the Super Bowl) by 10 seconds and a "whiff" on a missed tackle.

Arguably, the Saints are now only an athletic, play-making linebacker and a pass-catching tight end away from being considered one of the favorites for the Super Bowl next year themselves; which of course will be played in Atlanta on February 3rd, 2019 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the home of the Saints' arch-rivals, the Atlanta Falcons.

But New Orleans seemingly always has an offense ranked in the Top 5 nearly every season; and although the Saints' team 'needs' also include more depth on the O-Line, another WR, and of course the eventual "QB of the future" to replace Drew Brees once he retires; the impetus and the #1 goal of the off-season for Saints brass likely should be on the defensive side of the football.

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

Last year, the Saints defense improved from the #31st overall scoring defense (giving up 28.4 points per game during the 2016 season) to the #10 overall scoring defense (giving up 20.4 points per game during the 2017 season).

That's a "jump up" of 21 spots, which is a significant improvement — and hats off to Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis, Director of College Scouting / Assistant GM Jeff Ireland, head coach Sean Payton, and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen for making it happen.

However as we saw in the Divisional Playoff loss to the Vikings in Minnesota, the Saints still could stand to get better on that side of the ball, as New Orleans took a step back against the run, dropping from 15th in the league in yards per carry allowed all the way to 28th; and they also struggled to get off the field on 3rd down situations, finishing 27th in the NFL.

Photo courtesy of Michael DeMocker, The New Orleans Times-Picayune

That's a surprising stat given that the Saints were actually pretty good (they finished the 2017 regular season as the 7th overall best defense in passer rating allowed) against opposing QB's for the most part. 

The good news for Saints fans (wait, you thought this article was all "bad news" only?) is that Saints front office brass appears not to be wasting any time whatsoever, in achieving that goal.

Just one week after the Saints signed former Carolina Panthers free safety Kurt Coleman to a new 3-year deal after he was released to replace the departed Kenny Vaccaro (who has said he will leave New Orleans and play elsewhere in 2018); the other "late-breaking news" last night was that New Orleans is going to meet with recently released New York Jets defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson.

Wilkerson —  who is just 28 years old with 44.5 career sacks during his 5 seasons with the Jets after being drafted by New York out of Temple University in the 1st Round of the 2011 NFL Draft — would help to further improve the Saints defense if he were to sign with New Orleans; but he does come with a substantial amount of risk, though.

Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

The 6-foot-4, 315 pound former Pro Bowl defender was suspended for the final three games of the season last year for repeated tardiness to meetings. He also has not lived up to the expectations that the Jets had for him, after he signed an $86 million contract coming off his rookie deal in 2016.

If Wilkerson were to be signed by the Saints, he would likely play strongside defensive end for New Orleans, on the opposite side of Saints All-Pro weakside defensive end / edge rusher Cam Jordan. Wilkerson is expected to visit the Kansas City Chiefs next, assuming that he doesn’t strike an immediate deal with the Saints first.

But even if the Saints aren't able to sign Wilkerson, there are a handful of other players in both Free Agency and certainly in the upcoming 2018 Draft later next month, that should allow New Orleans a few opportunities to 'keep up' with the Rams and any other team (like the new Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, who also have been making moves of their own) that is competing in this current "arms race" for NFC superiority.

For those Saints fans who thought the team would be able to just simply rest on their accomplishments and achievements from the 2017 season, yesterday evening's events provided a wake-up call of epic proportions.

In the NFL, NOBODY is "standing pat" and every single team is out to take advantage of opportunities whenever they arise.

Photo courtesy of The Los Angeles Times

And over the course of these next few days and weeks, hopefully your New Orleans Saints will be one of the teams that does it better than everyone else.

One thing's for certain: the Rams sure have — and the Saints need to "keep up"............

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Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist and Lead Analyst Barry Hirstius is a 50-year old semi-retired journalist and former New Orleans area sports editor and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints NFL football team. Additionally, he is a frequent guest on a variety of Sports Talk Radio programs that cover the Saints. Barry is also a New Orleans native that dating all the way back to his childhood in the early 1970's, attended games at the old Tulane Stadium and grew up as a long-time Saints fan; following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.......

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