keenan-lewis2

Keenan Lewis is the first step among many during an offseason of improvement for the Saints’ defense.

The Saints were both atrocious while attempting to defend the pass during the 2012 season, and consistently atrocious.

Only the Buccaneers were worse, and narrowly, with New Orleans allowing 292.6 passing yards per game, to Tampa’s 297.4. The Saints also gave up 66 receptions of 20 yards or more, which was one every 9.3 attempts. Then there’s the 93.8 passer rating they allowed to opposing quarterbacks.

So it’s easy to see where the focus will generally lie for the Saints starting on April 25, but zeroing in on a more specific target becomes a little more difficult. Keenan Lewis, the former Steeler, was signed as a much needed upgrade at cornerback, and his acquisition could quickly turn the Saints’ first-round direction to the other part of defending the pass that’s a pretty big deal: pressuring the quarterback. The Saints had a very moderate 30 sacks (25th), and now they need to assess their personnel during the switch to Rob Ryan’s 3-4.

Every draft pick made by every team is crucial, with the bust minefield hopefully avoided. But that’s especially true with the Saints’ second-round pick gone due to the BountyGate punishment, and their seventh rounder gone to Seattle following the trade to acquire Barrett Ruud. Barring another trade to bring in a little more ammunition, the Saints are reduced to five picks in this year’s draft.

So how will their defensive questions be answered? Well, for that we turn to Andrew Juge from Saints Nation, who answered my defensive questions.

1. Defense should be the Saints’ priority early, especially with the transition to Rob Ryan’s 3-4. What should be higher on the wishlist between interior help on the defensive line, and an outside linebacker who can create pressure?

I honestly think they are about even. Every position on the defense should be.

The Saints were the worst defense in NFL history last year, so in my mind, that leaves nothing off the table. Interior help is needed, pass rushing help is needed, and back end help is needed. I will say the Saints have some young pass rushing prospects in Martez Wilson, Junior Galette, and Victor Butler. The previous two didn’t see the field much in a 4-3 because they are pass rushing specialists only and a liability in any other situation besides the obvious passing downs. The idea is a 3-4 switch could allow Galette and Wilson on the field more as every-down players, which would give them the opportunity to rush the passer more and improve the Saints’ pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

The only interior guy they really have is Brodrick Bunkley, and I’m not sure if he’s better in a 3-4 or a 4-3. Based on that, I view interior help as perhaps a bigger “need”, but man, it’s hard to pass up on a guy you view as an elite pass rusher that can make a massive impact on a game if he’s available even if you’ve got a bigger need.

2. If the latter is the focus, there’s a good chance most of the very top names (Dion Jordon, Ezekiel Ansah, Barkevious Mingo) will be gone by the time the Saints are on the clock in the first round. If that scenario plays out, are you comfortable with Jarvis Jones? Some of the Internet’s draftnicks have given him the April plunge treatment.

The only question with Jarvis Jones as far as I’m concerned is his health. I have zero questions whatsoever about his capability as an impact football player, possibly even in year one.

Health is a big question mark, no doubt, and I trust the Saints will be doing their homework to be 100 percent sure their doctors feel good about Jones’ prognosis if he’s going to be the guy at No. 15. But every guy is an injury risk in some sense, and it’s impossible to know for sure. One big blow could end any player’s career on any given play.

The short answer to your question is yes, I’d be very comfortable with Jarvis Jones. I’d be happy to have him. I’d be worried about his durability, but three solid years of Jones with no future beyond that is something I’d take right now, as the Saints are still in a “win now” window as long as Brees maintains elite status.

3. There’s also the matter of reinforcing the secondary, a process which started when Keenan Lewis was signed to a five-year contract. But Roman Harper is aging and slowing, so will that make Kenny Vaccaro an appealing target? Or is No. 15 a little too early for him?

I like the Vaccaro pick. In fact, the two mocks I’ve been involved in have been Vaccaro as the guy at 15. Granted, I took Vaccaro because the other difference makers on defense were gone on the mocks I participated in. It seems like a lot of the blogger mocks don’t have quarterbacks going early, and we know in reality at the very least Geno Smith is going to be a top 10 pick. There could even be a second quarterback taken in the first round.

I wouldn’t pass on Mingo/Ansah/Jordan/Jones for Vaccaro. I believe one of those explosive pass rushers will be on the board. But, if they’re not, Vaccaro is definitely a player I can get behind. The safety play last year was arguably the worst of the entire defense, and Harper is a big part of that. I don’t view Harper as part of the future, so we might as well upgrade that position now.

A lot of Saints fans view Vaccaro as a clone of Harper and Jenkins, so I have caught some heat for taking him so early. But I’m sorry, I disagree. Vaccaro may not be a ballhawking playmaker, but he’s a much better football player than both Jenkins and Harper in my opinion. At least he will be in short order with some seasoning.

4. What about a cornerback? Stopping the likes of Julio Jones, Roddy White, Vincent Jackson, and Steve Smith is a requirement in the NFC South, and the Saints could be in a position to jump on Xavier Rhodes, or maybe Desmond Trufant.

I feel OK about the Saints’ cornerback depth chart currently, though not great. The Saints made a run at both Nnamdi Asomugha and Tracy Porter even after the Keenan Lewis signing, so that obviously means they are not satisfied at corner. Still, there are so many veterans with big names out there in free agency that can be had on the cheap, so I picture the Saints adding some vets with experience down the road instead of investing another high draft pick in a corner.

They’ve got some solid vets in Lewis and Jabari Greer, and some guys to develop in Patrick Robinson and Corey White. That doesn’t mean the Saints won’t take a corner later in the draft, but I just don’t see it happening with the 15th overall pick. The Saints are also big on making value picks and taking the best player available, and I don’t see the value there with Rhodes or Trufant at 15. I’m also largely in favor of trading down for more picks, since Roger Goodell was kind enough to strip the second rounder from the team, so I could see a corner being the first choice if Mickey Loomis trades back into the mid 20′s.

5. What other needs should be addressed in the later rounds? Will defense remain the focus throughout the draft?

Left tackle might be the biggest need of all, actually. Jermon Bushrod skipped town for the Bears with a massive deal the Saints couldn’t and shouldn’t have matched, but that leaves them with no viable option on the roster as a replacement. Whether they draft a guy or get a free agent, that is up there as the top need.

Beyond that, yes, I view defense as the lion’s share of the needs and picks, though depth at receiver would also be useful with Marques Colston and Lance Moore aging and Devery Henderson’s future uncertain. A backup quarterback is another possibility unless the Saints are fine with Luke McCown. Nose tackle at some point needs to be addressed too. I want to see a huge frame body plugged in, and one that can just literally freeze the line of scrimmage and do nothing but sit there and be a fat tub of lard to occupy space. That’s got to exist in this day and age with human growth hormones, high fructose corn syrup, and processed foods, right?

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