There is a VERY loud and passionate sentiment among fans about the Saints need to focus almost exclusively on defense in this year’s draft. The Saints have had a top 10 offense and a bottom 10 defense almost every year Sean Payton and Drew Brees have been in New Orleans. You don’t have to be top 10 in both to win, but you can’t have such a huge disparity between the two sides of the game and win unless one of them is extraordinary (think Houston last year or the Saints in 2011). The question I want to pose (and which was talked about to a certain degree by Nick Underhill of The Advocate recently) is what would happen if the Saints DON’T focus on defense? Would it necessarily ruin the draft?
I don’t think it would, and before you pick up your pitchforks let me explain. I don’t think just focusing on defense to the exclusion of everything else and forcing picks at spots where they aren’t the best value isn’t smart. I also don’t think you necessarily have to take a ‘quantity trumps all’ approach to the defense, but what does go without saying is that in a draft where the Saints two BIGGEST needs also happen to be the greatest points of talent in the draft…they absolutely must take advantage of that and acquire talent. The real question is when. Below I’ll explain why the Saints might not prioritize defense early based on the two biggest positions of need (corner and pass rusher), and then we’ll get into whether I think that is the right way to go, or a horrible mistake.
First of all this is bar none the deepest position in the draft, and ALSO the most talented and the two are not the same. There will legitimately be corners taken as the 3rd, 4th, 5th corner off the board who would have been the first guy taken in some previous years, and whats more some of the guys who will be taken in the 2nd and 3rd rounds would be high 1st round picks in other years. This group is as loaded, if not more so, talent wise as defensive tackle was in last year’s draft. That is great for the Saints because it means they don’t have to take a corner right away to get a player who could be a difference maker for them. The other side of that equation, and why I wouldn’t be surprised if the Saints don’t take a corner until the 2nd round at the earliest (assuming the Butler trade doesn’t happen) is the fact that almost without exception rookie corners struggle and are not ready to start out of the gate. It is the hardest position to transition to from college to pro outside of maybe quarterback, and if your argument for why the Saints need to take a corner early is not wasting the Drew Brees years then you are on the wrong side of the argument. The YOLO move is not to draft a corner immediately, but to get impact players NOW and it’s very rare for a rookie corner to be ready right away. This is even more true for a team that has no pass rush.
The final reason why the Saints may elect not to address this position right away is that they already have talent on the roster there. It’s hurt talent that you can’t and shouldn’t rely on exclusively, but you don’t NEED to bring in a rookie with the expectation to start game 1.
This is the second deepest position in the draft, and the second most talented as well, but it is the Saints BIGGEST need, and its not close (at least in my opinion). Because the position is deeply talented it’s possible to address less talent rich positions early and still end up with a quality player. What some fans mistake (and to be clear I’m speaking what may be the Saints perspective here, not necessarily my own) is the need at pass rusher to be for a dominant pass rusher like a JJ Watt or Von Miller. While that would be an awesome acquisition, what they really need is someone whose competent enough to set the edge, and who can provide enough of a pass rush to make opponents respect them. At minimum the Saints need a guy who can give them 6-8 sacks, some decent QB pressures, and who isn’t a major liability against the run. Why is that all they need? Because they have Cameron Jordan, Nick Fairley, and Sheldon Rankins, 3 players capable of getting to the quarterback on their own. This has two effects. One, it takes pressure off of the rookie to be the savior of the franchise and dominate from day 1, and two, the rookie being competent makes it so that teams can’t just ignore that position which allows those proven veterans to wreak havoc on their own.
There are arguably only 3 or 4 players capable of making an immediate dynamic impact on the defensive line in this draft. There are a lot of guys you can count on to be pretty good right from the start who can grow into being a potentially great player. Just as an example if the Saints got Derek Rivers out of Youngstown State at 42 I would be ECSTATIC, and he’s honestly a perfect fit to the player I just described above.
I’m not saying this Saints should ignore this position early, but there is an argument that they could delay it until the 2nd or 3rd rounds as far as picking up a pass rusher and it’s still the right move for the team overall based on what their minimum threshold is.
Is it a bad idea?
The answer to this question is Not Necessarily. The Saints don’t have to get a defensive player with both of the first two picks. There is even a scenario where they don’t draft a defensive player in the first round and I’m perfectly fine with it. They trade 32 for Butler and draft McCaffery at 11 and I’m 100% ok with the move because it makes the TEAM significantly better. They could also take a playmaker, maybe McCaffery maybe Corey Davis at 11, and then take a QB at 32 and I’m ok with it under the circumstance that they get good players with high talent out of the next 3 picks. Get Rivers or Bowser or a similarly talented pass rusher at 42 and get two corners in the third and I’m ok with it. That’s fine with me. What the Saints absolutely MUST do is make sure they are getting quality players who make the team as a whole better. I don’t believe in prioritizing need over fit and value, BUT you have to make sure that you do address needs appropriately. I would prefer to prioritize defense over everything else, but if they get dynamic players who help the team immediately I’m fine with it. What can’t happen is gambling early on a luxury pick (like taking a tackle at 11 for example), and because of that not acquiring the talent they need at other spots later and ending the draft with major holes with no talent to fill them on the roster.