Commentary

Saints must improve defense to return to postseason

Scouts Inc. puts the Saints on the clock, breaking down their offseason moves and looking at what questions still need answers.

Originally Published: April 8, 2008
By Keith Kidd | Scouts Inc.

As the NFL draft approaches, "SportsCenter" is putting every NFL team with a first-round pick "On the Clock," and Scouts Inc. will break down each team and look at what questions still need answering.

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Saints
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The Saints did not meet expectations in 2007 after having one of the most dramatic turnarounds in NFL history in 2006. However, under head coach Sean Payton and QB Drew Brees, the Saints have one of the league's most explosive offenses and it places a lot of pressure on opposing defenses. Since hiring Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis and his personnel staff have done a nice job of building this team through the draft, while supplementing players through free agency to address some immediate needs. But if the Saints want to return to the postseason, they must find a way to improve their defense. It finished 26th in yards allowed and 30th against the pass last season and has been the Achilles' heel of this team since Payton arrived in 2006.

Key Additions

The Saints attacked the free-agent market and addressed defense by signing LB Dan Morgan, CB Randall Gay and DE Bobby McCray. However, the Saints' biggest addition was LB Jonathan Vilma, whom they acquired in a trade with the Jets. If healthy, both Vilma and Morgan could be huge upgrades. Vilma's skills and size make him an ideal 4-3 middle linebacker in defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs' schemes. Morgan, if he can stay healthy, is an awesome playmaker who can make the entire defense better. Even though Gay is best suited as a backup rotational player in sub, the Saints were desperate for his services because of the inconsistencies of CB Jason David and the knee injury that CB Mike McKenzie suffered late last season. McCray was a solid addition as a pass-rusher and should work well in the rotation at defensive end.

On offense, the Saints signed backup QB Mark Brunell and versatile backup OL Matt Lehr. The Saints were also very busy re-signing their own players, including WR David Patten, WR Devery Henderson, TE Eric Johnson, RB Aaron Stecker, DT Brian Young and LB Mark Simoneau.

Mock Draft: Saints
The Pick (No. 10 overall):
OLB Keith Rivers, USC
Insider

Rivers
Todd McShay: If the Saints don't trade up for a defensive tackle (Sedrick Ellis or Glenn Dorsey), they are likely to bypass their need at cornerback to select the draft's top linebacker prospect, Rivers.
Complete mock draft Insider
Vote: Team needs

Key Losses

The biggest offseason departure was starting C Jeff Faine, who signed with division-rival Tampa Bay. Faine stabilized a young offensive line that gave up a league-low 16 sacks last season. He has been a steady force over the past two years while getting his career back on track after being traded to the Saints by the Cleveland Browns. His departure could leave a huge hole in the Saints' interior. Other losses by the Saints were very minimal, including the releases of LB Brian Simmons and K Olindo Mare. Simmons was a disappointment and was used mainly as a backup player, while Mare struggled with consistency before injuring his right hip late in the season.

Remaining Questions

Don't expect the Saints' draft philosophy to change based on their need for help on defense. Under both Loomis and Payton, the Saints are a true value team that will stick to the board and take the best available player, regardless of the position. Defensively, the Saints are still in dire need at defensive tackle and must get stouter on the interior because DTs Hollis Thomas and Young have declining skills based on their age and lack of production. There is also still a lot of uncertainty at cornerback, even though Gay has been brought in. The other major concern is the health of both Vilma and Morgan, who are boom-or-bust players based on their durability concerns. Offensively, the Saints will continue to add depth on the offensive line in the later rounds. But could you imagine what an explosive, playmaking tight end would do for this offensive scheme?

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.