Saints could target pass rush in the draft

Sean Payton’s success in the NFL began with his ability to

conceive of creative offensive schemes that pick defenses

apart.

The New Orleans Saints’ head coach is less known for building

defenses through the draft, though that could change over time.

The Saints’ past three first-round draft choices have been

defensive players, and it would hardly be a surprise if New Orleans

continues that trend with the 24th overall pick next Thursday

night.

While the Saints had few glaring weaknesses in 2010, ranking

fourth in defense and sixth in offense, they were disappointed with

a pass rush that left them in the bottom half of the NFL in

sacks.

The Saints had difficulty getting pressure on opposing

quarterbacks out of their base 4-3 defense. To compensate, they

resorted to an array of aggressive blitzes, which can be risky, and

wound up 18th in the league with 33 sacks.

”There’s a strong value on someone that can speed up the clock

in the quarterback’s head,” Payton said. ”I don’t know that

there’s a team drafting that will say, ‘Well, we feel pretty

comfortable with our pass rush,’ just because those guys are hard

to find.”

Barring trades, the Saints currently have the 24th pick in each

of the first two rounds, then have two third round picks and two

seventh round picks, with no picks in rounds four through six

because of past trades.

If New Orleans reverses course and takes an offensive player

with its top pick, that wouldn’t be a shock, either. After all,

Payton calls the plays on offense and may like the way a certain

player’s skills fit his system.

Should a player such as former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram

fall in their laps, the Saints could have a hard time passing him

up, given the slew of injuries they had among their running backs

last season and the uncertainty concerning planned negotiations of

Reggie Bush’s contract.

”You have to have a number of players there because 16 weeks at

that position is a long season,” Payton said. ”Having gone

through injuries like we did last year, you appreciate the need to

have a number of guys.”

Still, the greater need appears to be on defense, particularly

up front.

Of the defensive players the Saints have taken in the top two

rounds since Payton took over in 2006, most have been defensive

backs. Strong safety Roman Harper (2006) and cornerback Tracy

Porter (2008) were second-round picks. The past two first round

picks brought in free safety Malcolm Jenkins (2009) and cornerback

Patrick Robinson (2010).

The only member of the defensive front seven drafted in the

first-round is Sedrick Ellis (2008), who last season led the club

with six sacks.

Veteran defensive end Will Smith was second with 5.5, but that

was down from 13 in 2009, and New Orleans could use another

play-making end to take pressure off of him.

A few who fit that mold could be available when the Saints are

on the clock, including one whose father – the late Craig

”Ironhead” Heyward – was a first-round draft pick of the Saints

back in 1988.

The 6-foot-5, 294-pound Cameron Heyward started for Ohio State

as a true freshman in 2007 and compiled 34 tackles for losses

during his career, including 14.5 sacks.

Another possible option at that spot could be Iowa’s 6-3,

281-pound standout Adrian Clayborn.

The Saints also could target a defensive tackle to line up

beside Ellis. There has been less urgency for an interior lineman

since the free-agent signing of Shaun Rogers shortly before the

NFL’s lockout began. Still, starter Remi Ayodele and top reserve

Anthony Hargrove are not currently under contract for next

season.

Temple’s Muhammad Wilkerson is among the top tackles who could

be available around pick 24, along with Baylor’s Phil Taylor. The

Saints might be tempted to give former North Carolina standout

Marvin Austin a chance. Austin was suspended for all of last season

for accepting gifts from an agent, but the Saints have had success

taking measured risks on a few players with trouble in their

pasts.

Payton said he’s not set on improving the pass rush through any

specific position. An outside linebacker such as UCLA’s Akeem Ayers

and Georgia’s Justin Houston also could be the answer.

”You’re really talking about … how many guys can truly rush

the passer?” Payton said. ”There’s probably seven or eight of

them that can and 18 that appear they can be able to. The trick is

where you get one that can do it. That would be a priority for

us.”