The Saints roster needs in order: DE, OG, MLB
The Saints roster has a number of holes to fill. Some are obviously more pressing than others.
In order, I’d rank the top Saints needs as such: defensive end, guard, and middle linebacker.
That’s not to say that the team doesn’t need new faces elsewhere on the roster. Cornerback, for example, is just swarming with question marks. But if enough CBs return to form in 2017, the position will be set. Not so much for these other three.
At defensive end.
The 2016 Saints went with Paul Kruger for a huge majority of snaps on the right side of the defensive line. According to Pro Football Reference, Kruger’s handled over 50% of snaps at DE. That won’t fly in 2017. Kasim Edebali and Darryl Tapp each played their fair share, but didn’t jumped off the tape, and neither have much room to improve. With Cam Jordan locking down the left side, the only potential weapon on the right is David Onyemata. And Onyemata is really more suited to DT. Even with Hau’oli Kikaha’s possible return in 2017, the team needs more talent on that right side.
Yes, between those aforementioned players, the Saints have some options at DE. But Dennis Allen’s defense, as with basically every defense in the league, depends on getting after the quarterback. An explosive rusher would have the potential to transform this defense into a top-tier unit. Well, somewhere near the top-tier.
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The need at guard is pretty obvious. Jahri Evans had a solid year, and if the Saints feel he can return to form in 2017, then by all means, bring him back. But Evans is 33 years old, and there’s no telling when the wheels will fall off. If the Saints are smart, they’ll bring in some young talent.
I’d be fine with Kelemete starting at RG, assuming Terron Armstead and Andrus Peat can stay healthy. But Kelemete’s greatest asset is his versatility, and it would be nice to be able to move him around the line when injuries inevitably hit. Guards don’t usually go early in the draft, so there’s the possibility the Saints use one of their mid-round picks to grab a solid rookie. But free agency might be the way to go when you’re talking about protecting a 37-year old Drew Brees.
At middle linebacker.
Craig Robertson held down the fort as the MLB in 2016. He did a fine job. The Saints originally pegged James Laurinaitis in that role, but his lack of athleticism led to his departure from New Orleans. Robertson filled in nicely for Laurinaitis, but he’s really more suited to WLB. When Ellerbe missed the early portion of the season, Robertson shined in the WLB role.
Assuming Ellerbe stays healthy in 2017, the Saints will have to find a way to get both him and Robertson on the field. Maybe that means Robertson stays on at MLB. But I expect the Saints are looking to upgrade. Robertson is a good player, but like I said he’s slightly out of position in the middle. Maybe he could move to the strong side, and the Saints could run more LB-heavy sets.
Stephone Anthony figures to play some sort of role as well, though what role exactly remains to be seen. He played admirably well filling in for Robinson against the Buccaneers, but maybe it only seemed that way against his low expectations. I’d certainly like to see Anthony get on the field more in 2017. But it would be awesome if the Saints could bring in a top-tier MLB talent.
Now, the question becomes how do the Saints address these needs?
Between free agency and the draft, the team needs to find a balance. What you hope for is that the team can plug some holes, at least adequately, before the draft. That way, the team can avoid reaching and draft the best player available. With Robertson playing decently well in 2016, you figure the Saints will focus their FA energy on upgrading the D-line. There are a few intriguing names at DE that the Saints could look for. And you certainly hope that the team does something in FA to address the need at guard.
Most have the Saints looking either MLB or DE in the first round. And then some variation of needs in the following rounds. A few have the Saints looking CB early. And with a deep CB class, that may be a good look. But I’d like them to address their other needs first. The Saints could also do with a backup for Zach Streif, and possibly an upgrade to their satellite back RB position. They have three tight ends firmly entrenched on the roster, but none of them are transcendent talents. Still, it’s hard to see room for a new TE.
I’d be shocked to see them go WR, or for any traditional, top-tier RB. I’d be similarly surprised with a safety, DT, or WLB pick. Quarterback, as always, is a quietly pressing need. But I’d wait until the later rounds of the draft to pick one up.