The combine is here, which means it is time to start laying out plans for the season.
Yesterday, the plan for how the Saints can get better on offense got laid out. Today, we go through the biggest roster issues and cap situations on defense.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Add some rush
Same story every year. More rush. More pressure. More sacks. More. More. More.
There probably isn’t a single team that is completely satisfied with its ability to get after the passer. The Saints are no different. If everyone is healthy and performing somewhere close to their peak, the combination of Cam Jordan, Marcus Davenport and Sheldon Rankins could be as formidable as it gets. The problem with that combination is that it would be reckless to bet everything on things working out perfectly for that group.
The biggest question is which version of Rankins shows up. Is he the guy who finished with eight sacks in 2018? Is he the guy who had six combined sacks the two years prior? Is he the one who had ups and downs coming back from an Achilles injury? If he’s somewhere between the two extremes, is that good enough?
And what about Davenport? He was playing well last season and had accumulated 35 pressures and six sacks when his season was cut short due to injury. His upside is still significant. Davenport could very easily break out next season to the point that no one ever mentions the cost to acquire him during the draft. Still, he could just as quickly continue showing flashes of potential before suffering another injury.
New Orleans needs to add a layer of protection to the mix. That player could be an interior rusher or someone who comes off of the edge (the case could be made that things are thinner at defensive end behind Davenport). The Saints are creative enough to get everyone snaps – if those decisions are tough to make, that only means everyone is healthy and performing up to par. Even better if Shy Tuttle continues to develop and becomes part of the mix.
The Saints also should prioritize keeping David Onyemata. The defensive tackle shouldn’t be overly expensive, but he has played well against the run the last few years and has an infectious mean streak on the field. Malcolm Brown was solid last season, but that group would downgrade without Onyemata.
Possible cap moves
Rankins is in the final year of his deal and is due to make $7.69 million. If New Orleans is confident in his abilities moving forward and wants to keep him around, a contract extension could knock that number down a bit. But if Rankins believes he is healthy, he might be best served to put out some more good film and going to the market.
LINEBACKER: Tough decisions to make
The Saints have the best linebacker in the NFC South, and quite possibly the entire NFL, in Demario Davis. If he maintains his level of play next season, the perceived gaps won’t be as difficult to fill.
Still, there are some hard decisions to make at linebacker. The hardest one is figuring out if keeping A.J. Klein, who will become a free agent next month, is worth the investment. The other is deciding what to do with Kiko Alonso, who has an $8.7 million cap number that will need to come down if he wants to stick around.
Having quality depth at linebacker has been one of the reasons for success. Having it thin out overnight would negatively impact the roster. Figuring what roles are best for Klein and Alonso, and what those roles are worth, will be a complicated process.
Getting Alex Anzalone back from a shoulder injury will also help, but New Orleans could – and probably should — look to add another linebacker to the mix due to his injury history.
The subtext to this whole section is that the level of play alongside Davis could be improved. Adding some speed to this group would help take the defense to the next level.
Klein has been a good player for the Saints and was one of the first players brought aboard as the defense started to turn things around. He is respected in the locker room and is worth keeping, but New Orleans should set a price and be prepared to move in another direction if the price gets too high.
The draft could be the best place to look for reinforcements. If Anzalone is healthy and is playing better than a draft pick, the Saints could slowly transition to the new player the same way it did while Vonn Bell waited for a chance to take over for Kenny Vaccaro. But if there is a better option on the open market who makes sense, New Orleans should pounce.
Possible cap moves
The Saints could save $7.85 million by cutting Alonso. And considering he suffered a torn ACL during the playoff loss to Minnesota, he’s probably going to have to be willing to surrender a significant portion of his salary to stick with the team.
CORNERBACK: Make it work with Jenkins
Many of the scenarios involved here got covered during last week’s article on pending free agents. If you missed it, the conclusion was that, if forced to choose, New Orleans should keep Janoris Jenkins and let Eli Apple walk.
A tandem of Lattimore and Jenkins would give the Saints two players who are among the best at their craft. Having two high-caliber cornerbacks is a must in the NFC South, which might have the highest concentration of talent at wide receiver of any conference in the NFL.
Seeing what Jenkins could do in the Saints’ defense for a full season would be interesting. He was affixed to one side of the field in New York, which was often a source of frustration for him since he likes to travel with top receivers.
In a default matchup with all things being equal, Lattimore would be the Saints’ No. 1 cornerback. But having two talented players would allow New Orleans to make more nuanced, matchup-based decisions on how it approaches each week.
I mentioned last week how the lack of a new CBA could impact how New Orleans approaches Drew Brees’ contract since the use of voidable years is prohibited until the NFL and NFLPA reach an agreement on a new labor agreement. The same issue could also impact how the Saints go about taking care of Jenkins’ contract.
The cornerback has one year left on his deal and carries an $11.25 million cap charge in 2020. With a new CBA in place, the Saints could add a void year onto the end of the deal and turn a large portion of his $10.15 million base salary into a signing bonus, which would essentially cut his cap charge in half.
There are workarounds, such as adding another year to the deal with an extremely high base salary that would essentially force the Saints to cut Jenkins. This would then allow the team to turn his 2020 base salary into a bonus, the same way it would with a voidable year. The other way is just cleaner.
The Saints should still look to add additional depth at this position. P.J. Williams is also a free agent. If he gets a better offer, New Orleans will likely let him walk.
No matter what, the Saints should look to bolster this position if the right opportunity presents itself.
Potential cap moves
Outside of the Jenkins move, the Saints should probably give Patrick Robinson a call and see if he is willing to do something about his $6.15 million cap hit. If not, New Orleans could cut him and save $3.65 million against the cap.
SAFETY: Time of transition?
Vonn Bell has quietly been one of the more important players on defense for the last couple of years.
The safety has been instrumental in helping turnaround the run defense. He blitzes well, has a knack for being around fumbles and tackles well enough. The Saints should be interested in keeping him — but only at the right price.
If Bell walks this offseason, New Orleans already has Gardner-Johnson in place. The decision would then become whether to sign another strong safety or to acquire a slot cornerback, which would free Gardner-Johnson up to play safety.
The preferred move here would be to have someone else in the slot so that Gardner-Johnson can be free to make plays all over the field. If Bell walks, the Saints would need to build more depth at safety.
The Saints also have an interesting situation to consider at free safety. Marcus Williams is entering the final year of his contract. Drafting a possible replacement could be on the table if the team doesn’t see him as part of its plans.
Gauging what that next deal will look like is near impossible. Williams is among the best safeties in the NFL on 95 percent of his snaps but has a few moments every season where he stands out for the wrong reasons. Those moments can become unfairly weighted when they occur in high-profile moments.
SPECIALISTS: Hold the line
A couple of weeks ago, some members of the Saints coaching staff were in a room going through tape of college returners.
The team knows what it has in Deonte Harris and is extremely excited about his future. They know there probably isn’t someone out there who could replace him, but the point was this: Nothing is ever good enough. So, as illogical as an exercise might seem to spend time on an obviously fruitless endeavor, New Orleans is always going to be on the lookout for a hidden gem.
Regardless, nothing should change with the specialists. New Orleans should keep Thomas Morstead, Wil Lutz and Harris in place. The Saints should also bring back long snapper Zach Wood. The two sides have already begun talking about a new contract that would keep him in place.