The biggest move the New Orleans Saints made this offseason, besides re-signing Sean Payton to a five-year contract, was adding tight end Coby Fleener in free agency. Fleener was badly overpaid but should be productive in the same role that Jimmy Graham and Ben Watson thrived in. With Graham as the marquee addition, the Saints were left picking from the pile of passed-over free agents to try and rejuvenate their defense.
Adding Nick Fairley was a good move considering the timing and investment. Fairley has had an inconsistent career but he is a very talented defensive tackle who will excel if focused. He will be joined in the front seven by James Laurinaitis and Craig Robertson. Robertson should be a backup at best. Laurinaitis looks set to play a major role.
Laurinaitis wouldn’t have signed with the Saints so quickly if he was coming in to backup Stephone Anthony. It’s much more likely that he will start inside. That will move Anthony to weakside linebacker, pushing Dannelle Ellerbe to the bench, or off the roster entirely come September.
Although Laurinaitis isn’t a good middle linebacker, his reputation has been bloated throughout his career because he makes a lot of tackles, he has likely settled the linebacker spots for the Saints. Unless Myles Jack falls to them in the first round of the draft, it’s hard to see them taking a second-level defender. Instead, they will likely focus on adding a defensive end or cornerback.
The Saints had the 32nd-ranked defense by DVOA last season, 32nd against the pass and 27th against the run. The unit was 31st the previous season. Rob Ryan can’t take all the blame, the players on the field simply haven’t been good enough. Many of them aren’t talented enough to be good enough, a few more aren’t at the stages of their careers where they can play to previously established standards. It’s the remaining pieces who will create the foundation of the defense.
Cameron Jordan, Anthony and Keenan Lewis are the team’s three best defenders. After them, Hau’oli Kikaha, Jairus Byrd, Kenny Vaccaro, Delvin Breaux, P.J. Williams and Fairley will be expected to establish themselves as consistent, reliable starters at the very least. (Three cornerbacks can be starters because NFL defenses primarily play nickel now).
Picking 12th overall in this draft will allow the Saints to add a talented defensive prospect who can make big contributions as a rookie. Sheldon Rankins is a popular pick, as is Kevin Dodd while pass rusher Noah Spence could be a consideration too. The ideal scenario for the Saints would see one of Shaq Lawson or Joey Bosa fall to them.
Both Bosa and Lawson have wide-ranging projections as we approach the draft. On NFL.com’s mock draft page alone Lawson goes ninth to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in one mock and 30th to the Carolina Panthers in another. Bosa doesn’t escape the top six on that page, but has been projected into the teens on other websites.
The Ohio State defensive end has been a divisive figure during the draft process. He was a reputable college player who consistently produced and played well while doing so. However Bosa’s size and skill set makes him an unusual fit against NFL linemen. He is considered to be a refined prospect with a limited ceiling. Someone who could step into a starting role in the NFL as a rookie to be effective without ever developing further to become one of the best players in the league.
Considering Drew Brees’ age and the state of their defense, the Saints shouldn’t be too concerned with Bosa’s long-term projection. Coincidentally, a popular comparison for Bosa is current Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan. Pairing Bosa with Jordan would give the Saints a pair of edge defenders who could set the edge against the run while fighting their way to the quarterback as pass rushers.
Even though Bosa was the more reputable college player, Lawson is arguably the better prospect.
Lawson and Bosa are both closer to power rushers than speed rushers. They measured in at exactly the same weight at the combine, 269 lbs, but Bosa’s weight is a bigger issue than Lawson’s. Bosa’s is a bigger issue because he’s 6’5″ whereas Lawson is 6’3″ and Lawson shows off more explosiveness on the field. Bosa is more agile than explosive. Agility is valuable as a rusher but not if it comes on someone who lacks the explosiveness to attack offensive tackles in space.
Bosa will be more reliant on his hand usage to beat tackles in the NFL, whereas Lawson will be able to impact them with his physicality. This is a particularly important distinction for the Saints because of how they could use Lawson.
The Saints don’t have many pass rushers. Junior Galette was supposed to be coming off the edge for them last year and over the coming years, but a myriad of issues led to his premature departure. Their limited options in the front seven could see them double up on front seven pieces in this draft even after selecting Kikaha and Davis Tull last year. One of Noah Spence, Robert Nkemdiche, Emmanuel Ogbah, Kamalei Correa, Vernon Butler or Chris Jones should fall to the 47th overall pick.
Not only will that lack of pass-rushing talent force the Saints to focus assets on it in the draft, but anyone who can rush from multiple spots is likely to be moved around to accommodate teammates. That brings us back to Lawson.
Lawson projects as a run-stuffing edge defender who can rush the passer in base defenses.
The foundation of Lawson’s success is his ability to work through contact. He combines power and a low center of gravity to create balance. With his balance and bulk he can absorb hits from offensive linemen to stay en route to the quarterback in the pocket. The above play is an example of how Lawson typically wins. If he had shown off more flexibility and a step more explosiveness, he would be a lock to go in the top five of the draft.
Falling to the second-tier of prospects doesn’t mean that Lawson can’t be one of the better edge rushers in the NFL.
What will help Lawson create value and impact games is his ability to stay on the field. His resilience and discipline against the run allows him to play across from offensive tackles on early downs. He can stay outside to rush off the edge in obvious passing situations or the Saints can move him inside to penetrate the pocket past guards and centers. For the Saints, this is the caveat between he and Bosa.
Lawson’s potential on the inside would allow the Saints to pair him with Fairley inside while putting Kikaha as the edge rusher opposite Jordan. Kikaha is a talented pass rusher but has to play off the line of scrimmage on run downs. This gives Lawson the opportunity to improve multiple personnel packages while diversifying the front as a whole.
Playing inside some would suit Lawson as much as it would suit the Saints. He could split his snaps the way Michael Bennett does for the Seahawks. If the Seahawks only asked Bennett to bend the edge around offensive tackles all game, he’d still be a good player but his impact on the game would be nowhere close to what it is when they move him around. Lawson isn’t as flexible or explosive as Bennett exploiting guards inside, but he is flexible and explosive enough to take advantage of his power.
Lawson could rely on his brute force to penetrate the pocket past overmatched guards and centers.
By retaining Sean Payton and Drew Brees, the Saints have set themselves up to win now. While the NFL is an unpredictable league, the Saints are closer to being the worst team in the league on paper than they are being the best. One draft class shouldn’t push them back to where they want to be. There’s little point in the Saints prioritizing the long term while Brees remains on the roster though, so every avenue that could improve the defense should be explored.
The Saints could conceivably trade future picks for extra selections in this draft. This class isn’t spectacular in terms of quality and depth, but it does have a plethora of defensive players who could immediately contribute or even start as rookies. It’s hard to argue against prioritizing the short-term window with Brees over the future without him.