NEW ORLEANS -- Two months out from this year's NFL draft and the Super Bowl-minded New Orleans Saints are in the midst of designing a blueprint for success this coming season.
ASSUMPTION: The Saints need upgrades to at least three defensive positions -- outside linebacker, end and tackle with an emphasis on the pass rush -- in their new 3-4 scheme under first-year defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
FACT: They select 15th overall in the first round and do not own a second-round pick as a result of the Bounty-related sanctions levied by the NFL. Plus, they are up against the $121 million salary cap.
QUESTION: Unless Mr. Right falls into their lap at 15 and assuming they don't have the necessary fire power to move up, should General Manager Mickey Loomis and Coach Sean Payton trade down, if a good opportunity presents itself, to acquire a late first-round pick and possibly a second-day pick as well?
ANSWER: Yes, in a New York second.
The Saints are both salary cap and draft-pick poor this spring, owning only five selections (one each in rounds 1, 3, 4, 5 and 6) as a result of the NFL sanction and trading away their seventh-round pick to Seattle in August for veteran linebacker Barrett Ruud whose contributions to the cause were nil.
Fortunately, draft experts say the player pool is laden with quality depth where the Saints need help most -- their defensive front seven.
"The 2013 draft boasts a deeper than usual class of defensive linemen,'' analyst Rob Rang of NFLdraftscout.com said. "There are potential starters to be found throughout the second day of the draft, which could give the Saints and other teams with front seven needs reason to consider trading down and acquiring more picks.''
In the next two weeks, their cap picture will come into focus as Loomis and Payton determine whom they want, whom they don't want and who they can afford.
Veteran overpaid defensive players such as Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma must determine if they want to restructure their contracts or be given their walking papers. Both are potential cap casualties. Each may give a "hometown'' discount to stay in New Orleans but don't count on it. Plus, veteran free agent defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis is expected to receive a handshake, a "thank you'' and shown the door.
Consequently, Saints officials ultimately will move forward on defense based on what happens to Smith ($14.5M) and Vilma $8.6M), who together currently count approximately $23 million to the 2013 cap. Their outright releases would save the team about $13.7M in cap cash.
Ideally, I'd like to see the Saints sign a veteran pass rusher in free agency, preferably a 3-4 rush linebacker (potential candidates include Dallas' Anthony Spencer, Houston's Connor Barwin and Baltimore's Paul Kruger) and then draft a defensive tackle with their first pick.
Regardless, the 2013 draft likely will present a good opportunity for Trader Mick to make a deal (I'd even dangle running back Pierre Thomas out there as possible trade bait). Remember, New England (at No. 29) and Bill Belichick are always willing trade partners.
We will have a better indication of what direction Saints officials plan to go in the next two weeks. Free agency commences the afternoon of March 12.
NOTE: The name of Saints CB Jabari Greer curiously is being mentioned as a possible cap casualty. He is scheduled to count $5.425M against the 2013 cap after restructuring his contract last offseason. He is a good cornerback, not a great cornerback. That said, he still is the team's best cornerback overall and, if released, would have to be replaced by someone who currently is not on the roster. A good shutdown corner can help the pass rush but he won't come cheaply. I still think the best path back to the Super Bowl is upgrading the pass rush from the front seven. Better yet, a good pass rusher and a quality cover corner!
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