The New Orleans Saints‘ defense made a complete turnaround in 2013 from the previous season. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan brought in an aggressive 3-4 scheme, and the players were able to adapt immediately. The Black and Gold have been pretty active this offseason. It was time to trim the extra fat and give some of these younger guys a chance. Let’s take a look at the Saints’ moves and grades on defense up to this point.
Key departures: LB Jonathan Vilma (released/unsigned), CB Jabari Greer (released/unsigned), DE Will Smith (released/unsigned), S Roman Harper (Carolina Panthers), S Malcolm Jenkins (Philadelphia Eagles)
Key arrivals and re-signings: S Jairus Byrd (Buffalo Bills), CB Champ Bailey (Denver Broncos), S Marcus Ball (CFL), S Rafael Bush (re-signed), LB Parys Haralson (re-signed), LB Ramon Humber (re-signed)
Junior Galette broke out in 2013 and accumulated 12 sacks; he emerged as one of the premier pass rushers on the team. Tackling machine Curtis Lofton will be back at it again next year, wrapping up ball carriers left and right. David Hawthorne should be accompanying Lofton in the inside by the time the season kicks off, but the Saints may look to draft another guy to battle for that starting spot.
C.J. Mosley out of Alabama is a possible scenario if he falls. Then there is Victor Butler; Ryan brought him in from the Dallas Cowboys to get after the quarterback, but he missed the entire 2013 season due to a knee injury. Will he bounce back in training camp and grab a hold of that other starting OLB position on the depth chart?
Speaking of depth, the re-signings of Ramon Humber and Parys Haralson deepen a dangerous corps.
Releasing Will Smith was the right call; he was old, slow and plagued with injuries. DE Cam Jordan had an outstanding year in 2013 at getting to the quarterback for a team-high 12.5 sacks. He also managed to make the trip to Hawaii for his first-ever Pro Bowl appearance.
DE Akiem Hicks had a nice year as well, but there’s still work to be done. He has the ability to be a double-digit sack player as well. We’ll see if Hicks can step it up in 2014. The big-bodied Brodrick Bunkley will be fighting for that starting nose tackle spot with sophomore John Jenkins. Both are excellent run stoppers, but have trouble getting to the quarterback.
DE’s Glenn Foster and Tyrunn Walker are there to relieve Jordan and Hicks, but that’s about it after them. Snagging another lineman in the draft would be a solid move.
The additions of Jairus Byrd and Champ Bailey were crucial after parting ways with Roman Harper, Malcolm Jenkins and Jabari Greer. A serious ball hawk, Byrd has emerged as one the NFL‘s elite free safeties; he and Kenny Vaccaro are going to be a dynamic duo at the top of the field.
Bailey, on the other hand, is old and his health is unpredictable. However, the experience and leadership he brings to the field and to the locker room is essential for some of these younger players, especially after the release of so many veterans. You never know, Champ could bounce back and have a great year for the Saints the way Darren Sharper did the year they won the Super Bowl.
Keenan Lewis became one of the league’s top shutdown corners in 2013, and he’s only just beginning. His length and athleticism give him some serious potential. Corey White and Patrick Robinson will be there to back Bailey up, but one of them could even grab a starting spot. However, the Saints could use another corner to deepen that position.
New Orleans looks to have a promising crew in that well-conditioned secondary. If that strong pass rush carries over into the 2014 season, the Saints could be a turnover machine.
The Saints are in the process of building an army on defense; they are ready to put on a show this upcoming season. There are some spots that they can work at like their run stop, but it’s going to be exciting to watch them in action.
Overall grade: B