New Orleans Saints with Sean Payton and Drew Brees have never struggled on offense, but for years they have been searching for their own defensive identity. There have been campaigns where the defense has been good enough (2009 and 2013 particularly), but never a period of consistent performances on that side of the ball.
In recent years the lack of talent on defense has been obvious, 2011 first round pick Cameron Jordan is now the longest serving defensive player and seen as a leader of the pack. There have been misses in the draft (I’ll talk about one later) and an enthusiasm for trading up that has left the team with less drafted players than would be ideal. A second round pick in 2012 and 2013 would also go a long way to fixing the depth issues. I won’t go into bounty-gate, all Saints fans feel the same way about that. I’m also not blaming Roger Goodell for the state of the defense, but boy the Saints could have used an Olivier Vernon or Jamie Collins (both taken shortly after the Saints forfeited second rounders in 2012 and 2013 respectively).
Then, of course, there is the turnover of staff. I’m sure the lack of a consistent Defensive Coordinator contributes to the lack of a consistent vision, even moving from a 4-3 to a 3-4 and back again within the last four years. Some consistency with Dennis Allen for the foreseeable future will be good for the team, and with Assistant GM Jeff Ireland taking control of the scouting (which looks to be providing good returns, at least so far) the team should be able to build. In what direction? That remains to be seen.
After the recent success of the Seattle Seahawks in the 2012-13 seasons, the Saints tried their hardest to build their own ‘legion of boom’ and play copy cat with Gus Bradley’s Seattle defense. They tried bigger, stronger, press man coverage corners like Stanley Jean-Baptiste and ex-Seahawk Brandon Browner over smaller, more talented and fluid players. Both were colossal failures, each lasted one season with the team. Jean-Baptiste the former second round draft pick cut after his second training camp and Browner cut after his only disastrous season despite a fairly high dead cap number. Both funnily enough will be with the Seahawks for the 2016 season. This project failed, through misses in new players and the system not fitting with the others on the roster.
What direction do the Saints go now? Do they look around the league again to find another team to model their roster on? There are really two options if they’re trying to do so, Carolina and Denver. Denver have built an amazing defense through hitting on big name free agents like Aqib Talib, TJ Ward and DeMarcus Ware and favoring the defensive line in the draft. The Saints haven’t been so lucky with their free agents recently, so that may be another lost cause.
Carolina, on the other hand, have built a defense almost exclusively through the draft. The Panthers draft front seven players early and they draft them often. Not letting a current first and second rounder starting at their two DT positions stop them from drafting that position again in the first round of this years draft. This isn’t a short term fix, it’s a long term strategy, but it looks to be the best fit.
Does New Orleans continue to look around the league for inspiration? Or is there enough faith in the vision of Dennis Allen and Sean Payton and the abilities of Jeff Ireland and the scouting staff to build their own team from their own model? I, personally, would love to see the Sainst go with the Panthers process, it follows the old ‘build your side from the front-back’ adage. Looking at this years draft, I hope they already are.