To get back to the playoffs, the Saints MUST improve dramatically on defense. For me, these are the FIVE guys to watch in training camp, the five guys who COULD make a difference.
In 2016, the Saints had the #1 offense in the NFL, and still finished 7-9. There are offensive questions at left tackle and center, but as long as #9 stays upright, my feeling is – the offense will be ok.
DREW BREES and CAM JORDAN are excluded from this list because if they get hurt, forget it. Brees and Jordan are the two most critical pieces on this roster. They just need to continue being who they’ve been. The following five, to me, are the keys to a defensive upgrade.
#5 / SAFETY VONN BELL
Kenny Vaccaro is best used creating havoc near the line of scrimmage, which means the Saints must find a ball-hawking option to be their center fielder. Jairus Byrd signed a $54 million dollar deal to be that guy, but obviously, that didn’t work out. Byrd is gone, and many believe the spot will eventually be manned by 2nd round pick Marcus Williams, but I like Bell’s chances to win the job early in the season. The Saints SHOULD get significantly better play from the cornerback position this season, and finding a deep safety who can limit big plays, and create a few turnovers is critical to defensive improvement.
#4 / EDGE RUSHER ALEX OKAFOR
In 2014, Okafor had eight sacks. The Saints need THAT guy in Black and Gold, not the guy who had 5.5 over the next two years. The last time the Saints made the playoffs, Junior Galette had 12 sacks rushing the passer from the opposite side of Cam Jordan. Opposing teams will HAVE TO overplay Cam Jordan’s side, so Okafor will have a chance. IF he’s the guy he was in 2014, the Saints defense will take a big step forward.
#3 / LINEBACKER AJ KLEIN
At the start of free agency, the Saints targeted and signed Panthers Linebacker AJ Klein to a three-year, $15 million deal, even though he was a part time player in Carolina. He only played 32 percent of the Panthers defensive snaps in 2016, but clearly, the Saints are banking on him. Craig Robertson was, by far, the Saints best linebacker last season, but he needs help. Klein is an athletic option, and the Saints need him to be the player they think he is.
#2 / DEFENSIVE TACKLE SHELDON RANKINS
In training camp last year, Sheldon Rankins showed why he was the 12th pick in the NFL Draft. He showed flashes of the crazy athleticism that made him the best defensive tackle in the draft. Then a broken fibula derailed his rookie season. He rallied at the end of 2016, to finish with four sacks. With a full offseason to get ready, the sky is literally the limit for Rankins, and with Nick Fairley out for the season, Rankins MUST be that guy. And he absolutely looks like he CAN be.
#1 / CORNERBACK DELVIN BREAUX
Delvin Breaux has the ability to not only be a really good NFL Cornerback, he can be an All-Pro. Breaux is incredibly strong for a cornerback. A guy who SHOULD BE a legitimate #1 shutdown corner. He was good as a rookie two years ago, but sometimes overly physical, as he learned to adjust from the CFL to the NFL. Last year, he looked ready to take a major step forward, before a broken fibula ruined his season. This season SHOULD BE his coming-out party. He SHOULD BE good enough to allow the Saints to leave him on an island, and overplay elsewhere. The cornerback position should be drastically better in 2016, with Breaux as the #1, first rounder Marshon Lattimore and PJ Williams as the #2 and #3, and solid options behind them in Sterling Moore, Damian Swann and possibly rookie Arthur Maulet, but it starts with Breaux. If he plays up to his potential in his 3rd season with the Saints, it’ll open up a bunch of possibilities for Dennis Allen.