At first glance, the number of holes on the New Orleans Saints defense is depressing. In reality, the Saints defense could see massive improvements by adding just three players, but they have to be the right three guys.
If the Saints can add a penetrating defensive tackle who can push the pocket and disrupt the opponents passing and running plays, a weak side linebacker who cover in space, and a difference making pass rusher to play opposite of Cam Jordan, then they will be a real threat. Now obviously that is a lot to ask, but it’s also ENTIRELY possible to add all three pieces this offseason without leveraging their future. The first step to that very well may be in adding up and coming pass rushing dynamo Olivier Vernon, the free agent defensive end of the Miami Dolphins.
At just 25-years old and standing at 6-foot-2, 275 lbs, Vernon is a compact ball of explosiveness and danger, especially if you happen to be an opposing quarterback. Vernon is not yet the superstar pass rusher of the Miami Dolphins, as that title belongs to Cameron Wake. However, Vernon could very easily become that player in New Orleans. Not only is he explosive off the ball, but also is only now just beginning to enter the prime of his career.
Having an explosive pass rusher opposite of Cam Jordan was one of the biggest keys to the Saints defensive success in 2013, and Vernon is every bit as good of a pass rusher as Junior Galette once was. However, he doesn’t come with all the mental baggage and is actually NOT a disaster against the run. Vernon has amassed 29 sacks within his first four years, and is a definite up and comer among the league’s better pass rushers. He may not ever become a Von Miller or a J.J. Watt type of player, but his ability to consistently get into the backfield and wreak havoc is exactly what the Saints need right now.
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The presence of a legitimate pass rusher allows the Saints to be a lot more clever with their defensive alignments because it can help dictate match ups, and beyond that a guy who can consistently win one-on-one is a huge benefit to any defense. What really makes the idea of signing Vernon a home run is the effect he could have on the entire defense. Vernon would take pressure from Jordan having to focus on his weakest (although not weak by any means) attribute in pass rushing, and be the true all-around-stud that he is. Vernon would then be able to feed off of that, and become a true menace while also benefitting Jordan when and if he draws more help.
Beyond just the play along the defensive line though a true pass rusher allows the Saints to play very different coverages, which could free up Jairus Byrd to finally become the player the Saints paid all that money for. With quarterbacks having to speed up their deliveries and throwing more off-target passes due to the rush, Byrd would be able to use his instincts and ball skills in the manner he once did in Buffalo. The Saints corners will also benefit greatly from an improved pass rush, as they won’t have to always hold coverage for such a sustained time period. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen could afford to be more aggressive with his play calls knowing that he has someone who can blow up the entire play for the opposing offense all on their own.
The cumulative effect of getting a player of Vernon’s caliber is pretty staggering when you look at how it effects the Saints defense collectively. To be honest, it even effects how they can and will approach the draft. With a legitimate and proven pass rusher already acquired (remember that Sean Payton has already marked it as a top priority), the Saints would likely trade down to acquire more picks unless a top talent somehow dropped to them at pick No. 12. With the draft being very well stacked at both weak side linebacker and defensive tackle, it is entirely reasonable for the Saints to spend a couple picks in both areas and try to turn a major weakness into a strength.
All of this is made possible by first acquiring Olivier Vernon, who gives the Saints the pass rusher that they were supposed to have already been building around before Galette decided to do his best pootie-tang impersonation.