The 11th pick and a lot of cap space cannot be wasted.
On April 19th, the New Orleans Saints will be on the clock within the first 13 picks of the NFL draft for the third straight year. This year, they possess 11th overall selection. The past 2 picks of Andrus Peat (2014) and Sheldon Rankins (2015) look to be great decisions. Peat is molding into a stud on the rising Saints offensive line, while Rankins made an immediate impact on the defensive end last season after returning from injury. This draft, the Saints front office and fans alike hope to replicate their recent drafting fortunes.
The main difference between this year and those previous? New Orleans has much more cap room to sign a key free agent to go along with a top-15 draft pick. Moves such as cutting Jairus Byrd and his deathly contract, as well as restructuring Drew Brees’ yearly salary consumption a few years back, have given the Saints over $27 million in cap space. Compare that to the small $9.2 million cap room they had in 2016 and the even smaller $2.17 million cap space in 2015. Taking all of that into consideration, there is one draft prospect and one free agent the Saints could shore up to ensure a much-improved defense, thus improving their team drastically.
According to the hundreds of mock drafts out there, the Saints could take any defensive front-7 player at the 11th spot. Solomon Thomas and Rueben Foster have been linked to New Orleans more than any player. However, I believe Foster will be selected sooner than number 11 overall and there’s a better prospect than Thomas: Derek Barnett out of Tennessee.
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Barnett is a 6′ 3″, 268 pound beast of a defensive end. In his last collegiate game, he became the all-time leader in sacks in Tennessee football history (33.0). Who’s record did he break? Oh, just the record set by Hall of Famer Reggie White. He also finished his junior season being named First Team All-SEC, and impressive honor considering how defensively loaded the SEC has been.
Barnett would fit perfectly opposite Cameron Jordan, who is already a huge threat to quarterbacks for New Orleans. At the NFL Combine, Barnett ran a 4.88-second 40-yard dash, showing a lot of speed for his size. This will help him beat offensive lineman to get to the quarterback and fill gaps in the running game. Putting Barnett and his athleticism, strength, and size onto the defensive front with Jordan and Rankins would be the key to making the Saints’ pass rush top-10 in the league.
Selecting Barnett bolsters the defensive line. The problem is, that’s only one glaring issue on that side of the football. The other is the poor secondary New Orleans has been trying to fix for years. That’s where free agent safety Tony Jefferson comes in. Since 2013, Jefferson has been a consistent starter for the Arizona Cardinals, who, minus last season, have had phenomenal secondaries. Many give credit of that ball-hawking secondary to Tyrann Matthieu and Patrick Peterson. Looking at the tape gives a different story, though.
The 5′ 11″ safety weighs 213 pounds, showing his large and physical physique. His 276 career tackles along with 11 career pass deflections make Jefferson a two-dimensional player. He also has a similar playing style to that of Kenny Vaccaro, another former top-15 pick for New Orleans. Signing Jefferson would provide the Saints with another athletic strong safety to fill the box or help out in coverage. The quickness, agility, and speed he showcased on deep drop backs also shows Jefferson’s ability to play the free safety position. Oh yeah, Jefferson is only 25 years old, meaning his prime years are on the horizon.
A large yet fast, quarterback-hungry defensive end and a physical, quick safety are there for the Saints’ taking. Couple that with a good draft position and a large amount of cap space and you have the formula for a much-improved team. Defense is the target this offseason, and players like Barnett and Jefferson are the potential immediate and long-term answers for another Super Bowl run.