Saints Free Agency

New Orleans Saints: A Look Ahead to 2018 Free Agency

NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 24: Head coach Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints reacts during the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on December 24, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 24: Head coach Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints reacts during the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on December 24, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images) /
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The NFL and it’s 32 teams are constantly evolving. In order to keep up, the New Orleans Saints must be prepared on all fronts. It’s never too early to look ahead. Especially to popular free agent targets.

Fill through free agency, build through the draft. That’s a strategy organizations commonly stick to when managing their rosters. Free agency can be useful in plugging holes here and there, though you likely won’t build your team through it.

Building a successful team happens through the draft for a few reasons. First, organizations are given the opportunity to infuse their rosters with young talent. They are able to identify players they feel embody a certain mentality as well. All 32 coaching staffs and general managers instill unique mentalities throughout their team. They also utilize various play-styles and schemes. For these reasons it’s important that organizations not only draft on talent, but on fit as well.

The New Orleans Saints are not in rebuild mode. They have a future Hall of Fame quarterback with strong weapons at his disposal through the air and on the ground. On the other side of the ball, they boast young talent in all positions.

With that said, they do have a couple of positions worth bolstering. The defensive line and the secondary are two of the most important groups to sustaining success in today’s NFL. Offenses continue to operate much more through the air than they do on the ground. Getting after the passer and having stout coverage on the back-end are critical aspects of championship teams.

This piece will focus on the defensive line, with a later post dedicated to the secondary. We’ll first outline the current state of the Saints’ defensive line. Afterwards I’ll offer some potential candidates set to be unrestricted free agents in 2018, who could prove solid fits in New Orleans.

Defensive Line – The Current State

Cam Jordan has and will continue to head the Saints defensive line of 2017. That’s no surprise. He registered 7.5 sacks last season and earned a PFF grade of 92.4. The grade made him the 3rd ranked defensive end in all of football last year, classifying him as elite, according to PFF.

After Jordan, there are question marks. First is 2016 first-round pick Sheldon Rankins. Out of Louisville, Rankins was impressive. Particularly what stood out is his elite athleticism. He’s an explosive defensive tackle with a great combination of foot quickness and strength. Unfortunately, Rankins lost almost half of his rookie season due to a broken leg. And in the nine games he did appear in he graded out as the 107th interior lineman out of 127 eligible, earning a poor PFF grade of 42.3.

Reason for optimism

There’s reason for optimism though. 2017 will be the first year Rankins will have participated in a full professional offseason: OTA’s, training camp, preseason. This is critical for the development of any player, especially rookies, and may prove so in his performance this upcoming season.

Following Rankins are guys like Tyeler Davison, Alex Okafor, David Onyemata and Daryl Tapp.

The Saints drafted Davison in the fifth-round of the 2015 draft as a developmental project. His main strength is, well, his strength. Earning a PFF grade of 45.1 in 2016 (ranked 114) certainly doesn’t breed hope though.

Okafor signed a one-year “prove it” deal this offseason worth $2M. He’s a former 2013 former fourth-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals. Projected as a base defensive end, he doesn’t bring much excitement. He’s been an average player in the NFL at best. In 2016, he earned a grade of 70.0 by PFF .

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At 32 years old, Darryl Tapp is merely a depth player. He provides the Saints with some experience along the defensive line, and is a quality fill-in. He was PFF’s 43rd ranked defensive end in 2016.

Second-year player David Onyemata is intriguing. In the little playing time he saw last year behind Nick Fairley, he was underwhelming. But reports suggest Onyemata has impressed with his development this offseason. If this is true, perhaps he can contribute along the front. For now, he is far from a sure thing.

The 2018 free agent class

The 2018 free agent class presents some attractive players along the defensive front including defensive tackles Beau Allen and Star Lotulelei. They wouldn’t be a flashy signing but they’d fill a need, and at a discount too. There’s also Lions defensive end Ezekiel Ansah who, if not signed to an extension, will be a hot commodity come March 2018.