Brian Allee-Walsh

New Orleans Saints ‘rush’ to get better on defense in free agency

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) gets hit by Arizona Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell (93) on Oct. 30 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C. Campbell could be a free agency target of the New Orleans Saints.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) gets hit by Arizona Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell (93) on Oct. 30 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C. Campbell could be a free agency target of the New Orleans Saints. TNS

I have to take New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton at his word when he says upgrading the pass rush is his team’s top priority this offseason.

That said, there’s more than one way to skin a cat when 2016 contracts expire at 2:59.59 p.m. Thursday and new clubs can strike deals with a prospective unrestricted free agents when free agency officially commences at 3 p.m.

The stuck-in-a-7-9-rut Saints could acquire an edge-rushing defensive end in free agency to complement DE Cameron Jordan. Or sign a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end in the mold of Atlanta’s Vic Beasley, who led the NFL with 15.5 sacks in ’16. Or, they could go in an entirely different direction and hire a marquee cornerback with shutdown skills.

Any or all would upgrade a seriously challenged Saints pass defense.

The 2016 defensive numbers speak volumes.

Consider their final defensive rankings based on the 32-team league:

▪ 4,380 — Passing yards (32)

▪ 273.8 — Passing yards per game (32)

▪ 7.54 — Passing yards per play (30)

▪ 7.9 — Yards per pass attempt (31)

▪ 64.9 — Completion percentage (T26)

▪ 9 — Interceptions (T27)

▪ 30 — Sacks (27)

▪ 27 — TD passes (T19)

▪ 28.4 — Points per game (31)

▪ 98.1 — Passer rating (29)

Here’s the kicker: Those numbers are an improvement on the 2012, 2014 and 2015 seasons when the Saints defense set league records for sheer ineptitude.

Those aforementioned 10 defensive categories encapsulate why Payton likely isn’t blowing smoke, or trying to mislead when he says:

“It’s a must. We’ve got to find a pass rusher. Now, whether that comes from free agency or that comes from the draft, we have to be better at affecting the quarterback,” Payton said. “Last year if you took hurries, sacks, pressures — a study of all three things that can happen with a rush — we were in the bottom third of the league and that has to get better.”

Unlike past seasons, GM Mickey Loomis and Payton possess a decent bank roll in terms of salary cap space to pursue a difference maker on defense. As of Tuesday, the Saints had $30 million in wiggle room under the league-mandated 2017 salary cap of $167 million compared to NFC South foes Tampa Bay ($67.4 million cap space), Carolina ($32.8 million) and Atlanta ($23.3 million).

Unfortunately, several of the NFL’s elite pass rushers have been franchised by their respective teams, essentially taking them off the free agent landscape. That likely will force the Saints and other teams to pursue second-tier UFA pass rushers, such as New England defensive end Jabaal Sheard, Arizona defensive end Calais Campbell, Jacksonville defensive end Jared Odrick, Miami defensive end Andre Branch, Denver outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware and Washington defensive end Chris Baker, among others.

As of 3 p.m. Thursday, the rush to beef up the Saints’ pass rush begins in earnest.

Let the games begin.

Brian Allee-Walsh is a long-time Saints reporter based in New Orleans. He can be reached at sports@sunherald.com.

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