The previous most important draft in New Orleans Saints history looks easy now.
After it became known that the Houston Texans would select Mario Williams with the first pick in 2006, all first-year Saints coach Sean Payton had to do was convince Reggie Bush that New Orleans was the right place for him.
The city took care of that for Payton by lavishing Bush with adoration and applause at a local restaurant when he came to town for a visit.
A few years later, Bush was riding through town on a float as a Super Bowl champion. The applause was much louder then.
It’s not as simple this time. It would be a stretch to say the franchise is at a crossroads. As things stand, if the product comes together on the field, this roster has enough talent to sneak out of the weak NFC South. The Saints always have a chance to win as long as Drew Brees is under center.
But if the goal is to add to the nucleus of the roster and enjoy sustained success — and the moves of this offseason suggest that is the goal — then April 30 will mark the beginning of one of the most critical three-day stretches of the Payton era.
With nine picks in the draft, including five in the first three rounds, New Orleans has an opportunity to change its identity. It has an opportunity to build a roster that is capable of insulating Brees from the pressure of having to carry the team — and maybe one day it will even help carry him.
It can help create a situation where a pressing need to find core players through free agency every offseason doesn’t exist, which would help alleviate a restrictive cap situation that has claimed casualties through the years.
The bottom line is that getting out of the South shouldn’t be the goal; it should be about winning championships. A solid draft this year would help the team take a step toward that goal, which is something Payton and team brass are well aware of.
“It’s going to be important for us defensively in this draft to bring in some guys that we feel can help us play right away,” Payton said during an appearance on WWL Radio this week. “And I think if you’re looking closely to when we’ve been real good, there’s been that element defensively (and) there’s been that element in the running game.”
The element in the running game has been taken care of. The Saints re-signed Mark Ingram and picked up C.J. Spiller to pair with him. They also acquired center Max Unger as part of the package that sent tight end Jimmy Graham to Seattle, which should help open holes for those guys.
Similar efforts have been made to improve the defense by acquiring cornerbacks Brandon Browner, Kyle Wilson and Delvin Breaux, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and pass rusher Anthony Spencer. But Payton has a point: His teams have been at their best when both the defense and running game are clicking.
During the seasons in which Payton has led the Saints to a winning record, the team has had an average NFL rank of 11.4 in defensive points allowed and 13.6 in yards. In all other seasons, the team has had an average rank of 27.5 in points allowed and 28 in yards allowed.
The difference is not as clear with the running game. During winning seasons, the Saints have had an average rank of 15.8 in rushing yards, compared to 16.5 in losing seasons. In fact, the winning seasons have seen the Saints post an average rank of 23.4 in rushing attempts as opposed to 16.8 in losing seasons.
Still, with the running game likely set, the Saints can turn their attention to improving the defense in the draft. The good news is they have the currency to do whatever they want, whether that means stockpiling talent or using those picks to move up for elite talent.
“There’s some flexibility there ... when you look at the first three rounds, having five picks,” Payton said. “That’s significant.”
The draft is similarly significant. Brees recently turned 36. His clock is not yet ticking rapidly, but it can be heard. His window, which is also the Saints’ window — at least for now — soon will begin to fall toward the sill. This team needs to hit early and often in the draft to prolong that process.
If that happens, and the team finds a handful of starters it can add to its core, the sound of applause will have a better chance of once again washing over the Saints and ringing through the streets of New Orleans.