Nick Underhill: Saints must build depth at safety _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON--New Orleans Saints strong safety Kenny Vaccaro (32) intercepts a two point conversion before being tackled against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the Superdome in New Orleans, La. Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015.

Losing Rafael Bush might have been one of the more underrated hits of the offseason.

The safety was injured the last two seasons, so it would be overstating things to say this was a massive blow for the Saints, but it still hurts on paper. Because on paper, the prospect of a healthy Bush meant New Orleans had a quality option to serve at both safety spots in a pinch.

That doesn’t exist now. Who plays behind Jairus Byrd if he suffers an injury? There isn’t an obvious answer. Maybe cornerback Kyle Wilson or Damian Swann. What about Kenny Vaccaro? There’s only Jamarca Sanford. Maybe Vinnie Sunseri if he can stay healthy this year.

That’s it. It’s a very thin situation. It might not be much different from last season if things stay the same, but it’s hard to imagine the Saints are comfortable moving forward without the possibility of having better depth entering the season.

New Orleans has been heating up the draft trail by working out and visiting with some of the safeties in this draft. As far as the list of top priorities goes, the position wouldn’t rank among the top needs, but it’s certainly a possibility anywhere after the first round. It will be a surprise if something isn’t done to address this issue.

And the only reason it isn’t a bigger need is because the Saints have two solid starters in Byrd and Vaccaro. Furthermore, it’s unlikely there will be a prospect worthy of a first-round pick. Most of the better players at this position won’t start coming off the board until the second round.

There, New Orleans could take a look at someone like Vonn Bell out of Ohio State or West Virginia’s Karl Joseph. While he’s more of a strong safety, Joseph was once considered one of the top players in this draft until suffering a knee injury. His value could be determined too great to pass up.

However, if the Saints do start looking for a player at this position, it’s more likely to be a free safety than a strong safety. No one is impervious to injury, but Vaccaro has had good luck in this area and isn’t one to let anything less than a major ailment keep him off the field. Sanford can provide depth in a pinch.

The cupboards are barren at free safety behind Byrd. Something has to be done, and it might also prove to be wise to find someone to start grooming for the future. It’s possible the team could be looking to make a change as soon as next season, and it would be wise to be prepared for that possibility.

He isn’t going anywhere this season since it would cost $6.5 million to part ways, and next year might be a stretch since $8 million in dead money would stay on the books if he were cut, but it could make financial sense for New Orleans to walk away from Byrd in 2018. If the safety were cut before that season, New Orleans would save $7.6 million against the cap.

Of course, if New Orleans thinks he’s still worth his contract at that point Byrd will not be going anywhere. But it has to be a consideration and an eye has to be on the future at all times.

But those are future considerations. For now, some quality depth could be used. It’s helpful to have players like Wilson and Swann who can fill in at both cornerback and safety. It allows the roster spots to be spread around a bit and doesn’t necessarily lock the team into keeping someone just because he plays a position.

But having a dedicated free safety who can provide depth might be a better option. Expect the Saints to explore it.