INDIANAPOLIS — It has become an annual tradition.
The Saints arrive at the combine and talk about their needs. And every year, multiple members of the organization place pass rusher at the top of the list.
The story remains the same this year.
"Pass rush is still something that's important," coach Sean Payton said. "There's a few spots."
But that's the thing about the draft, and teams that approach it intelligently. Sometimes your needs do not match the value of the pick. A smart team will not force it. Those organizations play the board and realize that the best way to build a good team and position it for sustained success is to get the best available players.
New Orleans has been in search of a pass rusher since releasing Junior Galette in 2015. The gap was closed last season before Alex Okafor suffered a torn Achilles, but ideally, the Saints would have found a young player in the draft during that span. It hasn't happened, and it's hard to fault the organization when you look at how things have played out.
The Saints selected Andrus Peat with the 13th pick of the 2015 draft. The next pass rusher to come off the board in the first round was Bud Dupree, taken with the 22nd pick. He has been good for the Pittsburgh Steelers, finishing with a career-high six sacks last season, but it's hard to call that a major missed opportunity for the Saints.
New Orleans chose Sheldon Rankins with the 12th pick in the 2016 draft. Shaq Lawson, who was selected 19th overall, has six sacks over two seasons for the Buffalo Bills. There should be no complaints about taking Marshon Lattimore with the 11th pick, and there wasn't another pass rusher selected until the end of the second round after New Orleans took tackle Ryan Ramczyk with the 32nd overall pick.
Now, of course, there is nothing easier than scouting in hindsight. Maybe Minnesota defensive end Danielle Hunter, who has 25½ sacks over three seasons, would have been a solid pick in 2015. But the whole league let him slip into the third round. No one knew what he would become.
You can find those cases in every single draft. The reality is, there are only a few legitimate, sure-fire pass rushers in every draft class. The rest are projections. Sometimes they hit. More often they do not.
"Everybody wants pass rush, right? Most teams don't have any," general manager Mickey Loomis said. "We've got one, right, and we want another one. That's what everybody thinks. That's why they're hard to find.
"There's only two or three a year that are obvious. Once in a while, you find somebody in the third round, like Demarcus Lawrence or somebody else that comes through, but there's only two or three a year, and so, hey, at 27, are we going to have an opportunity get one of those guys? I don't know.
"Unlikely that we'll get an obvious candidate. But yes, for us, I think that's always a high priority. I think with where we're at. It's like Ramczyk last year. We've got to see who falls to us. We've got to see who's available. Maybe we jump up a few spots and target somebody, but until we get into the draft, I don't know."
The Saints could do that. The challenge in moving up, however, is that the team doesn't have a second-round pick. That was used to move up and draft Alvin Kamara last year. Making a move higher into the first round would either have to include players or future picks.
If New Orleans stands pat, the team will likely sit back and take the best available player, an approach that has worked well for this team. Playing the board that way netted the team players like Peat and Ramczyk, who did not fulfill immediate needs, but have proved to be valuable.
So, depending on what the Saints do in free agency and how the board falls, picking at 27 might mean the team brass is back here next year talking about wanting to add a pass rusher. But the fact of the matter is, when you have two, chances are you'd then like to have more interior rush.
It's a need that will never be fully satisfied.