Sean Payton said there isn’t a better time to win in the NFL during his season-ending news conference.
What the Saints coach meant by this is that, if you look around the league, you’ll find multiple examples each year of a team going from being mediocre to the top.
All you have to do is look at the top of the NFC South standings for an example of this. The Carolina Panthers went from being 7-8-1 a year ago to being in the Super Bowl this season.
Becoming one of those teams requires making the right moves during the offseason in free agency and the draft. And that process starts with quality talent evaluation, something the Saints have taken measures to improve upon over the past year.
New Orleans, like every other team, will take the next step in the scouting process this week in Mobile, Alabama, when a group of seniors looking to break into the NFL will take part in practices and then play in the Senior Bowl on Saturday.
Last year, New Orleans was able to locate linebackers Stephone Anthony and Hau’oli Kikaha and running back Marcus Murphy at the Senior Bowl. They’ll look to do the same this year.
Here’s a look at a handful of position groups the Saints will likely be keeping an eye on this week:
The Saints looked like a different team during the six games Dannell Ellerbe was on the field. It wasn’t because Ellerbe was irreplaceable. It was because the Saints had no depth at the position and employ a scheme where having coverage linebackers who can patrol the lower third of the field is imperative.
Don’t believe it? New Orleans gave up 1,035 yards on 111-of-138 passing on passes thrown to the flats or on screens.
If New Orleans doesn’t go after a top talent, whether it’s via the draft or in free agency, it needs to at least find better depth than what it had to offer last season.
Otherwise, this defense will be gutted by short passes to the flats all season if the Saints retain Ellerbe and he again misses time next season.
But if the Saints do obtain a top talent and Ellerbe stays and remains healthy, New Orleans could have the middle of the field covered with both players deployed in nickel packages.
Senior Bowl options: Deion Jones, LSU; Eric Striker, Oklahoma; Josh Perry, Ohio State
Kevin Williams was a nice stopgap. The veteran defensive tackle was never a major liability and even flashed at times. But nice isn’t good enough. New Orleans needs a three-technique defensive tackle who can stop the run and provide some interior pressure.
While it doesn’t go with the popular narrative, defensive tackle might be a bigger need than defensive end. Getting a difference-maker on the interior not only would help the defense improve upon the 4.9 yards per carry it allowed last season, someone providing an interior rush could create more opportunities for the guys shooting off the edges to record sacks.
The Saints could also look for a nose tackle, because John Jenkins is entering the final year of his contract, but he’s still a viable option at that spot.
Senior Bowl options: Austin Johnson, Penn State; Vernon Butler, Louisiana Tech; Sheldon Day, Notre Dame
Defensive end remains a need and will continue to remain one until New Orleans finds an edge rusher who can play opposite Cameron Jordan.
New Orleans has some nice rotation pieces in Bobby Richardson and Kasim Edebali, both of whom performed well at times last season, but there’s an issue when those players are in featured roles. Upgrades are needed.
The ideal scenario would be to acquire more of a pass-rushing specialist. This would allow Jordan to move back to the five-technique position he filled when Junior Galette was in town. But another player cut from the same cloth as Jordan, who is more of a complete end, would be fine.
The player just needs to be able to get to the quarterback with some consistency.
Senior Bowl options: Carl Nassib, Penn State; Noah Spence, Eastern Kentucky
The Saints never figured out left guard last season, rotating Tim Lelito, Senio Kelemete and Andrus Peat through the position at various points.
This spot is going to need to be locked down for the offense to prosper.
Lelito, who is an athletic player, still has some potential, but the timetable for him to cash in on that and lock down a post is quickly expiring.
At the least, New Orleans needs to bring someone in to compete for that job and eventually claim it or be in position to replace Jahri Evans when his time is up.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Saints looked to bring in two guards this offseason.
Senior Bowl options: Cody Whitehair, Kansas State; Vadal Alexander, LSU; Joshua Garnett, Stanford
The needs at wide receiver, tight end and cornerback depend largely on how New Orleans views its roster.
Receiver is a need to a degree, especially if Marques Colston leaves, but it appears the Saints have a replacement in house in Brandon Coleman. If the Saints are comfortable with him in Colston’s role, then this becomes more of a want than a need.
At tight end, both Ben Watson and Michael Hoomanawanui are pending free agents, and Josh Hill is set to reach unrestricted free agency. It seems likely the Saints will look to add a player, especially because they like to operate out of three-tight end sets at times.
Cornerback is either a huge need or deep. It all depends on how the Saints view the injury situations of Keenan Lewis, Damian Swann and P.J. Williams. If New Orleans is confident in those guys, then there isn’t a pressing need to bring in additional corners.
Senior Bowl options: receiver Leonte Carroo, Rutgers; receiver Braxton Miller, Ohio State; tight end Jerell Adams, South Carolina; cornerback William Jackson, Houston; cornerback Cyrus Jones, Alabama