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The New Orleans Saints' defensive line goes up against Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston (3), Sunday, December 31, 2017, at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay, Fla.

We’ll never know how good the Saints defense could have been.

Last year was a massive step in the right direction. After years of ranking near the bottom of the league in nearly every defensive category, New Orleans ranked 10th in points allowed last season (20.4). This group was sometimes dominant, often opportunistic, and always respectable (at least after the first two weeks of the season).

But we’ll never know how good the group could have been if Nick Fairley would have been available to play, or the money used to acquire him would have been used elsewhere. His presence could have been the difference between very good and great. Because, even though New Orleans was able to create pressure, it was without the player it envisioned being its second-best pass rusher behind Cam Jordan.

Fairley was supposed to be the guy who made it uncomfortable to stand in the pocket and Jordan was supposed to make quarterbacks pay for fleeing. And it often worked like that in 2016 when the two played together. Now, imagine who much better it would have been with a secondary that could cover. That’s an image that will forever only exist in fever dreams and imaginations.

Like every other year since Junior Galette was exiled, New Orleans enters the offseason in need of pass rushers. It doesn’t matter if they work from the interior or off the edges, what matters is more -- more of anything.

The Saints had some good players behind Jordan. Defensive end Alex Okafor proved to be a great value until he tore his Achilles, and rookie Trey Hendrickson showed some flashes. Sheldon Rankins finished the season with about 45 pressures, working from the interior and edge. But there wasn’t game-changing talent after Jordan.

It might be impossible to locate such a player. The free-agent market might not produce such a player, and selecting one at the end of the first round might put New Orleans out of range. But it needs to be at the top of the wish list.

Burning issue

The Saints don’t really have one at the position. The biggest decision on the defensive line will be whether or not to bring back Okafor, who shouldn’t cost much since he is coming off of a torn Achilles. If he is retained, New Orleans shouldn’t view him as an answer since he’ll have to prove he still has the same explosiveness that led to his resurgence last season.

The Saints could use more players on the edges, another interior rusher to pair with Rankins or even a high-level nose tackle. One of the dirty secrets for the defense last season was that it allowed 4.4 yards per rushing attempt, one of the worst marks in the NFL.

The only reason it wasn’t a bigger talking point was that New Orleans often played games from ahead, which limited the number of rushing attempts.

Otherwise, there aren’t many pressing issues here. Everyone else is under contract.

Getting home

One Dennis Allen’s calling cards are that he likes to bring pressure. So, it’s no surprise that New Orleans blitzed on more than 35 percent of the passing plays it faced last season.

Outside of those plays, the Saints sent four or fewer players after the quarterback. There were 451 instances of this last season, and the defense generated pressure, hits or sacks on 27 percent of those plays. By way of comparison, the Saints created pressure on 34 percent of those plays in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus.

Last year’s number wasn’t terrible, but it can always get better. With the secondary making things harder on quarterbacks, New Orleans could easily ramp that number up a little higher with some more talent across the defensive line.

Draft priority

Adding talent to the defensive front seven should be a high priority this offseason. The team could justify adding a defensive end, defensive tackle or nose tackle.

Follow Nick Underhill on Twitter, @nick_underhill.​