The New Orleans Saints spent the first month of the new league year on two major projects -- both of them involving the reigning Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.
Fixated on getting better on defense after a slight improvement last season from 2015, when they were absolutely dreadful on that side of the ball, the Saints made one big deal with the Patriots and have been working hard at getting another one done.
So desperate are the Saints that, for the second time in the past three seasons, they traded away one of the key pieces of the their record-producing offense to acquire an extra first-round draft pick that they will probably use to pick up some help for the defense.
In March 2015, it was All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham, who was traded to the Seattle Seahawks for dependable center Max Unger and a first-round draft pick, which the Saint used to take middle linebacker Stephone Anthony.
This time, it was wide receiver Brandin Cooks' turn. The speedy, fourth-year wideout was sent to the Patriots along with a fourth-round draft pick. In return, the Saints received the 32nd and final pick of the first round and a third-round selection in this year's draft.
Then the Saints started their due diligence on Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler, a restricted free agent whom the Saints think can be a major help to a defense that ranked last in the league against the pass.
Although the Saints want to pry Butler from the Patriots, it was made pricey when New England tendered him with a first-round pick as compensation.
The Saints now hold the 11th and 32nd picks of the first round and the price to get Butler would be to give up one of those picks. Saints head coach Sean Payton will play a wait-and-see game before making any kind of a move. Butler has until April 21 to sign an offer sheet with another team.
Otherwise, the Saints were busy sizing up draft prospects for their five picks in the first three rounds.
They re-signed several of their own unrestricted free agents, notably defensive tackle Nick Fairley and defensive end Darryl Tapp. They also signed seven unrestricted free agents -- including guard Larry Warford, middle linebacker A.J. Klein, wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. and linebacker Manti Te'o.
Here is a closer look at where the Saints are, how they got here and a shot at what they should do with their first pick in the draft, at No. 11 overall.
2016 finish: 3rd NFC South (7-9)
TOTAL OFFENSE: 426.0 (1st)
RUSHING: 108.9 (16th)
PASSING: 317.1 (1st)
TOTAL DEFENSE: 375.4 (27th)
RUSHING: 101.6 (14th)
PASSING: 273.8 (32nd)
1. Defensive end: The Saints, who had just 30 sacks last season, re-signed Darryl Tapp and brought in Alex Okafor, but may still want to add a young, speedy pass rusher to pair with steady two-time Pro Bowler Cameron Jordan.
2. Cornerback: If the Saints can't acquire Malcolm Butler before the draft, they're extremely likely to go for a cornerback with the 11th or 32nd pick. They could also wait and hope one in a deep draft pool lasts until the second round.
3. Running back: With Mark Ingram having another good season last year, the Saints feel better about this position. Yet, they could use a shifty satellite back -- a la Darren Sproles - who will be a major threat coming out of the backfield.
KEY PERSONNEL TRACKER (As of April 5)
RB Travaris Cadet: UFA; $855K/1 yr, $80K SB.
DT Nick Fairley: UFA; $28M/4 yrs, $8.5M SB/$14M guaranteed, $5M injury only at time of signing.
CB Sterling Moore: UFA; 1 yr, $900K/1 yr, $125K SB/$200K guaranteed.
TE John Phillips: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
DE Darryl Tapp: UFA; $1.08M/1 yr, $60K SB.
S Rafael Bush: UFA Lions; $855K/1 yr, $80K SB/$100K guaranteed.
QB Chase Daniel: FA Eagles; 1 yr, terms unknown.
WR Ted Ginn Jr.: UFA Panthers; $11M/3 yrs, $3M guaranteed.
LB A.J. Klein: UFA Panthers; $24M/4 yrs, $4M SB/$9.4M guaranteed.
LB Alex Okafor: UFA Cardinals; $2M/1 yr, $1M SB.
LB Manti Te'o: UFA Chargers; $5M/2 yrs, $600K SB.
G Larry Warford: UFA Lions; $34M/4 yrs, $8.4M SB/$17M guaranteed.
S Jairus Byrd (released/post-June 1 designation).
WR Brandon Cooks (traded Patriots).
DE Kasim Edebali: Not tendered as RFA/Broncos; 1 yr, terms unknown.
RB Tim Hightower: UFA 49ers; terms unknown.
G Tim Lelito: UFA Titans; terms unknown.
QB Luke McCown (released).
NFLDraftScout.com analysts suggest (No.11 overall):
Rob Rang (April 3 mock draft): Marlon Humphrey, CB, Alabama. The Saints ranked dead last in pass defense in 2015 and may opt to trade this or another pick for New England Patriots' star cornerback Malcolm Butler in an attempt to fix the issue. Until that occurs, adding talent in the secondary is likely New Orleans' top priority. Humphrey has a rare combination of size (6-0, 197 pounds) and speed (4.41), who at just 20 years old appears to be just scratching the surface of his potential.
Dane Brugler (April 3 mock draft): Reuben Foster, LB, Alabama. Projecting as either a MIKE or WILL linebacker in the NFL, Foster hits anything that moves with the closing burst and aggressive mindset to create violent collisions at contact. His Combine incident has teams scrambling for more information, but the tape shows a player worthy of this selection.
Agree? Disagree? Still shopping? Based on the team's current status, there are our suggestions for that first pick. To double check or find another candidate check out NFLDraftScout.com's full mocks and ratings.
Frank Cooney, founder and publisher of The Sports Xchange and NFLDraftScout.com, is in his sixth decade covering football and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. TSX team insiders contributed to this article.
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