The New Orleans Saints’ defense was one of the franchise’s biggest strengths in the 2018 NFL Season; a last-second trade deal before the League’s deadline allowed the unit to recover from a horrible start to their season and ultimately finish as the #14 ranked defense overall.
After they were successful in acquiring cornerback Eli Apple from the New York Giants on October 24th in exchange for both a 4th and 7th-round pick in the upcoming 2019 NFL Draft in April, the New Orleans defense made a significant improvement.
As noted by New Orleans Advocate beat writer Nick Underhill: the Saints’ defensive unit allowed an average of 27.3 points and 387.8 yards per game during the first eight weeks of the season last year, which forced the team’s offense to shoulder much of the responsibility for winning games. However, during the final eight weeks, the unit only allowed an average of 16.9 points and 310.4 yards per game — their best showing on that side of the ball since 2013.
Fortunately for the Black and Gold, most of their key performers on the defensive side of the football are under contract for next season. Two veteran players will likely be the focal point of their off-season plans in the next few weeks, as 6th-year defensive end Alex Okafor has the option to walk away from the final year of his contract, and 5th-year defensive tackle Tyeler Davison is now an unrestricted free agent.
The biggest question for the Saints on defense as we head closer to both Free Agency and the Draft is how the team plans to compensate for the loss of outstanding 3rd-year defensive tackle and emerging NFL superstar Sheldon Rankins, as the 26-year old recovers from a torn Achilles tendon that he suffered in the Divisional Playoff win over Philadelphia.
Rankins’ recovery timeline from surgery could end up landing him on the physically unable to perform/reserve list to start the beginning of next season; meaning that the team very likely could seek to explore adding an interior defensive lineman in Free Agency or the Draft.
That may be the only glaring deficiency on defense for New Orleans at the moment. The team could stand to benefit from upgrades at safety, where veteran Kurt Coleman’s salary cap hit of $7 million is expected to get him cut after a disappointing performance last season, and at the linebacker position, where the team will need to add depth with both veteran back-ups Craig Robertson and Manti Te’o set to become free agents.
It’s with that in mind that we’re taking a quick look at a few of the free agent players on defense that the Saints might look to target when the 2019 NFL Free Agency signing period officially gets underway on March 13th.
GRADY JARRETT, DEFENSIVE TACKLE, ATLANTA FALCONS
With Sheldon Rankins’ recovery from Achilles surgery likely to keep him out possibly until early October, the Saints’ team brass will need to figure out their approach to the defensive tackle position. They’ll have to decide whether or not they need to make a “big splash” by signing one of the top-rated players on this year’s market, or simply look for a “gap-filler” at the position until Rankins eventually returns.
Some Who Dat fans will see the name of a player listed here from the Black and Gold’s bitter arch-rivals the Atlanta Falcons and might be disgusted by the thought of signing one of their former players. However, they probably can be persuaded to change their minds — especially since the folks over at Pro Football Focus (PFF) have rated him as the top interior defensive lineman in this year’s 2019 Free Agency Class, and the 5th best Free Agent overall.
— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) November 4, 2018
Jarrett will only be 26 years old next season and is just now entering into the prime of his career. PFF notes that his pass-rushing grade during last season (86.7) was the 5th-best overall among all interior players. Originally taken by Atlanta as a 5th Round (#137 overall) Day 3 “steal” in the 2015 NFL Draft from Clemson University, the 6-foot-even 305 pound Conyers, Georgia native could opt to remain close to home, (Conyers is an Atlanta suburb) or seek to pursue the biggest possible payday instead.
In his four year NFL career, Jarrett has appeared in 61 games (46 starts), recorded 179 total tackles (95 solo), 31 TFL’s (tackles for loss), has 14 sacks, and 40 quarterback hits, along with three forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. Just imagine if the Saints were to sign Jarrett, and then have Rankins make a full recovery from surgery. Talk about giving other teams “double trouble.”
LANDON COLLINS, STRONG SAFETY, NEW YORK GIANTS
This potential signing would seem to make much sense for the Saints. Collins was originally born in NOLA and grew up in Southeastern Louisiana (Geismar) all of his life; where he starred in football and track at Dutchtown High School (20 miles southeast of Baton Rouge) and became a Parade Magazine High School All-American at defensive back.
LSU fans here locally in New Orleans vividly remember Collins after he very famously (live on national television) chose to attend college at the University of Alabama instead; where he went on to become an All-American again and helped the Crimson Tide win a National Championship in 2014.
Landon Collins body slammed Tyler Lockett. 😳 pic.twitter.com/GfHfo9wRoM
— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) October 22, 2017
The New York Giants took Collins with the 33rd overall selection and the first pick of Round #2 in the 2015 NFL Draft. The 25-year old has had an up and down career ever since; Collins has made the Pro Bowl three times in four NFL seasons, which is a phenomenal achievement. However, the Giants have been one of the League’s worst overall teams the past few seasons, and Collins himself had a down season in 2018.
However, given his young age and the fact that he’s still considered one of Pro Football’s elite-caliber box safeties (which allows teams the option to use his superb cover skills in a hybrid safety/nickel linebacker role), Collins is still arguably the best safety in this year’s Free Agent Class. He led all safeties with 46 stops last year, and that — along with his eight career interceptions — would fit in nicely alongside his old teammate Eli Apple in the Saints’ secondary.
JORDAN HICKS, INSIDE LINEBACKER, PHILADELPHIA EAGLES
For those Saints fans that have been paying attention, the team’s linebacker corps is continuing to make its transition into a unit with players that are becoming permanent fixtures. Demario Davis and Alex Anzalone, in essence, are now the team’s two primary linebackers, particularly on passing downs.
However, besides AJ Klein, the Saints could be left with a significant void in the depth department at inside linebacker, especially with the likely free agent departures of veteran backups Craig Robertson and Manti Te’o. Which is precisely why the Saints will either add one in the Draft or could be tempted to look at a player such as 4th-year veteran Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Jordan Hicks instead.
— Made For Philly (@MadeForPhilly) February 16, 2016
A former High School All-American and Dick Butkus Award winner (the nation’s #1-rated linebacker), Hicks starred at the University of Texas and was drafted by Philly in the 3rd Round (#84 overall) of the 2015 NFL Draft. In his four year career, 26-year old Hicks has appeared in 43 games (40 starts), has amassed 254 tackles, made 7 interceptions, and has a remarkable 6 fumble recoveries in that short time. But he also has missed 13 games in the past two seasons, as a series of nagging injuries have slowed his production.
When healthy, however, Hicks is still viewed by many observers (including PFF, who has him listed as the 2019 Free Agency Class’ top linebacker and the 17th-best player overall) to be one of the NFL’s elite-caliber players at the inside linebacker position. While the pursuit of Hicks might not be the Saints’ most pressing need in Free Agency, the idea of putting him into a lineup along with Davis and Anzalone is an intriguing possibility and would make the Front Seven very formidable and practically impenetrable.
MUHAMMAD “MO” WILKERSON, DEFENSIVE TACKLE, GREEN BAY PACKERS
As mentioned above, New Orleans could choose to find a player at the interior defensive tackle position who can capably fill in for the first month or so of the upcoming 2019 Regular Season while Rankins recovers from Achilles surgery. That’s why the pursuit of 8th-year veteran Green Bay Packers defensive tackle Muhammad “Mo” Wilkerson for the Black and Gold might prove ironic; especially since the 29-year old is coming off a season-ending injury of his own.
Some Who Dats might recall that the Saints pursued Wilkerson briefly during the last off-season when the 6-foot-4, 315-pound former Pro Bowl defensive lineman with the New York Jets was deciding where he would play the next phase of his pro career. He ultimately chose Green Bay, where a broken leg cut his season short, and he only played in three games.
— DLineVids (@DLineVids) November 3, 2017
Wilkerson was originally drafted out of Temple University by the Jets in the 2011 NFL Draft as a 1st-round pick (30th overall) for then-New York head coach Rex Ryan. He has appeared in 108 career games (with 104 starts), has totaled 245 tackles, 44 1/2 sacks, 71 TFL’s, 103 QB hits, two interceptions, 29 passes defended, and 11 forced fumbles. Should Wilkerson sign with New Orleans, it’s likely that the Saints would use him in a variety of ways along their defensive line; the versatile big man is capable of playing multiple roles.
Wilkerson typically lines up within the interior of the D-Line as a defensive tackle, but he can also line up and rush the passer from the outside edge, as a strong-side defensive end. However, where ever he’s lined up during his past few seasons, the results have been below expectations. Could Wilkerson possibly seek to revitalize his career with a change of scenery down in NOLA, especially considering that he hasn’t even turned 30 yet?
TYRANN MATHIEU, FREE/STRONG SAFETY, HOUSTON TEXANS
Chances are pretty good that if you’re reading this as a native of NOLA or Louisiana, you clicked onto this article after seeing the picture of the beloved “Honey Badger” — a.k.a. one of the most popular sports figures in all of the local region and New Orleans native, former St, Augustine High School star, former LSU All-American defensive back, and 6th-year NFL veteran Tyrann Mathieu.
Mathieu became an NFL superstar for the Arizona Cardinals after they drafted him in the 3rd Round of the 2013 NFL Draft. However, he ended up tearing the ACL’s in both of his knees before ultimately battling back and making the Pro Bowl for Arizona in 2017. He was released during the last off-season and eventually ended up signing a one-year deal with the Houston Texans.
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) November 27, 2018
Mathieu had a solid year with Houston; the 26-year-old tallied a total of 82 tackles, 2 interceptions, 3 sacks, and 8 PBU’s (pass break-ups). In his six-year career, the “Honey Badger” has appeared in 82 games (with 73 starts), has amassed 394 tackles (351 solo), 13 interceptions, 49 PBU’s, seven sacks, and 4 forced fumbles with 2 recoveries.
Mathieu’s stellar showing with the Texans’ secondary proved he can still be a play-maker on the back end, as well as showing a knack for making impact plays at the line of scrimmage. According to PFF, Mathieu was rated as the 4th-best run-defender in the entire NFL last year. Additionally, he finished 7th-best overall out of safeties in total run-stops. Mathieu looks to be over his injury issues and doesn’t turn 27 until May; a return home is a very distinct possibility.
CJ MOSLEY, INSIDE LINEBACKER, BALTIMORE RAVENS
Again, the Saints might add a body at linebacker via the late rounds of the upcoming 2019 NFL Draft, or they could opt to further strengthen the LB corps by adding a big-name player to put alongside Demario Davis and Alex Anzalone. One such player would be CJ Mosley, who is yet another former All-American defender from the immensely talent-rich University of Alabama football program.
The Baltimore Ravens initially took Mosley with their 1st Round pick (#16th overall) in the 2014 NFL Draft, and from that point on, Mosley has been consistent thus far if nothing else; very notably he has only missed three games in his first five NFL seasons. Additionally, he’s been selected to the Pro Bowl a whopping four times already during that period. At age 26, he’s also another player in this year’s defensive Free Agent Class that is essentially just entering his prime.
PICK 6 by CJ Mosley!! 🔥🏈 pic.twitter.com/LmMcvxzMxj
— uSTADIUM (@uSTADIUM) October 27, 2017
Mosley started in 15 games, but missed some time due to a bone bruise in his knee; yet he still managed to finish the 2018 NFL Season with 105 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 5 PBU’s, and an interception. In his five-year NFL career, Mosley has appeared in 77 games (with all 77 starts), recorded 597 tackles (398 solo), has 9 interceptions, 35 PBU’s, has 8.5 sacks, 43 TFL’s, and 32 QB “hits”, and has forced 6 fumbles with 5 recoveries (an incredible stat-line).
Mosley (believe it or not) does struggle at times in pass coverage, particularly against faster RB’s catching passes out of the backfield (like an Alvin Kamara). However, Mosley is an elite-caliber run-stopper; his capability to play multiple roles at the position could still make him an attractive target for the Black and Gold. It seems unlikely that they would consider spending the money that will be required to land him — but for a Saints team that looks to be playing with an all-or-nothing attitude and a big-time chip on their shoulders next season, Who Dats would be wise to “never say never” in Free Agency this time.
*GERALD McCOY, DEFENSIVE TACKLE, TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Why is there an asterisk (*) next to Tampa Bay Buccaneers 9th year veteran defensive tackle Gerald McCoy’s name? That’s because technically, the 30-year old and 6-time Pro Bowl selection ISN’T a Free Agent. Recent reports have suggested that the Bucs are ready to move on from the former All-American at the University of Oklahoma.
— AllThingsBucs (@AllThingsTBbucs) February 2, 2019
Tampa Bay is expected to switch from their previous 4-3 base defensive alignment (which the Saints run as their base) to a 3-4 alignment under new head coach Bruce Arians and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, and thereby the likelihood exists that McCoy may end up getting cut from their roster due to his pricey-contract. McCoy is due to make $13 million next year, and with Tampa in rebuilding mode (again) and only having $16 million in salary cap space to work with, McCoy is a prime candidate to land in the unemployment line.
— DLineVids (@DLineVids) May 26, 2017
McCoy and the entire Bucs team struggled at times last season, and the 6-foot-4, 300-pounder had his lowest tackle total since 2011 (28) and his 38 pressures according to PFF were the 3rd-lowest of his entire career up to this point. Nevertheless, we’re still talking about a player who is one of the best interior D-Linemen in NFL history. In 9 NFL seasons, McCoy has appeared in 123 games (with all 123 starts), has tallied 296 tackles (218 solo), 54.5 sacks, 79 TFL’s, 140 QB hits, and six forced fumbles.
Given that the Saints will need a solid player in the middle of their D-Line while Rankins recovers, as well as the fact that McCoy and Saints QB Drew Brees are excellent friends off the field, a signing of McCoy to a player-friendly one-year deal laden with incentives, could be possible. We’ll all find out soon enough if McCoy could end up wearing Black and Gold, when 2019 NFL Free Agency gets underway on March 13th.
Barry Hirstius is a semi-retired journalist, who has worked as a sports editor and columnist. Barry is a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the Saints while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium. He is the proud Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.