This week I'm going to be talking about the elephant in the room, the defense. What does one say to friends/co-workers when their team's defense is this bad. What do you say? It becomes kinda comical after a certain point when your defense allows that kind of yardage and point gain in a single game, let alone a single season. They played well at times, for example in the Tampa Bay game when they had a couple goal-line 4th down stops. Aside from those times, they played horribly. One can list reasons why they played so badly and that person may be right, but in the end of the day it has to stop.
Last year, the Saints had high hopes for a unprecedented season. With everything that was surrounding them (talking about the Bounty Scandal, Sean Payton being gone, Drew Brees' contract situation), it would have shocked a lot of people if they even made the playoffs. Those hopes were dampened by a 40-32 defeat by the Redskins and RG3's professional debut. After 3 more straight losses, the hopes of a good season were diminished to a consensus of "finish 8-8". After the horrific season when Coach Payton was reinstated, he wasted no time in making major changes to his staff. Never having met Steve Spagnuolo, Payton did not even hesitate in firing him after an awful first year. Personally, I would have liked to see if he could improve the defense in his second year because it seemed like the defensive unit was coming along at the tail end of last season. Looking back on the decision now, I think it was best that the Saints fired Spags because of the potential bad blood that I briefly mentioned in my first article.
We all know now that the Saints have hired Rob Ryan as the Defensive Coordinator and I have seen indifference among fellow Saints fans. The good part is that Ryan has had top 20 defenses in his last 2 seasons, and he has the potential to establish a top 5 defensive unit. The bad part though is that the only top 5 defense was in 2006 with the Raiders, and that the rest of his career has not looked amazing. I for one am excited to see what he can bring. I said the same thing about Spagnuolo last year, but this is a different feeling. I honestly believe if anyone can bring a spark to the defense, it's Rob Ryan. Not only is he outspoken, which can be good and bad at the same time but he also brings that sternness to a defense that seems to have lacked a spine in recent years.
First thing on Ryan's agenda is probably evaluate dead weight (which may have been one of the reasons for waiving Johnny Patrick) and jettison that weight. In doing that, I believe that Ryan will save the team some cap room that they can potentially use to sign an above average free agent or multiple aging gems (like Darren Sharper was). I've spoken about some of the changes I would like to see be made, and I unwaveringly stand by those changes. Just to recap what I have proposed, here's some of them:
1. I am on record for saying cut or restructure Vilma's contract. The Saints have made an effort to reach out to Vilma and Will Smith alike to ask them to help the team by restructuring, and while I agree partially with this move, I think it would be better suited to just cut ties with the aging linebacker altogether.
2. Move Roman Harper to linebacker. This is a risky move. This could effectively end his career if the Saints end up trying this and he can't make the transition. He has under-produced at Safety for being a first round choice, and he has shown flashes that he can effectively rush the passer. The Saints should use his skill-set to their advantage and try this.
I realize that these may be radical and irrational, but I have a method to my madness. If the Saints release Vilma, they won't have to worry about paying him anymore which in turn will free up cap space that they can use to sign another able-bodied linebacker or even open up the door to let Harper into that linebacker position (Not necessarily ILB).
3. Another change I have been pondering throughout the 2012 season is moving Jenkins back to his natural cornerback position. He was drafted out of Ohio State as a corner, and the Saints thought they could make him the successor to Sharper. It has not worked out for the organization thus far, and I think it's time for the move back. This change may take a little time as well as the Harper to LB change, but not as much time due to his experience at the position. If the Saints made these two changes, it would open the door for other players that have shown they can do well in this defense to step up and start. With the releasing of Johnny Patrick, and potentially Jabari Greer (which I have seen rumors), the Saints would need a corner capable of stepping up and starting day 1 and I think Jenkins could be that guy.
4. As far as the draft goes, I'm completely indifferent as to who to draft. The only objection I'd have against a player would be if he was a defensive tackle (I fully expect the Saints to draft defense with their first rounder). Brodrick Bunkley has shown that he can be an effective inside guy, so I would like to keep him there for the time being until the need is extremely glaring. There are two DEs that I have been looking at with some intrigue. One is Barkevious Mingo out of LSU based on sheer talent. This guy can seriously get after the passer and I would love to have him on the squad next year, but it looks as if (right now) he's going top-10. The second player that I have been looking at is Dion Jordan out of Oregon. I've heard mixed reviews about this dude ranging from he's really raw to he's a natural pass rusher. I saw them both workout at the combine and both put up similar showings in my opinion. I would love to have them both because I sincerely think they can be big difference makers on the defensive line. If the Saints decide to go after the secondary, I again have two players they could possibly get. Kenny Vaccaro, safety from Texas. Vaccaro is a great man-to-man guy, and he's aggressive by nature. Still has to work on his "last line of defense" game though, but overall I would love to get him. The second player has fallen a bit from the midpoint in the season and especially after his less-than-perfect combine performance; Johnthan Banks, Jim-Thorpe award winning corner from Mississippi State. Banks has a nose for the ball whether it be defending it or intercepting it. He is aggressive in his play style and not to mention he also blitzes effectively. I think he could flourish in Rob Ryan's 3-4 scheme due to both of their aggressive natures. A sleeper pick that I have had in my sights that the Saints should honestly consider getting is Tyrann Mathieu from LSU. He has a couple off-the-field issues and may be considered a project, but the kid can flat-out play football. I would absolutely LOVE to see this kid in black and gold next season.
Finally, I'm going to talk about how the 3-4 scheme fits the talent on the Saints' roster. As far as talent goes, the Saints have an abundance of it on the roster. The Saints have a combination of power and speed, and everything else in between. Rob Ryan likes to get after the quarterback (I see a trend here…) and he likes to use a lot of packages and disguises, which is accredited to his firing from Dallas. This can be good for the Saints because of the variety they bring to the table. For example, if Ryan wanted power on one side of the line and speed on the other side, he could plug in Martez Wilson and Cam Jordan. Wilson has shown that he can be an effective pass rusher with his speed and quickness, and Cam Jordan is one of the ones I said "everything else in between", having both speed and exceptional power. As far as linebackers go, I'm not really concerned with them except for the fact that they need to tackle better. The team has some speed on the outside, and some smart linebackers that can step up and stop the run if needed, but the glaring issues in my mind is missed tackles. As far as the secondary goes, I really have no answer for that. The defensive backs just need to play better and develop a spine and go prove why they are in the NFL.
As stated earlier, I said I would love to see Tyrann Mathieu in a Saints uniform next season. Here's a bold prediction: Tyrann Mathieu will be one of the biggest steals in the 2013 NFL Draft.