Dig Baton Rouge

A Team in Need

By RICHARD FISCHER
Sports Columnist

After making several big splashes in free agency, the New Orleans Saints are less than a month away from the 2014 NFL Draft.

Of course, the black and gold made headlines striking deals with multi-time All-Pro defensive backs Jairus Byrd and Champ Bailey and franchise tagged star tight end Jimmy Graham.

But those moves are only part of the offseason puzzle, and now as free agency slows down, it’s time for general manager Mickey Loomis to focus his attention on the NFL Draft held May 8-10 in New York City.

As always, you can bet Loomis will continue his trend of picking the best available player as opposed to selecting according to the team’s need, but there are certainly some positions more in demand than others.

Here’s a breakdown of the top five positions New Orleans needs to address in the draft or in the latter stages of free agency. Based on who will be available when the Saints are on the clock, this is not necessarily the order in which they should draft.

1. Center
After losing center Brian de la Puente to Chicago, interior lineman becomes New Orleans’ biggest position of need. By far.

Second-year pro Tim Lelito could step in and start in the middle, and place me in the camp that believes in his ability to do so.

If Lelito wins the job, the lack of depth in the three interior linemen spots is alarming.

If he doesn’t, you really need a center.

Addressing this position is a must.

2. Offensive Guard
It’s not fun to talk about the “big uglies” that battle in the trenches – it’s not a glamorous job by any means – but even after finding a starting center, gaining more interior line depth is the next most important challenge facing New Orleans this offseason.

Starting right guard Jahri Evans missed two games last year, and it was obvious that the 30-year-old wasn’t physically the same player even when he was in the lineup.

SAINTS IN THE 2014 DRAFT
The Saints will have seven picks in next month’s NFL Draft.
1st Round (27th overall)
2nd Round (58th overall)
3rd Round (91st overall)
4th Round (126th overall)
5th Round (167th overall)
5th Round (169th overall) – From New England
6th Round (202nd overall)

Now when healthy, I’ll put Evans and Ben Grubbs versus any guard tandem in the league.

But in such a physical game, injuries are a matter of when, not if, up front, and the Saints are hurting for depth in the middle three right now.

Plus, the Saints will need a backup who can snap the ball too, and I’m not sure they currently have that if Lelito goes down as the starting center.

3. Cornerback
I know New Orleans brought in Bailey, but if you think you can still place the 35-year-old on an island out there, you’re living in the past, my friend.

He’ll bring tremendous leadership, experience, knowledge and football IQ to the Saints’ defensive backfield but not as an every down corner.

After Keenan Lewis, New Orleans’ cornerbacks include Patrick Robinson recovering from a devastating knee injury, Corey White who played late in the season to mixed reviews and the sparsely used Rod Sweeting, Trevin Wade and Terrence Frederick.

Can the Saints get by without bringing in another corner to compete for playing time? Sure, especially with arguably the best safeties in football.

But would they improve the position by drafting someone? Absolutely.

That’s why I look for New Orleans to draft a corner early, possibly in the first round.

4. Wide receiver
Saints fans hope Joe Morgan will pick up right where he left off as a deep threat. That’s questionable after an ACL tear.

Otherwise, New Orleans is looking at aging Marques Colston and second-year Kenny Stills as its only viable options out wide along with unproven Nick Toon and Andy Tanner.

Another target for Drew Brees would be nice, and we’re looking at a tremendous receiver crop in the draft.

5. Running back
Believe in Khiry Robinson, Mark Ingram has turned the corner, and Pierre Thomas will always do Pierre Thomas things, but why not take a chance on a boom or bust back late?

And while we’re at it, here are some quick honorable mentions.

Kicker
Shayne Graham is 36, and yeah you’ve got Derek Dimke too, but if the Saints can get their hands on Tulane All American Cairo Santos in the sixth or seventh round, it’ll be tough to say no.

Offensive Tackle
The resigning of Zach Strief keeps this position out of the top-5, but a security blanket with experience would be nice for Terron Armstead on the left side. Look for New Orleans to sign a veteran on the cheap.

Tight End
If the Jimmy Graham contract situation gets messy, will the Saints feel confident starting a 33-year-old Ben Watson or a youthful Josh Hill in a pass-happy offense next to possible question marks at receiver? I’m not so sure. I fully expect Graham to suit up next year long-term deal or not, but it’s worth thinking about.

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