NFL DRAFT: Shoring up defense a priority for New Orleans Print
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Monday, 23 April 2007 21:07
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 NEW ORLEANS (AP) -When the Saints' unlikely run to the brink of the Super Bowl ended last season, the normally affable Fred Thomas sat by his locker on the verge of tears, refusing to speak.
In a loss at Chicago in the NFC championship game, the veteran cornerback was beaten on several long plays, the most glaring a 33-yard touchdown pass to Bernard Berrian that sealed the Bears' victory. That was one week after he lost track of Donte' Stallworth on a long scoring pass against Philadelphia.
The Saints have kept the 11-year veteran on the roster, but only after he agreed to take a pay cut.
New Orleans wants more depth at that position, whether a recent bid to bring in Colts restricted free agent Jason David succeeds or not.
``What's hard to find in free agency are corners, left tackles and defensive ends,'' Saints coach Sean Payton said. ``You've got to draft those. Otherwise you'll pay a lot for them.''
With the selections of defensive end Will Smith in 2004 and offensive tackle Jammal Brown in 2005, the Saints have found Pro Bowl players at two of the three key positions Payton mentioned.
Smith was picked 18th overall and Brown 13th. This year, New Orleans picks at No. 27.
``We're probably looking for one, if not a couple of young corners,'' Payton said.
Two top cornerback prospects, Leon Hall of Michigan and Derrelle Revis of Pittsburgh, are expected to be taken in the top 20. But Chris Houston of Arkansas or Aaron Ross of Texas could be available when New Orleans goes on the clock.
Houston, a junior, had a career-high 45 tackles in 2006, with three interceptions and two forced fumbles. He is more likely to be available than Ross, a senior who is 3 inches taller and won the Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back.
New Orleans would be all but certain to take one of them unless the Colts fail to match the offer the Saints made for David. In that case, the Saints could look for a linebacker or defensive lineman to shore up a run defense that ranked 23rd in the league.
New Orleans hopes Penn State linebacker Paul Posluszny could be there for the taking late in the first round.
Defensive end could be another spot where the Saints look for depth.
While they have both starters back in Smith and Charles Grant, the Saints held onto Grant by making him their franchise player, a move Grant opposed.
When the Saints used the franchise tag to keep defensive end Darren Howard in 2005, it didn't work out very well. Howard, too, was unhappy, had an off year and was gone after that season.
In later rounds, the Saints could be looking for additional depth on the offensive line and a quarterback to compete for the backup spot behind Drew Brees. For now, that position is held by 37-year-old Jamie Martin.
``We're always looking for quarterbacks because we think we can develop them,'' said Payton, who played quarterback in college and has always worked closely with the position during his NFL coaching career.
New Orleans had one of the best drafts in franchise history last season. Three players - safety Roman Harper, guard Jahri Evans and receiver Marques Colston - were starters when the regular season opened, although Harper's season was cut short by a knee injury. Draft-day trades brought in center Jeff Faine and defensive tackle Hollis Thomas, both starters. And then there was Reggie Bush, who technically came off the bench behind Deuce McAllister, but was as much of a game-breaker, whether out of the backfield or lining up as a receiver, as anyone on the squad.
Combined with the signing of free-agent Brees, the Saints were essentially remade in one offseason from a 3-13 doormat in 2005 to a playoff contender in 2006.
Selecting Bush with the second overall pick was a no-brainer after Houston passed him up in favor of defensive lineman Mario Williams. The rest of the picks or draft-day trades required a little more research and a bit of luck.
If the Saints thought Colston was going to be as good as he turned out, they would have picked him well before the seventh round, Payton concedes.
Coming off a playoff year, the Saints are looking more for a few refinements and added depth than the overhaul they set out to accomplish last year.
They addressed some needs already in free agency with the signing of linebacker Brian Simmons, safety Kevin Kaesviharn and tight end Eric Johnson. They also re-signed Thomas and starting right tackle Jon Stinchcomb.
``We got a couple of guys on defense we think will help us,'' Payton said. ``And most importantly, and people lose sight of this, we were able to retain the players we were most interested in keeping. That's very important.''

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