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Ranking Saints needs: No. 8 safety

A position-by-position look at where the New Orleans Saints stand heading into the 2015 offseason -- ranked from 1-12 in order of the team’s need for upgrades or replacements.

Current depth chart:

Jairus Byrd. Age 28, signed through 2019. 2015 salary and bonuses: $8.1 million. 2015 salary-cap number: $10.3 million.

Kenny Vaccaro. Age 23, signed through 2016. 2015 salary and bonuses: $1.26 million. 2015 salary-cap number: $2.57 million.

Rafael Bush. Age 27, signed through 2015. 2015 salary and bonuses: $1.95 million. 2015 salary-cap number: $1.95 million.

Pierre Warren. Age 22, scheduled to become exclusive rights free agent in 2016. 2015 salary and bonuses: $510,000. 2015 salary-cap number: $510,000.

Vinnie Sunseri. Age 21, signed through 2017. 2015 salary and bonuses: $510,000. 2015 salary-cap number: $554,125.

Jamarca Sanford. Age 29, unrestricted free agent.

Marcus Ball. Age 27, scheduled to become restricted free agent in 2017. 2015 salary and bonuses: $510,000. 2015 salary-cap number: $512,000.

Kenny Phillips. Age 28, signed through 2015. 2015 salary: $745,000 (bonuses and cap figure unknown).

Ty Zimmerman. Age 24, scheduled to become restricted free agent in 2017. 2015 salary and bonuses: $510,000. 2015 salary-cap number: $511,500.

Analysis:

Don’t take this lower-priority ranking as any sign that the Saints should be content with the play at this position -- which was a debacle in 2014. The performance of the safeties was arguably the biggest disappointment on the entire team (out of many worthy candidates).

Byrd was struggling even before he suffered a season-ending knee injury during practice in Week 5 (torn lateral meniscus). And Vaccaro was inconsistent all year while struggling to adapt to a more traditional strong safety role, leading to a temporary demotion late in the year.

However, it’s hard to imagine the Saints investing heavily in any upgrades -- especially in free agency. They’ll work hard to rehabilitate Byrd and Vaccaro as the starters, since they both have so much long-term potential. And New Orleans has good depth behind them, assuming Bush and Sunseri heal fully from a broken leg and arm, respectively. Both Warren and Sunseri showed nice potential as rookies.

That all being said, we’ve now reached the point on this list where it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Saints consider any of these top-8 positions as high as the first round of the draft. If they have a safety rated highest on their board, they’ll snag him with a long-term focus and find a way to get him on the field.

ESPN scouting insider Matt Williamson’s take:

“I think you have to [stick with Byrd and Vaccaro]. Considering the upside, what you’ve seen of those players at their best. Going into the season, I thought they were gonna rival the Seahawks for the best pair of safeties in the league. I thought Vaccaro was a star-in-the-making. My hunch is in his third year, he’ll look more like he did as a rookie. He was coming off a pretty bad injury late in the year [fractured ankle], and I would think that contributed, especially to some of his early-season issues.

“Byrd didn’t play that well with the Saints, which shocked me. He’s not a super athlete, like some of these rangy free safety guys who can really, really run or jump out of the gym. He’s not that guy, he’s much more of a read the quarterback, react, bait, ball skills, break on the ball, short-area quickness, playing smart. And he just didn’t make any plays. Maybe it was just a new system, and we didn’t see enough snaps to really judge him. But they’re both certainly coming back, and they both make a lot, and they’re gonna be the safeties.”

[on why he liked Vaccaro so much in 2013] “He’s more of a typical strong safety [than free safety], but even in his rookie year he had some man-coverage skills. Very few of those guys do. He can walk down and play man against a slot receiver, a [Wes] Welker type. He has size, a lot of ability. I don’t think many defensive backs come in the league and really show up on tape positively. And I thought he did consistently as a rookie, even though he didn’t have great production, and showed a lot of versatility.”

Previous rankings:

No. 12: Specialists

No. 11: Quarterback

No. 10: Tight end

No. 9: Running back