Saints should steal from Patriots' defense in free agency

The New Orleans Saints should be heavily focused on defense, with nearly $30 million in salary-cap space, as free agency opens at 4 p.m. ET Thursday. And they would be wise to consider stealing from the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots to fill each of their top three needs.

Here are some moves the Saints should consider:

Sign DE Jabaal Sheard: The Saints have labeled an edge-rushing defensive end as a must this offseason. But their chances of spending megamillions on an elite talent took a big hit last week when Jason Pierre-Paul, Chandler Jones and Melvin Ingram were all locked up with franchise tags. Instead, the Saints should consider Sheard, who had 13 sacks over the past two seasons as a rotational backup with the Patriots. Sheard has battled inconsistency, but he has been dynamic in flashes, with a total of 36 sacks in his six-year career with Cleveland and the Patriots. Plus, the Saints tend to like their edge rushers a little bigger, and Sheard fits that bill at 6-foot-3, 265 pounds.

Make a run at LB Dont'a Hightower: We know the Saints aren’t afraid to make a big splash -- they tried to sign free-agent cornerback Josh Norman at $15 million per year last April. If they’re willing to do the same this year, Hightower could be worth the price. New Orleans has struggled to find a middle linebacker to run its defense the past two years, moving on from Curtis Lofton to Stephone Anthony to James Laurinaitis to Craig Robertson. Hightower, the Patriots inside linebacker and Super Bowl game-changer, could have the dual benefit of being an athletic playmaker and an experienced leader from a winning program. The problem is that New England probably doesn’t want to let Hightower get away.

Upgrade at cornerback: This is the most likely spot where the Saints will spend big in free agency, since they have also labeled cornerback as a must -- and since there are more top talents to choose from than at the other two positions. The two highest-rated cornerbacks available are Houston's A.J. Bouye and Buffalo's Stephon Gilmore (rated 6th and 7th overall among ESPN Insider's top 150 free agents). But both come with question marks, since Bouye just broke out in 2016 and Gilmore battled inconsistency after his 2015 breakout season. If the Saints go a little cheaper, they might consider -- you guessed it -- the Patriots' Logan Ryan, who has been a rising young starter the past two years.

Try to keep Nick Fairley: I expect the Saints to keep the free-agent defensive tackle since the fit was so good for both sides last season, but it will be fascinating to learn the 29-year-old’s market value after he had his career-best season with the Saints in 2016 (6.5 sacks and 22 quarterback hits). Fairley had to settle for one-year “prove it” deals with the Saints in 2016 and Rams in 2015 because his career got off to a rocky start with the Detroit Lions. But Fairley has continued to rehab his reputation both on and off the field, staying healthy and keeping his weight down. I think he’d like to stay in New Orleans, which is close to his hometown of Mobile, Alabama. But if another team is really aggressive, they could potentially outbid the Saints, who have other good options at the three-technique defensive tackle position with Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata. ... Other top free agents the Saints will likely try to re-sign include running back Tim Hightower, cornerback Sterling Moore and guard Jahri Evans.

Guard a wild card: Defense dominates the Saints’ top needs in free agency, but the wild-card scenario for New Orleans would be signing a top guard to replace Evans. I think it makes more sense for the Saints to keep Evans for one more year and draft a successor. However, there are so many top-tier guards available in free agency this year (Kevin Zeitler, T.J. Lang, Ronald Leary and Larry Warford) that the Saints might decide they can get the most bang for their free-agent buck at that position.