Can Saints find 'must-have' edge rusher in thinned-out market?

The New Orleans Saints’ No. 1 need is so obvious that everyone else in the NFL seems to be thinking the same thing.

Coach Sean Payton acknowledged that an edge-rushing defensive end is a “must” for the Saints this year. The problem is that almost all of the top candidates to fill that “must” have been taken off the market.

Potential free agents Jason Pierre-Paul, Melvin Ingram and Chandler Jones all got locked up by franchise tags last week, even though it cost their teams between $14.5 and $16.9 million apiece. And the Carolina Panthers locked up young pass rusher Mario Addison with a new three-year contract worth $7.5 million per year.

So where does that leave the Saints? Either they’ll have to potentially overpay for a pass rusher in the second tier -- like the New England Patriots’ Jabaal Sheard -- or they’ll have to count on this year’s draft class. It’s supposedly a deep class for pass rushers, but the Saints hate to be forced into reaching to fill specific needs come draft time.

With free agency set to kick off on Thursday, the defensive ends are the easy No. 1 choice to wrap up my position-by-position rankings of New Orleans’ offseason needs.

Current depth chart:

Cameron Jordan. Age 27, signed through 2020. 2017 salary and bonuses: $7.1 million. 2017 salary-cap number: $12.05 million.

Paul Kruger. Age 31, unrestricted free agent.

Hau’oli Kikaha. Age 24, signed through 2018. 2017 salary and bonuses: $913,756. 2017 salary-cap number: $1.44 million.

Kasim Edebali. Age 27, restricted free agent.

Darryl Tapp. Age 32, unrestricted free agent.

Obum Gwacham. Age 25, scheduled to be restricted free agent in 2019. 2017 salary and bonuses: $615,000. 2017 salary-cap number: $615,000.

D.J. Pettway. Age 24, scheduled to be exclusive-rights free agent in 2019. 2017 salary and bonuses: $465,000. 2017 salary-cap number: $466,666.

Mitchell Loewen. Age 24, scheduled to be exclusive-rights free agent in 2019. 2017 salary and bonuses: $465,000.

Royce LaFrance. Age 23, scheduled to be exclusive-rights free agent in 2020. 2017 salary and bonuses: $465,000.


The good news here is that Jordan is one of the best all-around defensive ends in the NFL. He should have made his third trip to the Pro Bowl last year while racking up 7.5 sacks, 24 quarterback hits, 17 tackles for loss and six batted passes.

But Jordan’s greatest strength is his versatility as a big man who can both rush the passer and defend the run -- usually from the strong side of the line. The Saints desperately need a dynamic edge rusher flanking Jordan from the other side to become more disruptive up front.

They have some in-house candidates, but none has made a major impact yet. Kikaha showed promise as a rookie in 2015, but his future is uncertain after he suffered a third ACL injury last summer. Kruger, Tapp and Edebali have all been decent. But if the Saints re-sign one or two of them, they’ll want them to work in rotation with someone who has double-digit sack potential.

Perhaps Sheard or the Green Bay PackersNick Perry could be that guy. I’ve written a few times now about how I think Sheard could be a good fit, even though he has battled inconsistency while racking up 36 sacks in six years with the Patriots and Cleveland Browns. The Saints could be attracted to Sheard because of his bigger size at 6-foot-3, 265 pounds.

The Saints could also consider a veteran on the backside of his career, like DeMarcus Ware or Mario Williams, to come in and play a rotational role.

Either way, New Orleans will almost certainly try to add a young pass rusher to the mix in this year’s deep draft class -- possibly someone like Michigan’s Taco Charlton, Stanford’s Solomon Thomas or Tennessee’s Derek Barnett in Round 1 or someone like Missouri’s Charles Harris, Auburn’s Carl Lawson or Kansas State’s Jordan Willis on Day 2.That scenario will become even more likely if the Saints add an extra first-round pick in a potential Brandin Cooks trade.

Previous rankings:

No. 12 Specialists

No. 11 Wide receivers

No. 10 Tight ends

No. 9 Quarterbacks

No. 8 Running backs

No. 7 Offensive tackles

No. 6 Safeties

No. 5 Defensive tackles

No. 4 Guards/centers

No. 3 Linebackers

No. 2 Cornerbacks