Edge rusher still a Saints priority despite bold trade last year

Kiper projecting four QBs in the first round (1:40)

Mel Kiper Jr. sees Kyler Murray, Dwayne Haskins, Drew Lock and Daniel Jones all being selected in the first round of the NFL draft. (1:40)

METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints have already played one of their biggest chips of the 2019 offseason.

They traded away this year's first-round draft pick during last year's draft, when they moved up from No. 27 to No. 14 to select defensive end Marcus Davenport.

The Saints also have plenty invested in their other defensive end spot, where four-time Pro Bowler Cameron Jordan is scheduled to earn another $19 million over the next two years.

But that doesn't mean they're done spending at the position.

The Saints still need to either re-sign or replace veteran free agent Alex Okafor, who returned from a torn Achilles last year and started all 18 games, including the playoffs. Okafor played about 65 percent of New Orleans' defensive snaps, and Davenport rotated into the mix as a rookie.

It would make sense to bring back Okafor, who turned 28 in February, because he has been such a good fit in New Orleans over the past two years. The 6-foot-4, 261-pounder had four sacks last year and 4.5 sacks in only 10 games in 2017 before the injury. He has also been stout against the run and can move inside when needed in certain packages.

But it's also not out of the question that the Saints try and upgrade to an even higher-priced edge rusher in a free-agent class loaded with options.

The Saints only have about $10 million to $12 million in salary-cap space heading into the start of free agency next week. And I would rank a pass-catcher as their highest priority. But they clearly recognize the value of impact pass-rushers after tying for fifth in the NFL with 49 sacks in 2018. And they could make room for another one if they like the player enough.

Davenport definitely has the potential to move into a starting role in Year 2, assuming he recovers fully from last year's toe injury that required postseason surgery. And maybe he will move up to about 65 percent of the defensive snaps after playing just under 50 percent of them when healthy as a rookie.

The 6-foot-6, 265-pounder was always expected to be a bit of a long-term development project after he was drafted out of Texas-San Antonio. And he had a solid debut season, with 4.5 sacks, 13 quarterback hits, seven tackles for loss and a forced fumble in 15 games, including the playoffs. Davenport was especially coming on strong before the Week 8 toe injury. He had two sacks against Minnesota and a total of four sacks in a five-game span before being hurt.

But even if Davenport’s role increases, the Saints and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen have proved to be creative enough to get three edge rushers on the field at once.

Also, this is a good year for teams to be in the market for an edge rusher.

They won't come cheap (they never do). But there are a lot to choose from at every level of the market.

At the very top, DeMarcus Lawrence, Jadeveon Clowney, Dee Ford and Frank Clark are all possible franchise-tag candidates. But the next tiers are also stacked with the likes of Trey Flowers, Ezekiel Ansah, Preston Smith, Za'Darius Smith, Clay Matthews, Markus Golden, Dante Fowler Jr., Cameron Wake and Terrell Suggs, among others.

Wake is 37 years old. But the longtime Miami Dolphins star is an intriguing possibility because he was one of New Orleans assistant general manager Jeff Ireland's greatest acquisitions during his tenure as Miami's GM. And Wake is still bringing the heat, with 28 sacks over the past three years.

Other veterans with the potential for bounce-back seasons include Derrick Morgan and Vinny Curry. Or the Saints and other teams could take a look at young edge rushers who haven't yet hit their full potential, like Shane Ray or Dion Jordan (whom Ireland traded up to draft with the third overall pick when he was with the Dolphins in 2013).