After a heartbreaking finish to the 2011 season, Sean Payton will now look to the draft to find the missing pieces for a Super Bowl run next season.
A huge amount of attention is paid to the first round of the NFL draft, but more often than not, NFL stars are selected in one of the latter six. Mock drafts are created mostly for the first round, and the drafts that go deeper usually lose their reader somewhere in the middle of the second.
The New Orleans Saints, however, are in an unusual position this season, at least from a media attention standpoint. The Saints do not have a first-round pick this year. They packaged this year's first-round selection with their second-round pick last season in a trade with New England to jump back into the end of the first round to select running back Mark Ingram.
With the Saints being on the cusp of another Super Bowl run, they will need to focus, especially on the later rounds this year, to patch the holes and become stronger for 2012. Here are six players the Saints need to target in the later rounds to help them get back to the promise land and bring another Lombardi Trophy back to the Bayou.
The Saints have become deeper in recent years at the cornerback position with draft picks like Patrick Robinson in 2010 (1st round) and Johnny Patrick in 2011 (3rd round). While both fit into the Saints' long-term plans, starters Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter have battled injuries throughout their careers, which should have the Saints thinking about adding depth.
Boston College is not a school known for producing top-tier defensive backs, but Fletcher is a rare gem. In his first full season as starter at BC, Fletcher snatched five interceptions, which led the team. He is a smart player that is solid in coverage, the type of player that would be a steal in the fourth round, where it seems most projections have him landing.
In their 4-3 scheme, the Saints may seem set with Jonathan Vilma as their middle linebacker. However, Vilma will be entering his ninth season in the NFL. The Saints would be wise to plan his successor, or at the very least provide a viable backup for Vilma if he were to miss time like he did this season.
In the latter rounds the Saints may be able to pick up a linebacker like California's Mychal Kendricks. Kendricks, considered a mid-round pick, was named the Pac-12's Defensive Player of the Year in 2011, and he may be one of the most underrated players in the draft due to his 5'11" frame. Although he may be considered small for his position, Kendricks plays much bigger and could fit well into the Saints' system as he has a real knack for the ball.
One of the Saints biggest defensive problems in 2011 was their lack of ability to put consistent pressure on the quarterback from their front four. Even with the addition of Cameron Jordan in the draft, he was unreliable and his replacement, Junior Galette, was their most consistent pass rusher.
If the Saints want to get to the next level, they will have to get to the quarterback, something that new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is undoubtedly aware of. One of the ways they could improve this would be in the form of drafting Penn State defensive end Jack Crawford. Crawford, who has battled a foot injury throughout his collegiate career, would provide an added dimension to the Saints' defense that it has lacked in recent years.
Crawford, originally from England, is a mild-mannered player who would provide no character issues. In fact, he should be a positive force in the locker room and fit in quite nicely. The Saints should be able to grab Crawford in as late as the fifth or sixth round, and he is a terrific buy-low candidate due to his injury.
As the Saints look to 2012, few would look to the offensive side of the ball for improvement. Behind Drew Brees' record-breaking season, it would seem that their offense cannot be bolstered. However, the offensive tackle position is one that needs addressing and is a need that few may have noticed. The Saints right tackle, Zach Strief, was exposed by defensive lineman, including Chris Long of the Rams, which led the team to give him additional help.
More plays than not, the Saints sent a fullback or running back to aid Strief, who is inarguably the Saints' weak spot on the line. Even when Strief missed some time this season, his replacement Charles Brown has some issues with pass protection. If the Saints want to keep Drew Brees upright and slinging the ball downfield, they should look to improve the right tackle position.
Andrew Datko out of Florida State would be a prime candidate to take over if Strief were to continue his struggles. The 6'6" 321 pound player has plenty of size and athleticism for the job. He ran into shoulder problems during his time at FSU, but assuming a full recovery, Datko could prove a viable starting tackle for a team like the Saints.
The Saints thought they answered their questions at center when they signed Olin Kreutz to a one year deal prior to the 2011 season. However, Kreutz walked away from football midseason after some early struggles, and Brian de la Puente was forced into the starting role. De la Puente proved to be a solid stopgap for the Saints, but there are questions about his role long term.
The Saints should look to the draft to solve this problem, and they may be able to steal Ohio State center Michael Brewster in the third or fourth round. Brewster, considered the third-ranked center in this year's class, would be a prize in the middle rounds. He is tremendous in pass protection and has the size, strength, and athleticism to be a potential force in the middle of the Saints' offensive line.
Perhaps the biggest issue for the Saints remains their linebacking company, particularly on the outside. Scott Shanle is aging and Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Will Herring have proved to be lackluster players that may be better suited as replacement guys. The Saints need a quick player who has an eye for the ball carrier, and a guy who can anchor the defense for years.
A guy who is vastly underrated, and is currently considered a fifth-round pick, is Iowa's Tyler Nielsen. Nielsen has 4.54 speed and a decent frame at 6'3" 235 pounds. Of course, NFL scouts know that Iowa linebackers are usually some of the hardest working, most athletic players in the country, which is something that Steve Spagnuolo and head coach Sean Payton will not overlook.
The Saints' tackling has always been suspect; this was the case in Marshawn Lynch's infamous touchdown run in the 2010 NFL Playoffs. Nielsen will help to improve the defense as he is a sure tackler with a high football IQ. He could be considered a poor man's Luke Kuechly, the Boston College linebacker who is projected as a mid-first rounder. With Nielsen alongside Vilma, the Saints could have a winning combination poised to get back to the Super Bowl.