Saints could be looking to add to young core on defense instead of going after free agents

After months of talk about how the Saints needed to spend the offseason focused on finding ways to improve their defense, the team spent the first week of free agency focused on patching up holes on offense.

The big signing, of course, was tight end Coby Fleener, who joined New Orleans from Indianapolis shortly after Ben Watson fled town and hooked on with the Baltimore Ravens. Further down the list, the team worked to retain guards Senio Kelemete and Tim Lelito and backup quarterback Luke McCown.

The only transaction pertaining to the defense occurred Saturday morning when reserve safety Rafael Bush signed a one-year deal with the Detroit Lions.

The approach has been surprising. Any list of top needs for the Saints includes defensive tackle, defensive end and linebacker. On offense, guard is considered the biggest need after Jahri Evans was let go, but, to be fair, tight end crept up the list after Watson split.

Still, no one would have guessed the bulk of the limited resources this offseason would be used to maintain the offense. That’s not to say the approach is wrong. Only time will determine how all of these moves work out, and there are more pieces of the puzzle to come.

But with only a little more than $5 million remaining in salary cap space, it’s unlikely New Orleans will go out and make the kind of splash that will satiate fans hungry for defensive improvement.

Besides, the opportunity for that has likely already passed, with many of the bigger names flying off the market during the first few days of free agency.

If the team is going to add some players, it’s likely to come in the form of veterans who can plug holes and add depth. Maybe it’s the right move. All anyone needing a reminder of how free agency often backfires has to do is look at some of the big names signed by the Saints in recent years.

There could be surprises. The Saints could pull something off that no one sees coming — they already did it with Fleener — but it looks like the approach to improving the defense will be adding a couple of veteran players and once again focusing on defense in the draft.

It’s already been said here the team needs to maintain a top offense to cover up for the defense. And instead of trying to find expensive players who could provide a quick fix, it looks like the Saints could be trying to build a young defense that can grow together.

With core players like defensive end Cam Jordan, safety Kenny Vaccaro and cornerbacks Delvin Breaux and Keenan Lewis (assuming he returns to form following hip surgery) in the fold, and last year’s rookies Stephone Anthony and Hau’oli Kikaha’s potential for growth, there are a couple of reasons for optimism.

Throw in some rookies, and some good health, and it’s not unreasonable to think this defense could sneak up the rankings. With an offense producing as one of the better units in the league, getting there could be enough for New Orleans to compete for a playoff spot.

It’s not the worst team-building philosophy to try to build a core on defense that can grow together. If the Saints are successful at this, then next year, when there’s more cap space, it might be a better time to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses and use free agency to plug the holes and inject more talent.

It’s common knowledge that signing pricey free agents and trying to build your core with players from other teams doesn’t often work. There are cases where it has — the Denver Broncos are one example — but you have to dig through plenty of wreckage to find those examples.

If the Saints are successful building their defense this way, it could also give the team something to lean upon when the offense reaches a point where it ages out of the possibility of being fixed and a rebuild is needed on that side of the ball.

There are a lot of ifs here. There’s no guarantee this strategy would work. There’s no guarantees the young players make a leap in their development, or the draft will harvest talent.

But if this is the plan, there’s logic behind the motives. That logic just needs to produce results.

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