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Robert Ayers, Derrick Johnson among free agents Saints should target

Giants defensive end Robert Ayers might be a good fit for the Saints. AP Images/Bill Kostroun

Here are the top five moves the New Orleans Saints should consider when free agency opens at 4 p.m. ET Wednesday:

Priority No. 1: Sign a pass-rusher. The Saints need help throughout their defense. But, as coach Sean Payton said recently, nothing could help more than being able to “force that quarterback to throw it on 2-Mississippi rather than 3-Mississippi.” The Saints are roughly $11 million under the salary cap, which probably will limit them from going after top defensive ends such as Mario Williams and Jason Pierre-Paul. But I could definitely see them going after a second-tier DE such as the New York Giants' Robert Ayers, the Los Angeles Rams' Chris Long or William Hayes or the Carolina Panthers' Charles Johnson. The Saints could also look inside to improve that pass rush with a disruptive defensive tackle such as the Kansas City Chiefs' Jaye Howard or the Rams' Nick Fairley.

Priority No. 2: Sign ‘quarterback’ of the defense. This one actually surprised me a bit, since rookie Stephone Anthony was one of the few bright spots on New Orleans' defense last year as the middle linebacker and signal-caller. But the Saints are apparently on the lookout for a veteran “quarterback of the defense” and have already brought in former Rams vet James Laurinaitis for a visit. Perhaps they want to clean up some alignment errors and free up Anthony to use his athleticism more. Another great option could be Chiefs veteran Derrick Johnson, who is 33 but coming off a great year. As an added bonus, Johnson has also played on the weak side in the past. Other veteran QB types could include Donald Butler, DeMeco Ryans, Daryl Smith and Stephen Tulloch.

Priority No. 3: Sign athletic outside linebacker. Noticing a trend here? Essentially, the Saints need to amp up their entire front seven. They can’t afford to upgrade all of these spots, but they should consider options everywhere. If money were no object, the Denver Broncos' Danny Trevathan and Indianapolis Colts' Jerrell Freeman would be the ideal type of athletic weakside linebacker they’ve desperately needed to help in pass coverage. A cheaper option could be the Tennessee Titans' Zach Brown.

Priority No. 4: Re-sign Benjamin Watson and/or upgrade. As of Thursday, the Saints’ top three tight ends from last year are unsigned (though Josh Hill should be back as a restricted free agent). It's hard to imagine they won't bring Watson back, since he is such a great fit on and off the field and just had his career year despite turning 35 in December. And it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Saints bring back veteran Michael Hoomanawanui, as well. However, the Saints should be intrigued by a deep group of midrange options in free agency who could potentially thrive in their offense, including the San Diego Chargers' Ladarius Green, the Chicago Bears' Zach Miller, and the Colts’ Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener.

Priority No. 5: Sign veteran guard. Though I obviously rank defense much higher on the priority list, it’s possible the Saints could spend big at guard after releasing six-time Pro Bowler Jahri Evans. Restricted free agent Tim Lelito is the only guard left on their roster with starting experience. If New Orleans goes that route, the Baltimore Ravens' Kelechi Osemele is probably too expensive. But the San Francisco 49ers' Alex Boone, the Houston Texans' Brandon Brooks and the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ramon Foster are among the next best options.