- Mike Triplett, ESPN Staff Writer
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MOBILE, Ala. -- Ever since Sean Payton, Drew Brees, Reggie Bush, Jahri Evans and Marques Colston arrived together in 2006, it's seemed like the New Orleans Saints have had their offensive core in place, and they've needed to build a complementary defense.
For example, their top pick in each of the past six drafts has been a defensive player. And most of the Saints' significant free-agent acquisitions have been defensive players during that span, as well.
But suddenly, the Saints' defense seems loaded with young building blocks after breakout performances in 2013 by guys such as ends Cameron Jordan, Junior Galette and Akiem Hicks and defensive backs Keenan Lewis and Kenny Vaccaro.
And by comparison, the offense has started to look like the unit that needs more young developmental talent for the future -- especially at the offensive line and receiver positions. The immediate future of veterans such as right tackle Zach Strief, center Brian de la Puente and receivers Lance Moore and Robert Meachem is in some doubt for various reasons (free agency, the cap, diminishing roles). And someday Brees, Evans and Colston will need to be replaced, too -- though the Saints are hoping they've all got several good years left in them.
"It's a good question," Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said when I asked if the team's focus needs to shift this offseason toward stocking that next generation of offensive talent. "The last few years the focus has been more on defense in the offseason and with the draft. I think it's going to be more balanced this year."
Loomis was quick to point out, however, that the Saints do like the potential of several young offensive players who contributed in 2013 -- even though they weren't big draft or free-agent investments.
"We've got some good young players," Loomis said while visiting with the media during a Senior Bowl practice Tuesday. "[Rookie left tackle] Terron Armstead, I thought, was really good in those last four games. Obviously, he had a few struggles early, but he responded, so I think we're excited about the prospects for him.
"We like this [guard/center] Tim Lelito, he's an undrafted free agent who we're excited about. [Receiver] Kenny Stills was productive as a rookie, fifth-round pick. And we like [second-year receiver] Nick Toon. Nick has been held back by the number of opportunities we can give him. Josh Hill, a [undrafted rookie] tight end. So we've got some good young players on offense. I know it might seem like we don't, but we do."
Toon is one of the most curious names on that list since he was inactive for the second half of the season after struggling when he got his most prominent opportunity of the year against the New York Jets. But when asked if Toon was in the "doghouse," Loomis explained what I always figured to be the case -- that Toon was simply stuck in the back of a crowded position group.
Maybe if Toon had performed better in New York, he would have forced the Saints to keep him in the lineup. But for the most part, he was active for a handful of games when the Saints had injury issues -- then he went back to being the inactive fifth receiver when everyone else was healthy.
"The only thing holding Nick back is the number of opportunities," Loomis said. "He'll get those going forward."
Loomis later spoke about undrafted rookie running back Khiry Robinson, third-year running back Mark Ingram and second-year offensive tackle Bryce Harris, among others whose roles could expand going forward.
It's too early to predict what the Saints' most glaring needs will be in free agency and the draft. They have five starters scheduled to be unrestricted free agents (tight end Jimmy Graham, Strief, de la Puente, safety Malcolm Jenkins and outside linebacker Parys Haralson). They might also opt to part ways with one or more current starters to shed salary-cap space.
But in general, the Saints don't appear to have many positions that "must" be filled in the first round of the draft -- to use a term that the Saints often use when categorizing their offseason needs.
"Always our goal is to fill as many of those holes prior to the draft -- those ‘musts' -- so we can take whatever may fall to us," Loomis said. "Obviously, we're not relying on it, but we'll see what we can do there. It's more of a challenge when you have salary cap issues, obviously. ...
"That best available player [concept in the draft] is always our goal. And that's what we like to talk about. Yet, you always have to have an eye on what you need for our team."
I also jokingly asked Loomis if the Saints have already identified this year's undrafted running back from some Division II school that will come out of nowhere to be a breakout player -- like undrafted standouts Robinson, Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas, among others in the Saints' recent past.
"We're going to," Loomis said with a laugh. "We will have one, I guarantee you that."