If we're ranking the New Orleans Saints' top needs in the draft based on where they could use the most immediate help, then the top three are probably center, wide receiver and cornerback.
The need at center is obvious in the wake of Brian De La Puente's departure. Meanwhile, a first-round draft pick at receiver or cornerback could step in right away in a rotational role while being developed as a future starter.
However, when it comes to New Orleans' long-term future, the linebacker position isn't far behind.
After the 2013 season, I chatted with ESPN scouting analyst Matt Williamson about how much the Saints could benefit from their own version of NFC South studs like Tampa Bay's Lavonte David and Carolina's Thomas Davis -- guys who can chase down speed backs in the open field, cover running backs and tight ends in the passing game and occasionally blitz.
That's why I find myself gravitating toward Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier as a top prospect for the Saints with their 27th pick in Round 1 of the draft.
The Saints primarily run a 3-4 defense under coordinator Rob Ryan, so Shazier isn't an ideal fit on the surface. He's not really a pass-rushing outside linebacker, and he's a bit small for a traditional 3-4 inside linebacker at 6-foot-1, 237 pounds.
But as we've learned about Ryan, he's about as versatile and multiple as any defensive coordinator in the league. Give him a playmaker, and he'll find room for him (see: Kenny Vaccaro).
Shazier is certainly a playmaker. He ranked among the top three players in the country last season with 144 tackles and 23.5 tackles-for-loss, in addition to seven sacks and four forced fumbles. He was reportedly timed at a blazing 4.38 seconds in the 40-yard dash at Ohio State's pro day.
"You can make an argument he's one of the best 10 football players in this draft just on being a pure, instinctive football player," ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said.
Shazier's dimensions are almost identical to those of David and Davis -- and to former Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, for that matter. And the one knock on Shazier in his scouting report is the same one that always stuck to Vilma: that he has trouble shedding blockers at times.
But everything else on the scouting report is extremely tantalizing.
"I love Shazier," Kiper said when I asked him if Shazier could fit in the Saints' defensive scheme. "It's just where is the best scheme fit? [He is] a guy that I think is a 4-3 outside linebacker but can play inside in the right scheme in a 3-4. And he could possibly, as you say, be that run-around chase athletic guy who can do so much with that 4.39 speed and that incredible athleticism."
That includes dropping back in pass coverage, Kiper affirmed.
"Yeah, Shazier's a tremendous athlete who can do everything you want," he said. "The only thing he lacks is the kind of size you look for as a 3-4 inside linebacker. And he might not be an elite pass-rusher, but he can certainly close and chase and pursue and do all the things you want. Heck of a football player."
Alabama's C.J. Mosley is another tantalizing athlete at the inside linebacker position. But Kiper said he doesn't expect him to fall far enough for the Saints to have a shot at him.
Kiper also mentioned Auburn pass-rusher Dee Ford as the kind of athlete who could fit the Saints as an outside linebacker. Kiper has paired Ford with the Saints in each of his past two mock drafts. Although Ford (6-2, 252) played defensive end in college, he projects as a 3-4 outside linebacker. And he has some experience dropping back in coverage, though it's not his specialty.
Kiper also mentioned Georgia Tech's Jeremiah Attaochu as a pass-rushing outside linebacker -- though he is generally considered more of a second-round prospect. Attaochu has 22 sacks in the past two seasons and probably fits best as a 3-4 outside linebacker.