Rufus Johnson. Age 23, scheduled to become restricted free agent after three accrued seasons.
Kyle Knox. Age 24, scheduled to become restricted free agent after three accrued seasons.
As I explained earlier on this list, since the Saints run a hybrid between a 3-4 and 4-3 defense, I decided to break up their front seven into three categories: Interior defensive linemen, edge rushers and linebackers.
I probably could have ranked the edge rushers even lower on the Saints’ list of needs, since this position was arguably the strength of the defense in 2013 with Jordan and Galette both having breakout years, each with 12-plus sacks. Plus, the depth could improve even more this year if Butler comes back strong from a torn ACL. Of everyone on this list, I actually thought Butler would be the guy who had the breakout year in 2013 after the Saints signed him as a free agent from the Dallas Cowboys.
But the reason I still ranked this position so high is because you can never have enough explosive pass-rushers in the NFL, and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is creative and versatile enough to rotate a lot of guys into the mix. It’s not a “must-fill” position, but the Saints could certainly pounce on a dynamic, young athlete early in the draft if they have a high grade on him.
The biggest question mark in this group is Smith. Obviously he won’t be back at his current monster salary. But I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that he agrees to a significant pay cut to stay in New Orleans like he did last year. He’d probably have to agree to play for close to the veteran minimum since he’s 32 years old and coming off of a torn ACL. But the Saints value Smith as a veteran leader who has always been solid as both a pass-rusher and run defender. He could still be a good fit as part of the front-seven rotation if he comes back strong from the injury.
Johnson (a sixth-round draft pick last year) and Knox were both added to the active roster late in the season, mostly to help on special teams. But it’s possible both of them could work their way up in the rotation with an impressive offseason.