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Thursday, May 8, 2014
Will Saints buck defensive trend?

By Mike Triplett

METAIRIE, La. -- More news and notes from New Orleans Saints general manager Mickey Loomis' pre-draft news conference on Wednesday:

Bucking the trend?: For the past six years in a row, the Saints' top pick has been a defensive player. Loomis said that's not exactly a coincidence, since the Saints had more needs on defense during most of those years. But those needs can change from year to year.

"Look, we've had a successful offense and we've struggled on defense at times," Loomis said. "So obviously when you go into the draft and you have one side of the ball that's struggling over another, then you tend to look to that side of the ball."

For that reason, I think it would be wrong to make any Saints predictions based on their history under Loomis and coach Sean Payton. They've only drafted one receiver in the first round and zero offensive linemen in Round 1 since 2006. But they've also been loaded with proven talent at those spots.

Suddenly, they're starting to get a little older and thinner on offense, while their defense is more stocked than ever with young talent.

"Certainly (priorities can) change. Absolutely they change," Loomis said. "And yet, we are always in this business of trying to select the best player available to us. It could be that there wasn't an offensive lineman that we deemed worthy of the pick at the time we selected. There's a lot of variables there, not just what we perceive we need on offense or defense."

Loomis, however, stressed he disagrees with the notion that the age of the Saints' offense is a concern.

"I've seen a couple of things about the age of our offense. I'm not concerned about the age of our offense; I'm concerned about the performance of our offense, and it's been pretty darn good," Loomis said. "So if you're asking me, 'Am I going to trade our offense for a younger one?' No, we're not."

QB low priority: Speaking of aging offensive players, Loomis was also asked if the Saints have started to look closer at an eventual replacement for quarterback Drew Brees, who turned 35 in January. He said it's not "at the forefront of our minds" yet.

I agree it shouldn't be. Brees should have at least four strong years left as a starter. Any rookie they draft now would be a free agent by the time the Saints need him.

"Look, we pay attention to that because you want to have someone in the wings that can take over and play for you," Loomis said. "But we like what (veteran Luke McCown) has done for us as a backup. We like this prospect Ryan Griffin, but we are always keeping an eye on that. I wouldn't say that it is at the forefront of our minds, and yet we recognize Drew's age. But if you talk to Drew, he is going to play for a lot longer. That is encouraging."

A rookie center?: The Saints still have a noticeable void at the center position. They like the potential of second-year pro Tim Lelito, who will transition from guard to center. But the Saints will certainly bring in some competition for him at some point -- possibly during the draft.

It wouldn't be a shocker to see the Saints grab USC's Marcus Martin to fill that void in Round 1 -- as long as he's the highest-rated player on their board and not a reach to fill a need.

Loomis was asked if it's especially difficult for a rookie to come in and play center since it requires so much knowledge of the offense.

"I do think that it is difficult, and yet it has happened," Loomis said. "Obviously when you are drafting a center, intelligence, mental quickness, those are the things that you want to make sure you are high on before you draft a guy to play that position.

"I think for us, with two veteran guards in Ben (Grubbs) and Jahri (Evans), it is going to make it easier for a center. With a quarterback like Drew, who does a lot of the identifications and makes a lot of the calls, that makes it easier. So it definitely makes it possible, probably a little easier with our team than some others."

Need a return man?: Another noticeable void on the Saints' roster is the return game after they parted ways with veterans Darren Sproles and Lance Moore. Third-year pro Travaris Cadet has experience as a kickoff returner, but the Saints don't have many experienced candidates to fill the punt-return job. So Loomis acknowledged that could be a draft priority.

"Yeah, look, we have some candidates on our current roster," Loomis said. "(But) I would say that is accurate, we would love to improve ourselves in that area."

Whittling down the list: Loomis said the Saints talked with "every draftable player that we have on our board" at some point during the pre-draft process. He believes the Saints brought in 29 players for pre-draft visits to the team's facility out of the 30 that NFL teams are allowed. But that's just one of many avenues for connecting with prospects.

"Then we had our local pro day, which we had I think between 40 and 50 guys that were present. Then we had our 60 interviews at the combine and we had interviews at the Senior Bowl and we had independent interviews both at the combine and Senior Bowl," Loomis said. "You start this process, there's 3,000 names, and we're whittling it down to 120 or 130 on our draftable front board, and then we're trying to whittle that down to the 20 or 30 that we'd really like to have for the Saints. It's a pretty extensive process."

Managing the cap: Loomis said the Saints' limited amount of salary-cap space won't affect their draft strategy. And he said the Saints are comfortable with where they stand (about $3.5 million under the cap, with about $2 million needed to sign draft picks).

"Obviously we've been tight against the cap for a number of years now. We're used to operating in that environment. And, look, I'm glad we're operating in that environment," Loomis said. "That means we have a good team, and we have good players. So we're used to it."

When asked if there's still a possibility the Saints could restructure Brees' contract (pushing cap costs into future years), Loomis said it's always possible. But it doesn't sound like the Saints have any plans of doing so.

"We have some guys in that category that we can restructure," Loomis said. "(But) I am trying to avoid restructures and pushing off salary caps into future years. We have done some of it, and look, there was good reason to do it, but we are trying to avoid doing that if we can."