Defense Priority 1 for Saints

It doesn’t take a whole lot of time to figure out what the New Orleans Saints are likely going to be looking for when their front office staff, coaches and scouts convene in Indianapolis for the NFL Scouting Combine workouts.

It’s as easy as chanting “de-fense, de-fense, de-fense!” at games.

When you finish at or near the bottom of the NFL stats in almost every key statistical category and set a record for the most yards allowed in league history — a dubious mark the 1981 Baltimore Colts gladly relinquished — you know where the focus should be.

Depending on what they can get done when free agency starts March 12, which is a big question in itself because of salary-cap constraints, it would be a shock if the Saints don’t use their top two draft picks in the first and third rounds on defensive help.

If they go that route, the only question is what position they’ll address first as they continue the transition from a 4-3 base to a 3-4 front under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

While Ryan and coach Sean Payton haven’t talked about the new scheme since Payton announced on Jan. 24 that he was firing Steve Spagnuolo and junking the 4-3, they’re going to need some help on the defensive line as well as at linebacker.

That’s pretty evident when you consider the Saints finished last in the league against the run and didn’t generate nearly enough pressure to scare most of the quarterbacks they faced.

Restless fans who watched the Saints finish 31st against the pass would also toss out the argument that a cornerback or two and a safety should be on the wish list as well.

The pecking order is so long that the national analysts are divided on how the Saints will attack the draft with their first pick, which will be the 15th selection.

ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. thinks they could use a big nose tackle to help plug the run, while NFL Network’s Mike Mayock believes that an explosive outside linebacker could be the pick.

Both suggestions have merit.

Going into the combine, Kiper said the front seven is flush with talent, particularly at defensive tackle.

“It is flat-out loaded,” he said. “This is certainly one of the best (positions) by far. You can find defensive tackles well into the draft process. You’re talking about 16 defensive front-seven players going in the first round, and a lot of guys are your defensive tackles.”

A couple of players LSU fans are familiar with — Florida’s Sharrif Floyd and Alabama’s Jesse Williams — could be sitting there for them at that spot.

If they go for an outside linebacker, Mayock thinks LSU’s Barkevious Mingo, who played defensive end for the Tigers, or Oregon’s Dion Jordan could fill the bill. BYU’s Ezekiel Ansah may also be available.

“A 3-4 outside linebacker, an edge guy, makes a ton of sense for them,” Mayock said. “I think they need an explosive 3-4 outside linebacker, there’s no doubt about that. They’ve got to get some pressure on the quarterback.”