Finding right players in new Saints defense no easy task

Two seasons.

That’s how long it took defensive guru Bill Parcells to assemble enough talent to switch to a 3-4 after becoming head coach of the Dallas Cowboys in 2003. His teams continued to play a 4-3 until he officially pulled the plug after the ’04 season.

By comparison, Saints coach Sean Payton is changing defensive schemes on the run in New Orleans, acquiring veteran free agents, drafting rookies and moving around players from last year’s roster to meet needs. In some cases, he is trying to fit square pegs into round holes. In others, the fit is less taxing.

Payton fired defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo in January and hired Rob Ryan in February to oversee the schematic transition. That was the easy part. Finding the right pieces to the puzzle is anything but.

Two seasons.

No one in Who Dat Nation should expect a quick fix.

“Being from north Louisiana, 4 and 3 is seven and 3 and 4 is seven, you just got to know what you’re dealing with,’’ Saints defensive line coach Bill Johnson said during a break between recent minicamp workouts. “I’ve been in both. Football is football. It’s all about gap control.’’

And having the right players to fill those gaps is critical to a successful transition.

As one source explained it: “Lining up 1-gap defensive linemen in a new scheme that will ask the front three to two-gap isn’t a matter of running a few practices in OTAs and showing the players cut-up instructional tapes from other teams.’’

Hardly.

The Saints currently have a smorgasbord of front-seven players to choose from, coming in all shapes and sizes with varying degrees of experience. It will be up to Ryan, Johnson and linebackers coach Joe Vitt to identify the right ones.

Here is a sampling of their choices:

Nose tackle: Brodrick Bunkley (6-foo-2, 306 pounds), Tyrunn Walker (6-3, 294), third-round draft pick John Jenkins (6-3, 359).

Defensive end: Akiem Hicks (6-5, 324), Cameron Jordan (6-4, 287), Kenyon Coleman (6-5, 293), Tom Johnson (6-3, 288).

Outside linebacker: Will Smith (6-3, 282), Junior Galette (6-2, 258), Victor Butler (6-2, 245), Martez Wilson (6-4, 252), sixth-round draft pick Rufus Johnson (6-5, 272).

Inside linebacker: Curtis Lofton (6-0, 241), David Hawthorne (6-0, 246), Jonathan Vilma (6-1, 230), Will Herring (6-3, 241), Chris Chamberlain (6-1, 238).

Other than Lofton at one inside linebacker position, other starting jobs are wide open. At this stage of the offseason — 91 days until the Saints open the season against the Atlanta Falcons on Sept. 8 — the depth chart remains very fluid.

Unless other players come into the mix between now and then, what you see is what you get.

When asked to describe the ideal defensive end in a 3-4, Johnson said “size matters.’’

“The first thing you’re looking for is power,’’ he said. “I would never sacrifice size or pounds for power. He can be 315 but I can’t say he’s not going to be 295, or 360 if he can move. He’s got to be person who has good, short-range explosion; the closer to the ball, the stronger he gets. He needs some form of rush ability, but he’s not necessarily the speed guy out on the edge that you would need in a 4-3.’’

In a 3-4 scheme, the ideal outside linebacker must be a good pass rusher and able to set the edge, the spitting image of a player Ryan had in Dallas the past two years.

“He’s DeMarcus Ware,’’ Ryan said of the Cowboys’ 6-4, 260-pound seven-time Pro Bowler who has 111 career sacks, including 31 the past two seasons. “That’s what we want (in terms of characteristics). That’s the guy; absolutely. Skill sets, size, strength, speed, he has everything. That’s the guy you measure (other players up against).’’

Ware proved to be the signature pick of the Cowboys’ ’05 draft class that included defensive ends Marcus Spears of LSU, Chris Canty and Jay Ratliff. All four players helped pave the way for Parcells to junk the 4-3 in favor of the 3-4.

The Saints should be so fortunate.