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John DeShazier: Edge rusher still a 'must' for Saints, Coach Sean Payton says

Orlando – The New Orleans Saints have been able to address several needs during free agency. But Coach Sean Payton said Tuesday morning there still are some glaring areas that require attending to.

One of them is edge rusher. That situation might have had clarity if Alex Okafor, a free agent bargain last year who was having a career year, hadn’t ruptured his Achilles against Washington in Week 11. Okafor re-signed this offseason, but there still are concerns that must be quelled, among them how well Okafor will recover, and whether Trey Hendrickson, a third-round pick last year, can handle the duties full-time.

“We went into this process, it’s a ‘must,’ ” Payton said from the NFL Annual Meeting. “And so, we haven’t addressed it yet. It’ll be important.

“It always impacts the draft when you identify those musts. Those musts don’t have any flexibility – we have to accomplish that. Now, there’s still a lot of time and a lot of opportunities prior to the draft. Certainly, we’ve got to look closely at that during the draft.”

Payton said that receiver and tight end also are high priorities to address.

“Those are ‘must’ positions, too.”

Positions that were addressed include safety (Kurt Coleman), linebacker (Demario Davis), backup quarterback (Tom Savage), utility offensive lineman (Jermon Bushrod) and cornerback (Patrick Robinson).

Robinson, the Saints’ first-round draft pick in 2010 who spent five seasons in New Orleans, returns after three seasons away. In ’17, he helped the Eagles win the Super Bowl and emerged as one of the top slot cornerbacks in the league.

“I think he’s confident,” Payton said. “He’s healthy. He’s always been one of those sharp guys, great teammate. He can run, he’s explosive, there’s a clear vision for where we see him and he had a heck of a year this past season.

“I think he does a good job in his man coverage. Inside, I think he does a good job if he wants to pressure off the slot. He had good tape.”

Payton said the Saints’ approach to free agency remains consistent.

“We try to identify a few areas we’re looking for, but also just as importantly, the player and how does he fit,” he said. “So for us, depending on our position or our depth – we saw a need for a safety. Kurt is someone I’m familiar with, we played (Carolina) three times last year so that’s a lot of tape study. Demario is a player that we think has position flexibility, can play the “Mike” or the “Will” and had a real good season last year. So, it’s really targeting a few guys that we think can help add to what we currently have and more importantly, targeting the right guys.”

One of the targets that the Saints couldn’t connect on was defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Suh agreed to a one-year deal with the Rams.

“He was someone we spent a lot of time with,” Payton said. “He came on a visit, he visited a handful of clubs. But he was someone that definitely was a player we were considering.”

When asked whether the Saints had the cache to lure Suh, Payton took a lighthearted angle before getting to the crux of the matter.

“The cache, or the cash?” he said, smiling. “I think it’s cash. Because I think we have cache. But I think it’s cash.

“With each guy – he’s been to one playoff game, maybe two in his entire career – so you push the opportunity to win. And I think more than anything, it’s position fit, too. Where is he going to play, all of those things. Ultimately, it comes down to the price point and a comfort level.”

The price also wasn’t right with free agent tight end Jimmy Graham, who wound up signing with Green Bay.

“I think that, especially the first week of the process, the numbers can get high,” Payton said. “In our experience, oftentimes the second, third, fourth week – even the next month here – you’re able to find a player that fits at a palatable price.

“But I don’t think that’s anything unusual. I think we see it every year and then the salary cap goes up a little bit more, and teams will target a few players and their numbers will be real high. But then quickly it will settle. We’re kind of at that stage right now.”

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