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John DeShazier: Saints accomplish several goals in free agency as team turns to draft

The filling of the positions Saints Coach Sean Payton alluded to as "musts" entering the offseason still remain.

The filling of the positions New Orleans Saints Coach Sean Payton alluded to as "musts" entering the offseason – a pass rusher who consistently applies pressure, and a cornerback – appears to remain incomplete at present, with the team unable to address them so far in free agency.

But that doesn't mean the Saints have walked through this portion of free agency without having solidified some positions, improved others and filled a major void. And there remains the chance that the team will land a crown jewel to highlight its offseason additions: Cornerback Malcolm Butler this week signed his tender with New England as a restricted free agent, possibly clearing the path for the Saints to acquire him in a trade with the Patriots.

Butler, a second-team All-Pro last season and two-time Super Bowl champion whose goal line interception sealed New England's victory in Super Bowl XLIX over Seattle, would give the Saints the top-end cornerback they seek and be a signature addition to a unit that already includes Delvin Breaux, P.J. Williams, Sterling Moore and Ken Crawley.

He'd be the cherry on top of the offseason. Still, without him, New Orleans has been able to accomplish several goals.

Specifically, the linebacker unit was strengthened by the arrivals of and Manti Te'o, formerly of Carolina and San Diego. The unit returns Craig Robertson, who led the team with 115 tackles last season, Dannell Ellerbe, who tied for third on the team with four sacks despite playing just nine games (eight starts), and Nate Stupar, who had 58 tackles, two forced fumbles, an interception and a sack in 16 games, with six starts.

Robertson and Stupar were signed last offseason with the vision of being core special team contributors, but each played significant snaps in the base defense and that limited their special team availability. With Klein and Te'o joining the group, Robertson and Stupar possibly will play the roles in which they were projected last year.

Klein, who started the last six games for the Panthers last season in relief of the injury Luke Kuechly, and started seven of 15 games last year, agreed to a three-year deal.

"I think the expectation that they have for me is to be prepared to play any one of those three spots," Klein said. "Do I have a preference? I've played more 'Sam' and 'Mike' than I have 'Will,' so yes that could be a preference for me. But at the end of the day I'm very fluid and I'll go wherever they need me to go, and that's what I've been doing the past four years in Carolina."

Te'o signed a two-year deal and, like Klein, is familiar with calling the defensive plays.

"Yes, that has been the position that I have played since Pop Warner," he said. "I have always been the leader, whether it is inside or outside. I have always been the signal-caller.

"It is not just to have on my resume, but I feel that I am more comfortable when I have guys that can depend on me to do my job and to execute, and to help them execute. To have their trust really helps to elevate my game. That kind of responsibility really helps bring out the best in me. It is something that I am real comfortable with."

The void that was filled is at right guard, where New Orleans signed to a four-year deal to replace Senio Kelemete, the 11-year starter and second-most decorated offensive lineman in franchise history.

Warford spent his first four seasons with Detroit, and is a sizeable (6 feet 3, 330 pounds) inclusion.

"(Evans) has been one of the mainstays just as a guard," Warford said. "When you think of great guards he's one of them, and to be in the category with him would be awesome, and I think he's a great player and I have nothing but respect for the dude.

"I'm looking to come here to try and do everything they ask me to do and I have nothing but respect for Jahri and I think he's an amazing player."

Said Payton of Warford: "We liked him a lot. We think he has ass and mass and that is something that is good. We use that term 'ass and mass kick ass.' That's important and we think that pocket will be important."

The Saints also retained free agent defensive tackle (career highs of 6.5 sacks and 43 tackles with the Saints last season) courtesy of a four-year deal to remain in New Orleans. Fairley, rookies Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata, and Tyeler Davison combined to give the Saints a formidable rotation at defensive tackle.

Fairley said he was determined to remain a Saint.

"When I came in last year and took my visit last year, and I sat down with the coaches and was able to just be in the locker room," he said. "The vibe that I got and the chill bumps that came about when I was just sitting there, in just talking to them about everything and the organization and how they wanted to move forward on a lot of things, as far as playing on the field and try to get back to the Super Bowl.

"I feel great there and felt great being a part of that. It is something that I'm willing to do and I'm glad we got it done."

"I told my agent to always talk to the Saints and get something done," he said. "That's where I wanted to be and move forward from there. Every time I called I asked did the Saints call." The team also re-signed defensive lineman Darryl Tapp (17 tackles and a half-sack) to a one-year deal to help bolster the defensive line.

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