Indianapolis – The need for the New Orleans Saints to add a safety this offseason escalated with the news that Jairus Byrd will be released in the near future. That fact wasn't lost upon defensive coordinator Dennis Allen as he, and the rest of the Saints' coaching staff and front office personnel, evaluate players this week at the NFL Combine.
"I think any time you make a move like that it kind of ups the ante a little bit as far as looking for guys to upgrade the football team," Allen said. "But really, when you look at what we're doing here at the Combine, I think we're just trying to identify the best football players. We've got a lot of holes that we've got to fill on the defensive side of the ball, so I think we're just looking for the best football players."
And some of the best ones in this draft happen to play safety.
"There are a lot of good safeties in this draft, and I'd say defensive line and defensive back are really heavy in this draft," Allen said. "So it really comes down to who's available when it's your turn to pick, and I think as a general rule you're looking to take the best football players that you can take, regardless of position. And hopefully, those guys are available when it comes your time."
As the 2016 season progressed, and in an effort to put the best 11 defenders on the field, the Saints routinely employed a three-safety lineup that featured Byrd, Kenny Vaccaro and rookie Vonn Bell.
Vaccaro was suspended the final four games of the season for violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy, leaving Bell to assume many of the responsibilities that Vaccaro handled in his jack-of-all-trades role. Bell gained valuable experience during that month of games.
"I felt good about our safety position this past season with Vonn Bell, Kenny Vaccaro and having Jairus Byrd available to us," Allen said. "And even a guy like Erik Harris, who got hurt in the middle of the year (torn ACL in early October, during practice), was a guy that we thought really had a chance to come on and play and be a good football player for us.
"I still feel good about the safety position. This league is a backup league – it's a league where your backup players are going to have to come in and perform. Obviously, we found that out last year. So adding depth at all positions is going to be critical for us."
Allen said that Harris, in his first NFL season after spending four years with Hamilton of the Canadian Football League, is making strides in his recovery. He was expected to be one of the Saints' core special team players last season in addition to his role at safety.
"He's getting better," Allen said. "He's working really hard at his rehab and doing a good job in that area. I'm not sure exactly when he's going to be back totally healthy and ready to go, but I certainly would anticipate that he'd be ready to go for training camp and be out there competing."
The desire and willingness to compete is a trait Allen also is looking for in the players at the Combine.
"I'm looking for guys that are tough, smart, physical and competitive," he said. "I want guys that want to compete at everything that they do, because that's what wins in this league. Guys that play the game smart, understand situational football and guys that are going to do everything they can to compete to try to win the game, is really what you're looking for.
"So as we watch these guys go through their drills, not only am I looking to see what kind of physical talent they have or skill set that they have, I'm watching to see how these guys are competing against the other guys that are out there.
"(And) I think football intelligence is extremely important. Their academic qualifications are not what wins on the football field. Being football smart is totally different than being intellectually smart or academically smart. We want guys that can problem-solve and figure things out as they happen on the football field. Guys that can process information quickly generally make good decisions. Really, at the end of the day, we're looking for guys that have some common sense. I've found that the guys with the most common sense usually make the best football players."
As for the Saints' desire to add a pass rusher, Allen said it's another area of concern, but one that somewhat can be offset by effective play from other positions. Defensive tackles Nick Fairley (6.5 sacks) and Sheldon Rankins (four sacks, in eight games) gave the Saints production from inside the rush end positions.
"I think it's always good to have those edge rushers but really when you study teams that are affecting the quarterback the most, they've got an inside presence to their pass rush," he said. "And I thought that we had a little bit of inside presence to our pass rush this year.
"I do think this, though: I think affecting the passer, whether it be by coverage or by rush, is the most important thing that you can do in football. Because teams are throwing the ball upwards of 60 or 70 percent of the time. So, obviously, we feel like stopping the run is important but yet, how do you affect the passing game? And there's a lot of things that go into that, coaching and playing alike. That's really one of the things we've really emphasized this offseason, is paying attention to, How can we affect this passing game a little bit more?"