Indianapolis – The immediate task for the New Orleans Saints, and General Manager Mickey Loomis, is to continue the evaluation of the talented pool of players that comprise part of the incoming NFL rookie class, at the league's annual scouting combine, held this week at Lucas Oil Stadium.
But also on his plate at the combine has been talk of a potential trade of receiver Brandin Cooks, who posted the first back-to-back, 1,000-yard receiving seasons for the Saints (84 catches for 1,138 yards and nine touchdowns in 2015, and 78-1,173-8 in '16) since Marques Colston in 2011-12.
"You get calls every year about players on your team, and you make calls about players on other teams," Loomis said Friday. "We always listen. But, man, we like Brandin Cooks an awful lot. So it would take an awful lot for us to consider making a move there. But we're always open for business, I guess is the best way to say it."
And just over the horizon for Loomis and the team is free agency. And this year, New Orleans has more dollars to invest in that facet of team-building than it has had in the past, though in past years it still has managed to secure many of the players it targeted.
"We do have more room than we've had the last few years, which is nice," Loomis said. "But it's not like we have the most room in the league; there are a number of teams that have a lot of room available. We'll see how that impacts this free agent market.
"We still have to make good decisions, we have to spend wisely but we're always looking to improve our team through free agency, and the draft and trades as well. We use all the avenues, but we have this limited resource pie to divvy up and we'll see how it works out.
"(Free agency and the draft) works hand in hand and from year to year, that can be different, just depending on the pool of free agents that are available versus the quality and depth of the draft, particularly at a given position. This year, I think our initial reaction is that the draft is pretty deep, and we're excited about that."
Included in the free agent pool are several Saints that the team would like to retain, likely including defensive tackle Nick Fairley.
"It's always important that you keep your core group together," Loomis said. "I wouldn't say we have an abundant number of free agents this year, but we've got some guys that we've been in contact with, we make sure that they know they're wanted. And yet, I understand, they're at this point where they want to see what the market has for them and hopefully, we'll get an opportunity to respond if they get an offer they like."
Included in the defense-heavy draft is a pool of talent that leans toward the needs of a team that is in search of defensive help. The Saints have finished 27th or worse in total defense the last three seasons.
They showed significant improvement in run defense last year (101.6 yards per game allowed, down from 129.4 in 2015) and lowered the numbers in total defense (375.4 yards in '16, 413.4 in '15) and points per game allowed (28.4, down from 29.8 last year). But Coach Sean Payton said it was a "must" that the Saints add a player who can affect the quarterback this offseason, likely via the draft.
New Orleans finished with 34 sacks in 2014, 31 in '15 and 30 in '16. The last time the Saints made the playoffs, in '13, they totaled 49 sacks.
"So far, I would say that would be our opinion (that it's a defensive draft)," Loomis said. "And yet, there are some good offensive players as well. I'm excited about the players we're going to end up with.
"We're got a lot of musts, and a lot of needs, and a lot of wants. We determine that list as an organization, as a football operation, so we're all on the same page with regard to that. Now, we just have to come up with a plan to fill them all."
A position that will require attention now is safety, with the pending release of Jairus Byrd. Parting with Byrd will leave the Saints with Kenny Vaccaro and Vonn Bell as the primary options at safety; Erik Harris tore his ACL in practice in October and is recovering from the injury.
However, safety is considered a deep position in the draft.
"I enjoyed having Jairus on our team," Loomis said. "I wish that it had worked out a little better, it was unfortunate that he was injured that first year because he's a good man and he's been a good player. But we wanted to give him an opportunity to see what's out there and available for himself before free agency started, or at least during free agency."