This continues our four part series on position groups the Saints are targeting in Free Agency. Check out our Saints Free Agent HQ for breakdowns of the LB, G, and CB targets for the team.
It's a need for every NFL team, yet demand continually outpaces supply. Defensive Ends, or perhaps more appropriately pass rushers, are perhaps the most valued asset right now in the NFL outside of franchise quarterbacks. As such, teams aren't letting the premier players at that position get to free agency without resigning or franchising them.
As an example, the three most prolific rushers who were to enter Free Agency this year were all franchised by their teams. Chandler Jones of Arizona, Melvin Gordon of San Diego, and Jason Pierre-Paul will all play at least one more year with those clubs before hitting the open market. It's a smart move by those front offices. Yes you are paying a high price, and in Pierre Paul's case perhaps even overpaying, for an every down edge rusher but that's the market value right now and for the forseeable future.
With those 'big three' names no longer availble the pool of edge rushing free agents has gotten a little bit shallow. However, there are a few premier guys left, and if the Saints are looking for mid-level value at the position there are quite a few players they could target. Here's a look at a few guys the Saints like will, and should, target.
Nick Perry - Packers - 27 years old
Perry is an interesting case. He had his most productive season yet in 2016 with 11 sacks but there are concerns about the production before his contract year. He never exceeded four sacks during his four prior seasons in the league. However, he wasn't the primary pass rusher on those pervious teams with defensive coordinator Dom Capers devising schemes around uber-rushers Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers. Perry is still young and in his prime. He is, in my view, the premier rusher still available on the market. With the current deluge of cap space around the league Perry is going to get paid, likely overpaid, for what his value was in his contract year. That's top market value. If the Saints were to open up the checkbook for one player on the market this year, this should be him.
Jabaal Sheard - New England Patriots - 27 years old
Sheard is the definition of mid level value at this position. He's not a star. Your fantasy football loving friends have likely never heard of him. But he was an exceptionally solid addition to the Patriots roster the past two seasons with 13 combined sacks. He was a contributor for the Browns before that as well, averaging just under six sacks per year during his four seasons with Cleveland. If the Saints deem Perry too expensive they should target Sheard as a value signing with potential upside at only 27 years old.
Charles Johnson - Carolina Panthers - 31 years old
Will the Panthers let their most productive pass rusher of the past half-decade walk away? GM Dave Gettleman has shown he will not overpay to keep players on his roster. Ash Josh Norman, Jared Allen, or DeAngelo Williams. Yet Johnson seems to be a different case. He played for only $3 million last season, a bargain-basement one year deal for a still-productive end. If Johnson is truly available, and he may not be (see the crypic Tweets sent today by Johnson indicating a deal with Carolina may get done) the Saints should jump at stealing him from their division rival.
Alex Okafor - Arizona Cardinals - 26 years old
Okafor isn't a big name, and likely will never be. But he is young, will come cheap, and has proven he can be a solid situational pass rusher. He likely wants a shot at becoming an every down player and the Saints may be a teams that can give him that shot, either opposite of Cam Jordan or as a converted edge rushing OLB. Think of him as Bruce Irvin lite, with quickness in his first step and the length (6'4") to disrupt the interior. He recorded eight sacks in 2014, but struggled with just 5.5 his last two seasons combined. This is just the type of player that the Saints should take a shot on at this position if Perry and Sheard are gone. . .young guys who have shown flashes of excellence but will be undervalued by the market due to inconsistent production.
DeMarcus Ware - Denver Broncos - 34 years old
The future Hall of Famer was a major part of the dominant Dever defenses since signing there in 2014. However his production has steadily dropped as he aged, falling from 11 sacks his first year witht the Broncos to 7.5 in 2015 and four last season. The other factor for Ware is he likely only wants to play on a true contender during his twilight years. Does he view New Orleans as one of those franchises? Consider this a long shot.