FIRST TAKE: The New Orleans Saints have a strong enough foundation to get right back into playoff contention next season and beyond, said NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock. But he listed several areas where the Saints "have to continue to upgrade and develop their talent."
"I don't think their talent level is as good as it was three years ago when they won the Super Bowl,"
I caught up with Mayock this week after he got his first long look at the Saints - serving as the analyst for their Thursday night loss to the Atlanta Falcons and doing the prep work leading up that game.
I was interested in Mayock's take on the team, especially with a look toward the future, since the longtime NFL draft analyst has such an eye for personnel.
"I have a lot of respect for the Saints. I've watched a lot of tape of them over the years,"
Mayock said, when asked for his initial impressions of this year's team. "I think when you start 0-4, even without all of the other distractions they had, you expend a lot of energy trying to catch up. And you dig a hole so deep and the margin of error is so small.
"I think you tend to press to make plays a little bit. I think we saw that with Drew Brees (who threw a career-high five interceptions in the loss to the Falcons.)"
When asked if he believes the Saints can get right back to playoff contention next year, Mayock started by saying that he thinks they have a really good coaching staff, led by Sean Payton, and they've proven that they know how to win games. And he said they've got some great pieces in place in Brees, a deep group of running backs and tight end Jimmy Graham, who is "as good as it gets."
But he listed several areas where the Saints need to upgrade or improve:
"That receiver group is getting old," Mayock began. "I think Lance Moore is at the top of his game, and he's an underrated slot receiver. But Marques Colston and Devery Henderson are getting older. They're not what they once were. ...
"I don't think the offensive line is as good as it was three, four years ago. They have to continue to upgrade the athleticism of that offensive line. ...
"And on defense, there's some holes. I think all three of their linebackers, their best position is middle linebacker. In the secondary, there's some limitations, and Jabari Greer's been in the league nine years, Roman Harper seven years. Malcolm Jenkins and Patrick Robinson are good young players, but they need to upgrade back there. ...
"And the defensive line doesn't have that one crazy pass rusher. Every team needs at least one. Junior Galette is a really valuable situational guy. And I really like Cam Jordan and think he's a developing, try-hard guy who has ability. But they don't have that one guy that makes a difference, that other teams have to game plan for. ...
"What I think you're seeing (Saints defensive coordinator) Steve Spagnuolo and a lot of other guys do is use guys like Martez Wilson and Junior Galette, who have those kind of 'tweener traits. And I give defenses a lot of credit for getting creative, trying to manufacture a pass rush. But what you really need is that guy that can win 1-on-1 battles."
It's hard to argue with any of Mayock's assessments - though I think he listed the most pressing need last. The Saints have been missing that pass-rushing end for years, and the void will be even more glaring if they part ways with veteran Will Smith after this season.
I'd rank a dynamic outside linebacker as the No. 2 need.
And while I agree that players like Colston, Greer, Harper and some offensive linemen are getting older, I still see those guys as strengths rather than weaknesses for now.
Unfortunately for the Saints, they won't have a lot of salary-cap space to work with next year, even if they part ways with veterans like Smith, Jonathan Vilma and Sedrick Ellis, among others.
One of their toughest financial decisions will come at left tackle, where Jermon Bushrod is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent. The Saints don't have a young backup ready to take over that spot, so they'll either have to pony up to keep him or spend a decent amount of money on another veteran option.
Chances are, they'll stick with Bushrod because he's a known commodity who has played very well for a long stretch now - even though he hasn't been quite as consistent this year as he was during his first Pro Bowl season in 2011.
"I think he's had a really average year," Mayock said. "I think (when evaluating whether to sign him in free agency), you have to look at the dollars against what you see on tape. You have to look at this thing critically: 'If we're gonna pay him - can we upgrade for less dollars?'"
On defense, meanwhile, the Saints will have trouble finding any dynamic young athletes in free agency, so they'll probably have to keep looking toward the draft for those upgrades.
Mayock said he has not yet begun to dig in to his draft analysis so he wasn't able to predict whether 2013 will be a good year for the kind of pass-rushing talent that will rank as the Saints' top need.
The good news from this disappointing season is that the Saints will have a higher draft pick than they've had in many recent seasons.
The Saints have spent their top pick on a defensive player in the last five drafts - including first-rounders Ellis (seventh overall pick), Jenkins (14th), Robinson (32nd) and Jordan (24th). All of them have become starters but none of them Pro Bowlers.
"I think you got to go back and look at where they were drafted," Mayock said of evaluating that group of first-round picks. "Sedrick Ellis is a good football player. Cam Jordan is a good football player, plays well against the run, can push the pocket. Malcolm Jenkins is a good football player. Patrick Robinson, I'd like to see him be a lot more consistent, but he has talent.
"What they've gotten is pretty much solid football players."
Mayock also seemed to like the Saints' top pick in 2012 - third-round defensive tackle Akiem Hicks. Though I didn't ask Mayock about Hicks, he did share a memory from scouting Hicks during the Thursday night broadcast.
"When I was at the East-West game last year, this huge guy shows up in this ugly green helmet and uniform that I didn't recognize from any colleges," Mayock said. "Then I realized he was from Regina-Saskatchewan. And he proceeded to start blowing people up all over the field."
The Saints hope he'll continue to do the same during his NFL career, which is off to a promising start. They'll need to hit some home runs with their mid-round and late-round picks on defense like they've been doing for so many years on offense.