METAIRIE (AP) — The New Orleans Saints learned during Sean Payton's suspension last season that their offense is still quite good, even when Payton isn't around to coach it.
For Payton, the key to getting New Orleans back to the post season is fixing a historically bad defense, which is why he's already begun to overhaul the unit with a new scheme and new coordinator — and why it won't be a surprise if the Saints look to this week's NFL draft to help that side of the ball most.
The only significant void on offense was created by the departure of starting left tackle Jermon Bushrod in free agency. Charles Brown, who has served as a reserve tackle since being taken in the second-round of the 2010 draft out of Southern California, has been groomed for that spot, but he has been injury-prone so far, causing Payton to question his reliability.
"If you ask me what keeps me up at night," Payton said recently, "There would be two areas: how are we going to improve our pass rush and how are we going to be at left tackle?"
The Saints' first overall pick is slated for 15th overall. Barring a trade to change that, odds are New Orleans will be looking hard at prospects who can play outside linebacker in new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's 3-4 scheme.
Based on New Orleans' 2012 statistics, the offense doesn't seem to be in such dire need of help, Bushrod's departure notwithstanding. With seasoned offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael calling plays, and with veteran Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees executing them, the Saints ranked second in the NFL in total offense last season, averaging 410.9 yards per game.
New Orleans' defense, by contrast, yielded an NFL single-season record 7,042 yards (about 440 a game) and ranked 31st in points allowed per game at 28.4.
Payton, suspended all of last season in connection with the NFL's bounty investigation, hadn't been reinstated a full week before firing 2012 defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and announcing he would be scrapping the 4-3 defensive alignment the club had used in its base defense since Payton arrived in 2006. Next came the hiring of Ryan, who has only run 3-4 defenses during his previous stints as a coordinator in Cleveland and Dallas.
Payton hopes the new scheme will help the Saints develop a better pass rush and defend better against read-option quarterbacks such as Cam Newton. And that could mean loading up on outside linebackers, who in a 3-4 often take on assignments similar to those of defensive ends in a 4-3.
As the week of the draft arrived, the Saints were slated to have only five picks, in part because NFL commissioner Roger Goodell docked the club its second-round pick as part of its bounty punishment.
That left the club with picks in the first round, third round (75th overall), fourth round (109), fifth round (144) and sixth round (183).
Among the prospects who appear to fit the Saints' needs are LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo and Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones, if either remains available at pick No. 15.
Mingo, a speedy, 6-foot-5, 240-pound pass rusher from Monroe who played defensive end on LSU's 4-3 defense, said he would be pleased to have the opportunity to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 with his home-state NFL club.
"It would be special to play for those guys," Mingo said when he was asked about the prospect of being drafted by New Orleans. "They're the state team. Everybody watches the Saints play, especially in my area."
Mingo, who left LSU as a junior, was credited with 38 tackles last season, including 8 1/2 tackles for losses and 4 1/2 sacks
"I think it would be more special if I got to start my career" in Louisiana, Mingo said. "Everybody's close here. They can make the drive over to watch me play."
The 6-2, 245-pound Jones, who enters the draft out of Georgia, racked up a school-record 14 1/2 sacks, 24 1/2 tackles for losses, seven forced fumbles, four passes defended and an interception. The question is whether he drops to the 15th pick, as a number of draft analysts see him being selected in the top 10.
The Saints also could use more depth at defensive tackle and defensive back. If they chose a player such as Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro, the Saints could potentially ask incumbent starting strong safety Roman Harper, who has been one of their best pass rushers in recent years, to step up to outside linebacker, at least in some situations.
If the Saints decide to go with a left tackle first, Florida State's 6-5, 310-pound Menelik Watson might fit their need for a fleet-footed blocker who can force end rushers to run wide while Brees steps up in the pocket behind the club's elite guards and looks for throwing lanes.
However, the Saints have showed during the Payton era that when it comes to paying offensive linemen, they spend more on guards. So New Orleans could balk at taking a tackle in the middle of the first round, particularly when several solid pass rushers are expected to be available.