NEW ORLEANS (AP) — General manager Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton have orchestrated a considerable makeover for the New Orleans Saints, resulting in the departure of several veteran leaders from recent playoff teams.
While the signing of free agents has largely filled that void, the hope at Saints headquarters is that this week's NFL draft will bring a few more instant contributors to a team that expects to return to the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons.
Barring trades, New Orleans heads into Thursday night's first round with the 27th overall pick, followed by six more picks in each of the second through sixth rounds, including two picks in the fifth.
"Our goal every year is to get the draft and be able to select the best player, the best fit for our team, regardless of position," Loomis said. "I don't know that I would say that we've got no holes, but I feel like we've got a good team and we're going to draft the best player available to us that fits for our club."
As the free agency period arrived, the Saints released safety Roman Harper, defensive end Will Smith, cornerback Jabari Greer and receiver Lance Moore. They also traded away running back Darren Sproles and decided not to re-sign free agents such as safety Malcolm Jenkins and linebacker Jon Vilma. Offensive regulars leaving as free agents included center Brian de la Puente and fullback Jed Collins.
New Orleans replaced Jenkins with Jairus Byrd, considered one of the best safeties available in free agency. The Saints also brought in veteran cornerback Champ Bailey, who'll compete to take the spot that Greer lost to a serious knee injury last season.
Fullback Erik Lorig was signed to replace Collins and the Saints added another safety, Marcus Ball, who last played in the CFL.
No one, however, has been signed to replace Moore or de la Puente, meaning the Saints could at the very least use some depth at those spots, even if they think younger players on the roster are ready to step in.
Here are five things to watch as the Saints seek rookies who can help them get back to the Super Bowl for the first time since February 2010:
CORNER CONCERNS: While Bailey, who turns 36 next month, has distinguished himself as one of the best ever at his position, his age raises questions whether he'll continue to play at an elite level.
Loomis and Payton say they expect Bailey to compete for a starting job, but they could very well pursue a cornerback in the first round to compete for that spot.
"I do believe they need a corner," NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said, mentioning Stanley Jean Baptiste from Nebraska as a prospect who could be available at 27th overall. "He's a long corner that fits today's game with an exciting skill set."
Kyle Fuller of Virginia Tech is another cornerback that analysts see as a good fit.
Beyond Bailey, the top cornerbacks on the Saints' roster are 2010 first-round pick Patrick Robinson, who is returning from a knee injury, and 2012 fifth-rounder Corey White.
HELPING HANDS: The Saints could use a versatile and speedy player in the passing game, having lost both Sproles and Moore. If that player can return punts and kicks, even better.
New Orleans has taken a hard look at LSU receiver Odell Beckham Jr., but he may not last until the 27th pick. Other possibilities include Marqise Lee of Southern Cal, Brandin Cooks of Oregon State and Davante Adams of Fresno State.
END RUSH: While the interior of New Orleans' defensive line looks solid, the Saints could benefit from another pass rusher from the edge to rotate in with Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette. Many analysts view Auburn's Dee Ford as a good prospect for New Orleans.
LINEBACKERS: Given defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's preference for a 3-4 alignment, the Saints wouldn't likely turn down adding a playmaking linebacker in the early rounds. That's not an immediate need because Victor Butler is back from a knee injury and the Saints like inside linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne.
Still, prospects such as C.J. Mosely of Alabama or Ryan Shazier of Ohio State could be hard to pass up.
BREES' BLOCKERS: For now, Tim Lelito, a reserve center in 2013, appears the likely candidate to take over for de la Puente. The Saints have shown interest in veteran free agent Jonathan Goodwin, but have yet to sign him, so adding a prospect at that spot might suit them.
"Brian was a big contributor for us for a number of years and we see Tim as someone who has that potential," Payton said. "But there'll be competition at that position."