How much will free agency reshape Saints' defense?


METAIRIE, La. — The New Orleans Saints’ defense doesn’t need an overhaul.

It ranked 11th in the NFL in yards allowed in 2019 — its best finish in six years. And it had three players named to either the Pro Bowl or first-team All-Pro teams in end Cameron Jordan, linebacker Demario Davis and cornerback Marshon Lattimore.

But depending on how much the Saints choose to pony up in free agency, this unit could look significantly different in 2020.

Five of the nine guys who played the most snaps on defense last year are unrestricted free agents: safety Vonn Bell, cornerbacks Eli Apple and P.J. Williams, linebacker A.J. Klein and tackle David Onyemata.

Three other veterans are due lofty salaries in 2020 that could affect their roster status: cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Patrick Robinson and linebacker Kiko Alonso.

Here is a breakdown of their importance to the team — and how the Saints might replace them if needed:

Safety Vonn Bell

The 25-year-old should be a high priority to retain, but he might also command a high salary on the open market after he had such a strong 2019 season.

The Saints could potentially decide to let Bell go since they’re slammed against the salary cap (they have about $10.8 million in cap space) — and they have an obvious replacement available in C.J. Gardner-Johnson, who was so impressive as a rookie in 2019. But the Saints have always done a good job of featuring three safeties on defense, and Bell has emerged as one of their better disruptors.

The 5-foot-11, 205-pound Bell led the NFL with five fumble recoveries last season in just 13 games played. Then he added a sixth in the playoff loss to Minnesota. Bell also tied a career high with 89 tackles despite missing the final three games of the regular season with a knee injury. He played all but one snap in those first 13 games. And he finally reeled in his first career interception.

Bell has steadily improved each year since New Orleans drafted him in the second round out of Ohio State in 2016. He has settled in as a strong safety, though he showed the versatility to play both spots early in his career. He has had at least 83 tackles in each of his four seasons. And he has nine career sacks and seven career forced fumbles, including the playoffs.

Cornerback Eli Apple

Apple’s value is tough to peg, both in New Orleans and on the open market. The 24-year-old has shown a lot of potential, but also some inconsistency, ever since he was drafted by the New York Giants with the 10th overall pick in 2016.

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