NEW ORLEANS -- Sean Payton's NFL success began with his ability to conceive of creative offensive schemes that pick defenses apart.
The New Orleans Saints' head coach is less known for building defenses through the draft, though that could change over time.
The Saints' past three first-round draft picks have been defensive players, and it hardly would be a surprise if New Orleans continues that trend with the 24th overall pick Thursday night.
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While the Saints had few glaring weaknesses last season, ranking fourth in the NFL in defense and sixth in offense, they were disappointed with a pass rush that left them in the bottom half of the league in sacks.
The Saints had difficulty getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks out of their base 4-3 defense. To compensate, they resorted to an array of aggressive blitzes, which can be risky, and wound up 18th in the league with 33 sacks.
"There's a strong value on someone that can speed up the clock in the quarterback's head," Payton said. "I don't know that there's a team drafting that will say, 'Well, we feel pretty comfortable with our pass rush,' just because those guys are hard to find."
Barring trades, the Saints own the 24th pick in each of the first two rounds, then have two third-round selections and two seventh-round choices, with no picks in Rounds 4 through 6 because of past deals.
If New Orleans reverses course and takes an offensive player with its top pick, that wouldn't be a shock, either. After all, Payton calls the plays on offense and might like the way a certain player's skills fit his system.
"You have to have a number of players there because 16 weeks at that position is a long season," Payton said. "Having gone through injuries like we did last year, you appreciate the need to have a number of guys."
Still, the greater need appears to be on defense, particularly up front.
Of the defensive players the Saints have taken in the top two rounds since Payton took over in 2006, most have been defensive backs. Strong safety Roman Harper (2006) and cornerback Tracy Porter (2008) were second-round picks. The past two first-round picks brought in free safety Malcolm Jenkins (2009) and cornerback Patrick Robinson (2010).
The only member of the defensive front seven drafted in the first round is Sedrick Ellis (2008), who last season led the Saints with six sacks. Veteran defensive end Will Smith was second with 5.5, but that was down from 13 in 2009, and New Orleans could use another play-making end to take pressure off him.
A few who fit that mold could be available when the Saints are on the clock, including one whose father -- the late Craig "Ironhead" Heyward -- was a first-round pick by New Orleans in 1988.
The 6-foot-5, 294-pound Cameron Heyward started for Ohio State as a true freshman in 2007 and compiled 34 tackles for losses during his career, including 14.5 sacks.
The Saints also could target a defensive tackle to line up beside Ellis. There has been less urgency for an interior lineman since the free-agent signing of Shaun Rogers shortly before the NFL's lockout began. Still, starter Remi Ayodele and top reserve Anthony Hargrove aren't currently under contract for next season.
Temple's Muhammad Wilkerson is among the top tackles who could be available around pick 24, along with Baylor's Phil Taylor. The Saints might be tempted to give former North Carolina standout Marvin Austin a chance. Austin was suspended for all of last season for accepting gifts from an agent, but the Saints have had success taking measured risks on a few players with trouble in their pasts.
"You're really talking about ... how many guys can truly rush the passer?" Payton said. "There's probably seven or eight of them that can and 18 that appear they can be able to. The trick is where you get one that can do it. That would be a priority for us."
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press