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Malcolm Butler to the Saints is the last major piece to fall in the NFC South

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The Saints have a chance to upgrade their secondary, perhaps massively, but it will come at a cost.

Super Bowl LI - New England Patriots v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Falcons, Buccaneers, and Panthers are probably going to be largely content to improve via the draft the rest of the way, with the Bucs probably adding one or two recognizable names in free agency with all the cash they have lying around. That means that we basically know what these teams are, roster-wise, once the 2017 NFL Draft has come and gone.

The Saints, though? The Saints are a different story, because they have one major, trajectory-altering item to resolve. That would be the possibility of acquiring Malcolm Butler from the Patriots, either by surrendering their first round pick or via a sign-and-trade.

The reasons why this is such a big deal are fairly obvious, but let’s run over them anyways. The Saints have been enduringly woeful in the secondary for a long time now, despite pouring money and draft resources into that area again and again. Vonn Bell looks promising, Kenny Vaccaro isn’t a waste, and Delvin Breaux might actually be good. Adding Butler to that group should improve the secondary further, and paired with a pretty decent defensive line group, this Saints defense should be a little more sound than it was a year ago. Their linebackers are still largely garbage, of course, but hey.

The reason they’re sniffing around Butler in the first place is that the NFC South is an unbelievably challenging division for a pass defense. Between Matt Ryan and The League’s Best Offense, Cam Newton and Greg Olsen, and now the Buccaneers and their deep receiving options, you can’t skate by with a mediocre secondary and expect not to get torched.

To do so, though, they’ll have to surrender assets, and that’s where this whole thing gets dicey. The Saints have quietly built up a a lot of useful young players over the last three seasons or so, but they’re still a team built on big contracts (Drew Brees, Mark Ingram, Coby Fleener, most of the offensive line, Cameron Jordan, etc.) that always seems to be on the verge of cutting guys just to open up space.

They’ll still have the draft picks necessary to land help, but their drafting has been a mixed bag of late. The Saints know, as we know, that their best shot to add an immediate, arguably impact player to the mix is to pick up someone like Butler. However, the impact of such a move on the draft is obvious, with Butler likely costing the Saints at least one valuable draft choice. In addition, Butler is going to require an extension, and it is not going to be a cheap one, given the way cornerbacks have gotten insanely expensive.

You have to admire this team for their ballsiness and ability to keep re-tooling, but it’s fair to wonder if they’re really just a Malcolm Butler away from contending again. It’s not clear just how good Butler is, but ultimately the Saints may once again choose an expensive, immediate upgrade over youth. In the twilight of Drew Brees’ career with three quality teams in the division, it’s a defensible play, but I’m not at all convinced it will work out for them.