But unlike last year, when coach Jim Haslett and defensive coordinator Rick Venturi tore that unit apart following a rather dismal performance, the Saints will be trying to tweak the components of a group that improved from 27th in the league in 2002 to 18th this season.
Bringing in more speed and finding some playmakers, especially at the linebacking positions, will be the main focus. Finding some young blood at cornerback will also be a key.
But overall, Haslett said he expects to have less turnover on that side of the ball this time around.
"We need continuity," he said.
There was some national speculation earlier in the season that Jim Haslett might be on the hot seat, but he's safe -- mainly because he has three years remaining on a contract believed to be worth $3 million annually.
Haslett has a 34-30 regular-season record and 35-31 overall mark in four seasons. After two straight December disasters, the Saints were much more competitive down the stretch this time and went 2-2. Those two losses were by a total of eight points.
Offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Rick Venturi will be back, but wide receivers coach Hubbard Alexander and defensive line coach Sam Clancy won't.
Members of Haslett's original coaching staff when he came to New Orleans in 2000, Alexander and Clancy were not offered contract extensions during a meeting on Monday.
They were two of nine assistants whose contracts were scheduled to expire in March. The others -- Dave Atkins (running backs), Joe Baker (safeties), Greg Brown (cornerbacks), Al Everest (special teams), Winston Moss (linebackers), Bob Palcic (tight ends) and Mike Sheppard (quarterbacks) -- all received two-year extensions. McCarthy, Venturi and offensive line coach Jack Henry were already under contract for 2004.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
--CB Fakhir Brown (capable reserve who the Saints would like to have back)
--RB Ki-Jana Carter (backup to Deuce McAllister suffered serious foot injury in November and may not be back)
--T/G Spencer Folau (lost his starting job to Victor Riley this season and ended season on injured reserve after tearing his patellar tendon, but he's wanted back)
--C Jerry Fontenot (15-year veteran announced last week that he wants to play at least another year and will talk to Saints about coming back)
--S Victor Green (was signed because of injuries, may not be likely won't be asked back)
--RDE Darren Howard (solid player who can become a free agent after voiding the final year of his contract, but Saints have already talked to him about a new deal)
--RB Fred McAfee (12-year veteran who excels on special teams, but had injury problems this season)
--TE Walter Rasby (helped as a blocker, but may not be back)
--WLB Derrick Rodgers (starter who had a solid year, likely to be asked back)
--TE David Sloan (cut in training camp and added to the roster late in the season because of injuries, likely won't be back)
--RB Lamar Smith (showed something when he replaced Ki-Jana Carter and could be back)
--FB Terrelle Smith (Saints love his blocking ability and want him back)
--CB Fred Thomas (has been a favorite of defensive coordinator Rick Venturi and is a solid cover corner, so they want him to return)
Restricted free agents
--S Steve Gleason (valuable special teams player who will likely be offered a contract)
--SLB Sedrick Hodge (starter who missed part of season with a fractured lower right leg, will be brought back)
--DT Kenny Smith (versatile player who can also play end)
--TE Boo Williams (came on as a receiver when Ernie Conwell went on injured reserve and will be offered a contract)
Exclusive rights free agents
--LB Roger Knight (played primarily on special teams, likely to be offered a contract)
--RB James Fenderson (was hampered by an ankle injury this season, but is more of a special teams player than backup running back)
FEELING A DRAFT
The Saints, who have the 18th selection in the first round, will have an extra pick in the second round as a result of the trade that sent tackle Kyle Turley to St. Louis last spring.
As of now, they do not have picks in the third or seventh rounds; the third-rounder went to New England to complete the deal for free safety Tebucky Jones and the seventh-rounder went to Miami for weakside linebacker Derrick Rodgers.
The priorities right now would be cornerback, linebacker and perhaps defensive line. The top three cornerbacks -- Dale Carter, Ashley Ambrose and Fred Thomas -- are in their 30s and they don't have enough playmakers at linebacker. Another run-stopper in the middle of the front four wouldn't hurt, either.
WR/KR Michael Lewis will probably have arthroscopic surgery to clean out his ankle.
--LS Kevin Houser will likely have arthroscopic surgery to clean out a shoulder.
--Haslett said several other players likely have surgical procedures in the next few weeks pending the results of their MRIs.
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