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Rod Walker: Saints filled holes early in the free hand with players they both wanted and needed

There are needs.

And there are wishes.

Every now and then they are one and the same, which was the case with the New Orleans Saints in the early days of the free hand.

If the free agent market were a grocery store, let’s just say that Dennis Allen went in there and did what most of us don’t do all that often.

He got exactly what he wanted and needed, skipping all the items on the shelf that you throw in the cart just because you saw it.

If you’d asked a week ago what the Saints’ biggest needs are, everyone would have agreed that centerbacks and a running back are the No. 1 and 2 priorities. That need has grown even greater this week with the loss of David Onyemata to rivals Atlanta Falcons and Shy Tuttle to the Carolina Panthers. These departures left only one defensive tackle under contract on the roster. That was Prince Emili, a guy you probably didn’t even know was on the team because he’s never played for the Saints.

And if you’re looking to return at the end of the season, you might have had quarterback on that wish list, too. Especially after the course of the 2022 season.

So what did Allen and his staff do in the early days of freelance?

Well, they went out and checked off everything on their shopping list.

They got the quarterback Allen wanted: Derek Carr of the Las Vegas Raiders

They got the running back he wanted: Jamaal Williams of the Detroit Lions.

They have two defensemen: Khalen Saunders from the Kansas City Chiefs and Nathan Shepherd from the New York Jets.

How did they convince you to come to New Orleans, a team that finished 7-10 last season and seemed to be going in the wrong direction? Well, Allen did what he said.

“I’m kind of going to watch the market and see which players fit what we want to do and how we want to do things, and if there’s a good pass there, we’ll pull the trigger,” Allen said.

They did that by going all out on the guys who desired them.

That’s why Carr thanked Allen for all the calls and texts when he was courted by the Saints.

“Thank you for texting me and blowing up my phone to make sure I’m in the right place,” Carr told Allen at his inaugural press conference last week.

Saunders, who spent his first four NFL seasons in Kansas City, had similar feelings. His brief stint at freelance wasn’t the typical scenario in which he solicited offers from multiple teams and then settled on the Saints.

“The Saints contacted my agents and they said, ‘Hey, we want him. We want to give him a chance,’” Saunders said. “When you hear that, you’re like I don’t need to hear anything else. The biggest thing for me is getting the opportunity and feeling wanted. That was the tone from the start. I look forward to it. Why not? Why shouldn’t I take it?”

Williams, who rushed for 1,066 yards and a league-best 17 touchdowns last season in Detroit, also jumped at the opportunity. He calls the deal the Lions offered him to return to Detroit “disrespectful.” He had offers to go elsewhere, which was to be expected given the season he was having.

But the Saints needed him and wanted him.

“Honestly, it kind of came out of nowhere,” Williams said. “But at the same time, I just loved how they cared about me and just showed they wanted me to be here.”

The Saints could still use some help. They could use some depth as a linebacker after Kaden Elliss moves to Atlanta. They could use depth on the defensive end now that Marcus Davenport’s experiment is over and he’s now in Minnesota. And at some point, they have to start preparing a young quarterback for the future.

This week, however, the Saints met their most pressing needs.

Now it’s time for Carr, Williams, Saunders and Shepherd to show they were the right choice.

“Sometimes when new players come onto a new team, it gives us that kind of common purpose and that shared emotion that you were let go of a team, now you’re on a new team,” Williams said. “Now go and prove why you are on this team. Go and prove why you were signed. That’s what Derek (Carr) wants to do. I want to do that. This team was good. I am grateful to come here and give my motivation and perform our accomplishments. We are ready to go.”

The Saints will continue to add more pieces to the puzzle through free agency and the draft by the start of the season. For now, credit Allen for meeting the needs with the players he wanted. It’s a big win for him.

Now he needs that to win on the field.