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A team searching for a difference-making edge rusher should almost always expect to make its move in the first round. 

For example, nine of the 16 players who finished the 2016 season with 10 or more sacks were taken in the first round; two were taken in the second, two in the third, one in the sixth and two were undrafted.

NFL talent evaluators believe this year is the exception. 

"I think you can find guys that can be perennial 10-sack artists," NFL Network draft analyst Bucky Brooks said on a teleconference last week. "Guys in the second and third tier that have outstanding skill, may not have the athleticism or size that you like, but they have the ability to get to the quarterback."

For the New Orleans Saints, a team that hasn't recorded more than 34 sacks in any of the past three seasons, this class of pass rushers might represent perfect timing. 

A class like this hasn't come along since 2011, which also happens to be the last time the Saints used a first-round pick on an edge rusher. New Orleans picked Cameron Jordan at No. 24, and the former Cal star has become a two-time Pro Bowler and the franchise's defensive cornerstone.

Jordan was far from the only sack artist teams landed in that draft. Von Miller went to Denver at No. 2, Aldon Smith to San Francisco at No. 7, J.J. Watt to Houston at No. 11, Robert Quinn to St. Louis at No. 14, Ryan Kerrigan to Washington at No. 16. Interior rushers like Nick Fairley, Muhammad Wilkerson and Cameron Heyward all came off the board in the first time.

By the time Kansas City picked Justin Houston and Tennessee took Jurrell Casey in the third, the 2011 class was full of players who have been wreaking havoc on quarterbacks and going to Pro Bowls for the last half a decade.

But the 2011 class might also hold a lesson for the Saints, who pick at both No. 11 and No. 32 in the first round and hold five picks in the first three rounds.

No matter how many talented edge rushers a class holds, the position is so valuable that a team might not be able to wait for their guy to fall to them, even if the Saints have needs at other positions like cornerback.

"If I'm the New Orleans Saints," Brooks said, "I'm looking to get the edge rusher first, then come back for the corner."

For that reason, mock draft after mock draft this offseason has linked Tennessee's Derek Barnett to the Saints at No. 11, handing New Orleans a highly productive player who racked up 32 sacks in three seasons.

"Barnett's interesting because you see all the production, you see somebody that's just a really skilled pass rusher," NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. "He does not have elite get-off, does not have elite burst, that explosiveness you'd like to have in an edge rusher. Some teams are more beholden to those numbers."

New Orleans is working off of prototypes now, searching for guys who meet a certain set of criteria, although it's not clear exactly what the Saints want out of a defensive end. 

Beyond Barnett, UCLA's Takkarist McKinley is a freakishly athletic player who might come into play at No. 11, along with Missouri's Charles Harris, Michigan's Taco Charlton and others. 

"I feel like I've got a motor that's probably the best in the class right now," McKinley said at the NFL scouting combine. "I'm hungry. I've got a lot to improve on, technique-wise, but once I improve on my technique, with my motor and my hunger of the game, I feel I'll be unstoppable."

New Orleans is clearly looking beyond the No. 11 pick. As predraft visits and private workouts have trickled out over the past couple of months, it has become clear that the Saints have taken a closer look at just about any pass rusher with potential. 

Nobody knows exactly how fast this crop of edge rushers will fly off the board. 

But a team has to be ready when the guy they think can transform their defense is available, and it helps to be patient. A lot of the game's elite pass rushers – Watt, Jordan, Oakland's Khalil Mack, Atlanta's Vic Beasley, among others – posted pedestrian sack numbers as rookies, then exploded in their second season. 

"The league now is a passing league and you need young guys to get to the quarterback," McKinley said. "One year doesn't determine if you're the best pass-rusher. Ten plus years determine who's the best pass-rusher."

Follow Joel A. Erickson on Twitter, @JoelAErickson.

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