Yet again, the Saints finished with a 7-9 record and find themselves picking outside the Top 10. Which leaves them with many options for where to go, so who might they pick?
Areas of Weakness
The last few years with the Saints, we’ve been saying “defense, defense, defense”, and with pretty good reason. There’s a touch more variety this year, but not exactly much.
But first up is that defense, specifically the pass rush. Right now Cam Jordan is the only starting-caliber pass-rusher on the roster. I mean, if you’re going to only have one pass rusher, there’s only a few players better than Cam Jordan you’d want them to be. But the weakness opposite just means he can be double-teamed and frustrated. Having an outside pass-rusher to take attention away from Cam Jordan could do wonders for his productivity, and for the whole team. I mean, there’s hope that Hau’oli Kikaha comes back from his ACL tear, but that’s a risk, and Kikaha looks more situational (albeit in a very good way) than every-down. A weak secondary is helped out by having a quarterback unable to play his best play against you. Think what Joey Bosa did for Melvin Ingram and Casey Hayward last year.
Of course, given I just mentioned the Saints secondary is weak, that’s an obvious area for improvement. A lot will depend on if Jairus Byrd stays in town – if he does, it’ll be via a restructure, and given the Saints’ fondness for three-safety-sets, that might make it more likely. But they still need a cornerback. Delvin Breaux is raw but talented, and got up-to-speed in the league quickly. Opposite him are questions – PJ Williams looks good but is missing lots of time due to injury; Damian Swann is the same only moreso; BW Webb and Ken Crawley look like backups.
You’ve got a couple of other second-tier areas of need on defense, too. If Nick Fairley isn’t re-signed, then New Orleans will need someone to play alongside Sheldon Rankins. In fact, even if he is resigned, it’s an area the Saints have absolutely no depth in. Linebacker is, as ever, an area of need. Many Saints fans put the lack of linebackers going back years down to Joe Vitt’s poor coaching. Now they’ll have chance to put that to the test.
But the Saints could do with a little O-Line help too, specifically on the right side, where Zach Strief and Jahri Evans are 33. Both played well this year, but banking on players who’ve been in the league that long is a risky game. New Orleans need to keep Drew Brees upright, and need to keep the run game as a realistic threat, because until that defense is sorted, the offense has to be a juggernaut. Anyway, on to the targets.
Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee
(Robin Rudd/Times Free Press)
Draft season can do strange things to players. Barnett was a probable top-5 pick as he ended the season by breaking Reggie White’s sack record at Tennessee. Yet picking him this early may end up being seen as a ‘reach’. Barnett was a terror throughout his Vols career, regularly using his speed to get leverage and plough through tackles from beneath. He’s got a record against top-level tackles (for example, beating probable first-rounder Cam Robinson for a strip-sack against Alabama), and certainly has athleticism, though is a touch less-so than the athletic freaks like, say, Myles Garrett and everyone else whose stock’ll soar after the combine.
Wherever he lands in the NFL, Barnett’s main challenge will be developing a wider range of pass-rushing moves. Right now he’s a touch one-dimensional, and that’s only going to make you a good situational rusher in the NFL. This is where my concern with the Saints lies, as they don’t have the best rep for coaching defensive players in recent years. But given they’ve overseen Cam Jordan and Junior Galette’s development (ignoring Galette’s…controversial side, he went from undrafted nobody to pass-rushing monster with New Orleans), anything’s possible.
Solomon Thomas, DE, Stanford
Someone going in the opposite direction Barnett is Thomas. Thomas is seen as a pro-ready prospect, looking stronger and more powerful than plenty of other prospects, despite being a touch smaller.
One thing you’ll probably see with Thomas is that he’s more of a run-blocker than other defensive ends within the draft. He plays full of vim, getting plenty of burst and charge on offensive linemen, and ending up in the backfield on a frankly ludicrous amount of snaps. He’s also helped by having a very quick first step and effective hand technique (like I said, pro-ready). The downside of this is he’s already been compared to Aaron Donald, which is the new “compared to JJ Watt” for giving fans wholly unrealistic expectations of rookies.
The Donald thing is interesting though – consensus is that Thomas could quite easily kick inside and play in a bit more of a defensive tackle position; he’s that powerful. That might push his stock up into the top 10 – teams are going to see someone who can contribute from day 1 and get 5-10 sacks as a rookie almost no matter where you put him on the line. I’d like him opposite Cam Jordan much more than I would replacing Nick Fairley, but in an ever-changing (especially on the defensive front six/seven) league, versatility’s a heck of a useful thing to have.
Sidney Jones, CB, Washington
(Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)
I suspect both Marlon Humphrey and Marshon Lattimore would be gone by 11, but if one’s available, that’d be the pick here. Nonetheless, Jones would be an excellent choice for a scheme which prizes a certain physicality in its cornerbacks (why else would they have given Brandon Browner a contract in the first place). Jones is a well-rounded prospect. He’s fast and agile, and has plenty of fight at the line of scrimmage. What that means is, he’s got a good chance of putting receivers off their routes, but even if he doesn’t, he’s athletic enough to stay in good coverage, or make a play on the ball.
Here’s a good stat, too. Jones was only targeted in coverage 48 times last year. I’d have to look how much he was up against #1 receivers, but irrespective: that’s 3.4 times per game. That’s really impressive!
Jones has good ball skills – picking up several interceptions in each of his last two years, and getting a rep for defending plenty of passes. He’s going to need some refinement in the NFL, particularly in his tackling and his ability to play the run – the latter of those is generally a bigger requirement for corners than most realise, but it’s not a deal-breaker. Also, like so many college corners, he’s going to need to bulk up a bit and get stronger without sacrificing his speed and agility, which…well, I have no idea if he can do that.
Jamal Adams, S, LSU
A disclaimer: if it turns out Malik Hooker’s labrum surgery and likely non-performance at the combine pushes him down draft boards, then he’ll be the safety that’s available here instead of Adams.
I’ve listed Adams here even though he’ll likely be gone by now because, if he slides, he’ll be a great value pick. Adams looks like a top-8 prospect. A tough-tackling safety who’s pretty impressive in coverage, he’d play in three-safety sets alongside Vaccaro and Bell most likely, and that would be terrifying. As well as that, we all associate the Saints with picking Louisiana players (even though the data doesn’t reflect that).
Adams will be the kind of versatile, game-changing safety that will thrive in the more flexible NFL of now. I’d be confident in sitting him near or far from the line of scrimmage, though sticking him as the one deep safety from day one might be asking him to get beaten. I like Adams matching up against elite tight ends a lot – he plays with strength, fire, and athleticism in coverage. I think he could be effective against pass-catching running backs, and we know he can be a violent tackler which will help in the run game. He’ll likely be gone by 11, but hey.
Ryan Ramczyk, OT, Wisconsin
I’m including Ramczyk here because I’m sick of writing about defensive players, in reality he might be a touch rich for the #11 pick. If New Orleans trade down a few spots though, he’d definitely be an option.
I mentioned earlier that the right side of the line is an issue for the Saints due to people getting old. Right tackle is often an interesting position – the best don’t earn as much as the left side do, but their shortcomings are equally exposed. Tackles are often drafted to play on the right at first, then move to the left. New Orleans won’t be trying that though – Terron Armstead is one healthy season away from being elite there, and they have Andrus Peat ready to slide over if Armstead is injured again.
Ramczyk demonstrates the traits you want from a right tackle – he’s a ferocious run-blocker at the line. At Wisconsin, he regularly drove defensive linemen back and created huge holes for Corey Clement. He was doing all this from the left, but the principle’s the same. His shortcomings right now are in the pass game – he can get beaten by speed rushers, and he seems to get a bit lost blocking for screen passes. Ramczyk’s scouting reports look much like Taylor Decker’s did last year, and he’s done well at Detroit despite being seen as a touch limited on the left.
It’s a philosophical question though, whether you draft a right tackle who you know won’t move to left, this early. On the one hand, having an impermeable offensive line is necessary for an offense like New Orleans’. On the other hand, it’s a luxury pick given how many defensive holes need filling in.
Picking at 11’s an interesting challenge for a team. You’re hoping to end up landing a player with Pro Bowl talent. At the same time, it’s not quite far enough down to feel overly comfortable going for a high-risk, high-reward type. There are plenty of apparent safe picks (though no-one’s ever safe) that do well but don’t provide that kick on for your team you hope they would. The Saints have picked around here three out of the last four years, and have what looks like three solid but not elite players (Vaccaro, Peat, Rankins). Will they play it safe again this year with a Barnett/Thomas? Or go for a slightly riskier corner, like Jones or Quincy Wilson?