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Saints draft preview: A look at the Black & Gold’s biggest draft needs

After consecutive 7-9 seasons, the cap-strapped New Orleans Saints find themselves in a unique win-now mode, knowing that the team’s window of opportunity for winning a second Super Bowl closes in about four seasons when QB Drew Brees retires. Brees is still playing at an extremely high level, but recently the Saints have not been able to surround him with enough talent to compete in an improving NFC South division.

New Orleans holds the 12th overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft, which begins April 28.

TEAM NEED #1: Pass Rusher

Head coach Sean Payton has rightfully acknowledged in news conferences that improving the pass rush is a big need. Particularly, he mentioned he wants a player who can get to the quarterback in “Three Mississippi’s.”  This quality describes Noah Spence more than any other prospect.

Spence has the fastest first step and the best ability to bend around the edge in this draft class. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of pure pass rushers in this class. A lot of the mock drafts have New Orleans selecting one of two Clemson edge defenders, Shaq Lawson or Kevin Dodd. Lawson is an immediate starter for sure, and although he’s a much better run defender than Spence, his acceleration off the line scrimmage is not quite as rapid.

As far as Kevin Dodd goes, he carries a lot of risk (and admitted upside), being the “cleanup man” on a bunch of sacks and a beneficiary of 1-on-1 matchups thanks to offenses focusing on his teammate, Lawson. Dodd is not nearly as polished and could be a little overrated by the media right now. Still, despite his “one year wonder” label, he remains in play for this pick and has shown the ability to be disruptive in the run game.

Ultimately, Noah Spence is my favorite first round fit for the Saints, and I’m hoping the team calls his name on Thursday night. That said, I would also be happy to see Shaq Lawson in a Saints uniform next season too.

 

TEAM NEED #2: Coverage Linebacker

Last season, the troubles with the linebacking corps weren’t necessarily due to lack of talent or potential ability, but rather a lack of experience. This should be obvious when you consider that three of the Saints’ four primarily used LBs (Stephone Anthony, Hau’oli Kikaha, and Michael Mauti) had never started an NFL game.

These youngsters were asked to play different positions at different times due to WLB Dannell Ellerbe‘s health issues. They had to play under two defensive coordinators (Rob Ryan and Dennis Allen). And they had to play in a hybrid 4-3 / 3-4 scheme.

On film, there were too many miscommunications and late diagnoses of plays, so it’s easy to see why James Laurinaitis was recently signed.

A lot of fans are considering the idea of drafting Alabama ILB Reggie Ragland in Round 1, but the Saints remain high on Stephone Anthony, who has a lot of unchartered potential. And unfortunately, Ragland doesn’t cure the two woes the team has at linebacker: the aforementioned inexperience and coverage ability/range. The Saints have been torched by RBs receiving out of the backfield and have not been able to cover tight ends over the middle. New Orleans allowed a combined 133 receiving yards to opposing TEs/RBs, the highest mark in the NFL.

This makes someone like Darron Lee (Ohio St) attractive. While Lee is an exceptional athlete and has showed range and natural ability in coverage, he could be considered somewhat of a high-risk but high-ceiling reach at 12 overall.

Ideally, New Orleans could look to converted hybrid safeties/LBs later in the draft – Su’a Cravens (USC) would fit the bill in Round 2.

 

TEAM NEED #3: Defensive Tackle

There’s no denying that a 3-technique defensive tackle is an area of need. However, I think drafting one of these DTs in Round 1 would grossly fail to maximize the value and potential impact of this pick.

In today’s pass-first league, it’s becoming more apparent that only DTs who can penetrate and affect QBs (read: Aaron Donald, Gerald McCoy, Ndamukong Suh) in the passing game are the only ones worth first round selections.

This draft class is absolutely loaded with DTs who excel against the run, clogging gaps and inviting double teams to free up others to make tackles. Commonly Saints-mocked prospects like Sheldon Rankins (Louisville) and A’Shawn Robinson (Bama) come to mind.

Round-by-Round preview if I were the Saints GM
ROUND 1 – Noah Spence (DE – E. Kentucky), Josh Doctson (WR – TCU), Shaq Lawson (DE – Clemson), Laquon Treadwell (WR – Ole Miss)
ROUND 2 – Su’a Cravens (LB – USC), Andrew Billings (NT – Baylor), Chris Jones (DT – Miss St), Michael Thomas (WR – OSU), Vernon Butler (DT – La Tech), Joshua Garnett (OG – Stanford), Sterling Shepard (WR – OK)
ROUND 3 – Christian Westerman (OG – AZ St), Emmanuel Ogbah (DE – OKST), Joshua Perry (LB – OSU), Rashard Higgins (WR – Col St), Javon Hargrave (DT – S.C. St)
ROUND 4-5 – Malcom Mitchell (WR – UGA), Kenyan Drake (RB – Bama)
ROUND 6-7 – Vadal Alexander (OG – LSU), Brandon Allen (QB – Ark), Vernon Adams (QB – Oregon)

This skill is undoubtedly a need for the Saints, but none of these first round DTs offer much of anything in the pass rush department. In sum, picking a DT at 12 would provide a little more than a one-dimensional run stuffer in a pass-heavy league.

Perhaps more significantly, this is the deepest defensive tackle class in the last decade, and plenty of quality DTs will be available in rounds 2-3, where I expect the Saints to select one or two bodies, knowing that Nick Fairley and John Jenkins are both entering the last year on their respective contracts.

I would highly support the Saints pouncing on any fringe late first / early second round defensive tackle that happens to falls to pick 47. Vernon Butler (La Tech), Chris Jones (Miss St), Jon Bullard (Florida) or A’Shawn Robinson (Bama) … in that order … are all very strong second round picks.

 

TEAM NEED #4: Wide Receiver

To me, outside of pass rushers Noah Spence and Shaq Lawson, the best players available at pick 12 are most likely going to be two wide receivers: Josh Doctson (WR – TCU) and Laquon Treadwell (WR – Ole Miss). Doctson and Treadwell are my fifth and ninth rated overall prospects, respectively, and I have absolutely no problem with spending the Saints first round pick on either.

Merely assuming that upgrading the defense will automatically put the Saints in contention ignores the fact that the offense can’t carry the team like it used to.

Drafting one of these two wide outs would be the final piece to the offensive puzzle the Saints have been lacking for the last two seasons.
Treadwell and Doctson are big, physical, ball-hawking, accuracy erasers who can beat press coverage and be a force in the red zone. Further, they would serve as an ideal complement to the smaller speedster Brandin Cooks, while also pushing Willie Snead into the slot, an area that better suits his Lance Moore-like skillset.

With a balanced running game and multi-faceted offense that can attack any part of the field with a variety of weapons and different skillsets, I’d be willing to go far enough to say that it would remind me of the offense during the Saints’ Super Bowl season.

Perhaps New Orleans will address WR after Round 1 with their grave defensive needs. If so, Michael Thomas (Ohio St) and Sterling Shepard (Oklahoma) would be sweet second round selections. WRs Rashard Higgins (Colorado St – 3rd round projection) and Malcom Mitchell (UGA – 4th round) would be mid-round steals.

 

TEAM NEED #5: Secondary Depth

Coming from the CFL and Arena League, it took CB1 Chip Breaux took a few games to adjust to the soft, touchy, offensive nature of the NFL’s flag football stance on contact with wide receivers. But once he refined his technique, he was one of the best coverage corners in the NFL. Keenan Lewis, a quality CB2 in his own right, dealt with injuries all season, missing 10 games. Lewis’s injuries led to heightened playing time for everyone’s favorite defender, Brandon Browner. Furthermore, rookie corner Damian Swann, who looked like a draft day steal at times, was only able to play in 5 games because he sustained three concussions over the course of the season.

His loss could have been overshadowed if P.J. Williams, the cornerback the Saints selected in the third round of last year’s draft (before Swann), had not landed on injured reserve before the season even began. So while it’s never safe to assume full health in the NFL, positive injury regression will likely yield better health, thus better performances, from the secondary this season. At full strength, the Saints’ secondary is, believe it or not, an ABOVE AVERAGE unit in the NFL. FS Jairus Byrd and SS Kenny Vaccaro (who quietly had a nice bounce-back season) form a decent safety duo, boundary corners Chip Breaux and Keenan Lewis, and nickel back Damian Swann make up a solid CB trio. Not only that, but “red shirt” CB P.J. Williams and veteran Kyle Wilson provide adequate depth at the position.

There is no real consensus about the best cornerback in this draft. Vernon Hargreaves (Florida) possesses a lot of positive traits for the position. He excels in zone coverage, but he is inconsistent, coming off a poor season, and is undersized. I believe he’ll be drafted later than most mocks have him projected (in the top 10). Mackensie Alexander (Clemson) is probably the best cover corner in this draft, particularly in press man coverage. He’s my personal favorite CB this year, but he’ll likely slip in the draft because he’s also smallish (5’10, 190). William Jackson (Houston) is also a very good man-to-man CB who has the measurables desired at the position, but there are mixed reviews by teams on whether he’s ready to transition and compete in the NFL immediately. Finally, Eli Apple (Ohio St) has a sweet size and speed combination, but he’s raw in zone coverage and has other flaws on tape.

Regardless, while the Saints need to address cornerback in the draft at some point if they feel Lewis’s or Swann’s health is a bigger concern than they let on (I believe Swann’s is on far thinner ice), I do not think the Saints would be wise to draft a cornerback with the 12th overall pick, regardless of who available.

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