With the Saints lack of a first round pick in this year's NFL Draft, it has certainly taken a lot of the buzz and excitement away from following the whole draft process. That doesn't mean, however, the NFL Draft isn't constantly on my mind. I still engage in rampant speculation about how the dominos will fall after the Indianapolis Colts do what is expected and take Andrew Luck as the heir apparent to Peyton Manning with the number one overall pick. But it isn't the same from following it on a personal level when you are regulated to sloppy seconds. Admittedly, the term "sloppy seconds" is very inaccurate when it comes to the Saints success in the draft as they have found incredible value in the later rounds, just that the hype beforehand is not nearly as great.
Devoid of a first round selection, it is important to note that our identity as Saints fans is not solely defined by our love for the Black & Gold and the feelings of hope we share over the promise and potential that new draft picks bring. It is also characterized by our intense animosity towards the Saints opponents. Specifically, the opponents I am referring to are our NFC South division rivals: the Falcons, Buccaneers and Panthers,each of the whom the Saints will face at a minimum twice a year.
Naturally, we become very familiar with the star players of our divisional rivals, who can become the key targets of that animosity as a coping mechanism in response to the threats on our happiness they impose on us by their play. Living in SEC territory, we acquired two new high profile enemies in 2011 that were no strangers to Saints fans in Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton from Auburn and Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Juio Jones from Alabama. The Saints swept both the Panthers and Falcons, but as Newton set new rookie passing records and Jones displayed flashes of big play capability that made him so revered at Alabama, both players project to be long term headaches and sources of anxiety for Who Dat Nation.
As the Buccaneers and Panthers each have top 10 picks, it appears that they will once again select their stock from the rich talent pool of the Southeastern Conference, and new enemies will emerge that we followed very closely on Saturdays in the fall. With the 5th overall pick, it is widely projected that the Buccaneers will either take LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne or Alabama running back Trent Richardson.
With Marques Colston and Robert Meachem both free agents, the makeup of the Saints receiving corps for 2012 and beyond is uncertain. However, anxiously hoping a deal with Brees gets done and the Saints remain a high octane passing offense, the battle between our receivers and Claiborne should be highly competitive, regardless of who he lines up to cover. I particularly think if he remains a Saint, Meachem vs Claiborne could really be a great battle. Colston would too, but the prospects of him staying appear pretty dim.
Should the Bucs take Claiborne as most draft pundits are predicting, that would be a much better scenario for the Saints than if they go with Richardson. I would definitely prefer a Drew Brees led passing attack going after a young but talented Claiborne, than watching our finesse defense trying to tackle the bull of a running back that is Richardson for the next 10 years. I am very hopeful that the defense will improve under new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, but recent history is all I have to go on for right now.
During the BCS game between Alabama and LSU, I remember seeing footage of Mark Ingram on the Alabama sideline in his cast trying to push and motivate his former Crimson Tide backfield teammate. Should the Pensacola native return to his home state and become a Buccaneer, ironically Ingram could be called upon to give the Saints defense any tips and weaknesses on Richardson. However, as a personal side note, I think the Cleveland Browns should take Richardson with the fourth overall pick and stay out of the hunt for moving up and selecting Robert Griffin III. At 5-9 and 228 pounds, Richardson's compact size, muscular build and explosiveness would be very effective in hitting the perennial tough Ravens and Steelers defenses that the Browns must face twice a year right in the nose.
Another former LSU Tiger, Michael Brockers, has emerged during the NFL Combine as the projected top defensive tackle that will be taken. While the third year sophomore may be taking an early leave from the Bayou Bengals a year early, many mock drafts have him remaining a member of the Big Cat Club and going to the Panthers at number nine overall. One draft assesment I read on Brockers, described the 6-6, 306 pounder as more of a space eater that opens up opportunities for the linebackers, than a tackling machine penetrating into the backfield. Not sure I quite agree with this assesment. I recall seeing Brockers making many tackles either at or behind the line of scrimmage in addition to being a constant inside pass rushing threat. As the Panthers focus on upgrading their defensive line with the hopes of improving one of the worst defenses in the NFL last season, it also emphasizes to an extent the importance it is for the Saints to retain the services of offensive guard Carl Nicks.
When it comes to the Saints free agency and draft moves, the consequences of those decisions are impacted by what their primary opponents do as well.