Is Sean Payton Getting a Pass Despite Drafting Poorly?

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

Under head coach Sean Payton, the New Orleans Saints have been masters at finding gems in undrafted free agents. When it comes to the actual draft, he and his staff have whiffed more often than not. Did a Superbowl win give Payton a pass for regularly making questionable draft selections?

Since becoming the head coach of the New Orleans Saints in 2006, Sean Payton has compiled a most impressive 80-48 win-loss record (0.625) which ranks up there in the National Football League in that time span. He has also guided the Saints to the playoffs five years out of the eight he has been in New Orleans and added a Superbowl championship in 2009 as the crown jewel of his tenure in the Big Easy.

Such gaudy numbers have led most fans and analysts to praise Payton and Saints general manager Mickey Loomis for their draft acumen and nose for finding and signing great talent to the Saints roster. You don't win big at horseracing unless you have a great horse. Payton and Loomis - or "PayLoo" as Saints fans have affectionately nicknamed the pair - have seemingly been able to find the right horses for the past eight years.

A closer look into their drafting resume tells a more complex story: despite all of their on-field success in New Orleans, Loomis and Payton have struck out with their draft choices more often than not. They've been able to find gems in undrafted free agents, that much is certain. However, those highly-touted players coming out of college haven't always panned out for them.

In this piece, I decided to focus on the Saints post-Superbowl years (since 2010) and primarily examine two things about players drafted by New Orleans in that time span: a) The number of regular season games they have played in. b) The number of regular season games they have played in as starters for the team.

The tables below (except 2014) display seven categories:

  • Round: The draft round in which the player was selected
  • Pick: The overall selection number of the player
  • Player: The actual person that was drafted by the team.
  • Position: What the player was drafted as.
  • Games played: Regular season action the player saw
  • Games started: Was he good enough to start?
  • WIHN (Where Is He Now?): Is the player even still on the team?

***

2010 Draft Class

Round

Pick

Player

Position

Games Played

Games Started

WIHN

1

32

Patrick Robinson

Cornerback

44

27

Saints

2

64

Charles Brown

Offensive Tackle

37

22

Giants

3

95

Jimmy Graham

Tight End

62

37

Saints

(Franchised)

4

123

Al Woods

Defensive Tackle

0

0

Steelers

5

158

Matt Tennant

Center

28

0

Eagles

7

239

Sean Canfield

Quarterback

0

0

Free Agent

Analysis: Following their win in Superbowl XLIV, the Saints had a pretty lousy draft. The six players selected played in a combined 171 out of a possible 384 games (44.5%) and started a combined 86 games (22.4%). Two of the six players (Al Woods and Sean Canfield) never played in a single regular season game for the team. To complete the mediocrity of this draft class, four years later, only two of the six players drafted are still with the team (Patrick Robinson and Jimmy Graham).

The Gem: The Saints drafted a relatively unknown tight end from Miami in the third round. He turned out to be the best tight end in the NFL at the moment: Jimmy Graham. It was a bit of a reprieve for an otherwise pretty awful draft.

Ugh: Al Woods, the local product out of LSU was drafted in the fourth round. A wasted pick, as Woods never suited up for the Saints in a meaningful game and is now with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Grade: Thank God for Jimmy Graham.

***

2011 Draft Class

Round

Pick

Player

Position

Games Played

Games Started

WIHN

1

24

Cameron Jordan

Defensive End

48

47

Saints

1

28

Mark Ingram

Running Back

37

12

Saints

3

72

Martez Wilson

Linebacker

33

1

Cowboys

3

88

Johnny Patrick

Cornerback

24

1

Jets

7

226

Greg Romeus

Defensive End

0

0

Free Agent

7

243

Nate Bussey

Linebacker

0

0

Jaguars

Analysis: In 2011, the Saints once again had six draft picks. The six draftees were in a combined 142 out of a possible 288 games (49.3%) and started a combined 61 games (21.1%). As in 2010, two of the six players (Greg Romeus and Nate Bussey) never played in a single regular season game for the team and only two of the six players drafted are still with the team (Cameron Jordan and the beloved Mark Ingram).

The Gem: Cameron Jordan was not an unknown commodity like Jimmy Graham the previous year. Drafted 24th overall, the defensive end has delivered, starting 47 out of 48 games and becoming a feared pass rusher in the NFL.

Ugh: With two third-round draft picks, the Saints got Martez Wilson and Johnny Patrick. Both turned out to be a major misses, as they combined for only two starts and are now with the Cowboys and Jets respectively.

Grade: Thank God for Cameron Jordan.

***

2012 Draft Class*

Round

Pick

Player

Position

Games Played

Games Started

WIHN

3

89

Akiem Hicks

Defensive Tackle

30

16

Saints

4

122

Nick Toon

Wide Receiver

8

3

Saints

5

162

Corey White

Cornerback

26

10

Saints

6

179

Andrew Tiller

Offensive Guard

0

0

Packers

7

234

Marcel Jones

Offensive Tackle

0

0

Saints

*This is the year Sean Payton got abducted by an alien spaceship for an entire season.

Analysis: With only five draft picks in 2012 and no first or second round selection, the Saints had to be very efficient with their draft strategy in 2012. Without Payton (assuming there were no off the radar red telephone), things got even worse than the previous two years. Of the five draftees, as had seemingly been the norm for the post 2009 New Orleans, two of them have yet to play in a regular season game for the team (Andrew Tiller and Marcel Jones). All five appeared in a combined 64 out of a possible 160 games (39.0%) and started 29 games (18.1%). A slightly positive note is the fact that Andrew Tiller, now with the Packers, is the only player not with the team anymore.

The Gem: Akiem Hicks, the defensive tackle from the University of Regina in Canada has been an outstanding addition to the Saints' defensive line. He has played in 30 of 32 games, starting 16 of them.

Ugh: Although he is still with the team, wide receiver Nick Toon's days in New Orleans may be numbered. For his two-year career with the Saints, he has only 4 receptions for 68 yards. Yikes.

Grade: Thank God for...Akiem Hicks?

***

2013 Draft Class

Round

Pick

Player

Position

Games Played

Games Started

WIHN

1

89

Kenny Vaccaro

Safety

14

14

Saints

3

122

Terron Armstead

Offensive Tackle

6

2

Saints

3

162

John Jenkins

Defensive Tackle

16

5

Saints

5

179

Kenny Stills

Wide Receiver

16

10

Saints

6

234

Rufus Johnson

Defensive End

0

0

Saints

Analysis: With Payton back from his excursion on Krypton, the Saints staff discovered a mojo they had seemingly never had. Although the sample size is smaller, all five picks are still on the team. They have also played in a combined 52 out of a possible 80 games (65.0%) and started a combined 31 games (38.7%). Only one player, defensive end Rufus Johnson, has yet to see the field.

The Gem: Kenny Vaccaro, the hard-hitting safety taken in the first round played and started in 14 games, until an injury forced him to miss the remainder of the season. Although he still has some improvement to make in pass coverage, Vaccaro has been everything the Saints could have hoped for.

Ugh: Personally, I have no real "ugh" about this draft (yet). How about you?

Grade: This may turn out to be Payton's best draft ever.

***

2014 Draft Class

Round

Pick

Player

Position

1

20

Brandin Cooks

Wide Receiver

2

58

Stanley Jean-Baptiste

Cornerback

4

126

Khairi Fortt

Linebacker

5

167

Vinnie Sunseri

Safety

5

169

Ronald Powell

Linebacker

6

202

Tavon Rooks

Offensive Tackle

Analysis: With their first pick in the 2014 draft, New Orleans picked up where it left off in 2013: Brandin Cooks is going to fit beautifully in Payton's offense and is likely to be a starter from day one, alongside Marques Colston and Kenny Stills. Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste is likely going to be a backup for most of the season, barring any injuries in the secondary. If history repeats itself - and Saints fans hope it doesn't - one or two of the draftees will not play in a single game this season. My money would be on linebacker Ronald Powell, who has a history of knee injuries and was a bit of a gamble in this draft.

The Gem: The explosive, multitalented Brandin Cooks will quickly make Saints fans forget about the lethargic offense of 2013.

Ugh: With the great success they've had with Mark Ingram and Roman Harper, the Saints decided they needed another Bama player in Vinnie Sunseri. All joking aside, this was a baffling pick: safety wasn't a position of need for New Orleans. The Saints can only hope to have somehow gotten a steal.

Grade:The jury is obviously still out, but this group of draftees has its work cut out for it if they're going to match the early production of the 2013 class.

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