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2015 Combine Sheds Light On Saints' Prospects

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The NFL Combine is a strange time of year. It's more or less the only evaluation of how prospects will do making the jump from the college to pro level. While being an imperfect science (Dri Archer, anyone?), the combine is extremely important from an evaluative standpoint. The Saints need to get their first round pick right, and with the draft now a little over 2 months away, it's time to start thinking about who Mr. Right is going to be.

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I know exactly one thing about the Saints in the 2015 draft: They have to go defense in the first round.

I don't even care what position they go for.  Line?  Linebacker?  Secondary?  Pick one (how funny is it saying this after last year when it wasn't about filling holes but adding talent?).  There is a plethora of defensive talent in this year's draft, and the truly beautiful thing is that a lot of gems are hidden in the rough of the mid rounds.

Dante Fowler is the guy that is being projected to the Saints quite a bit in the early going of speculation, and for once the speculation doesn't seem baseless.  After a pass rush that was excellent in 2013 completely stagnated in 2014, a bit of help getting to the quarterback definitely wouldn't hurt OLB Junior Galette.  Furthermore, Fowler was a weak side pass rusher at the University of Florida.  With Galette being strong side (the majority of the time), there isn't a conflict of interest in drafting Fowler.  The cherry on top of this Sunday is that the Saints' weakside edge would then consist of Cameron Jordan and Dante Fowler, which could create some serious matchup issues on the weak side of the line.

In terms of measurables, Fowler ran a 4.6 40, 19 reps on bench, ran a 7.4 second 3 cone drill and 4.32 second 20 yard shuttle.  His combine performance wasn't amazing, but it more or less confirmed what many already knew about him.  Fowler's strengths lie in his first step burst, his moveset (particularly his rip), and his ability to chase down plays.  An AFC East scout said at the combine that "he will be way better in the pros than what he is now" (NFL Events: Combine Tracker).

This raises one very important question.  Can the Saints afford another "raw" player, especially in the first round?  With Stanley Jean-Baptiste still being kept in Sean Payton's basement, there is a very real concern about Fowler's style.  He's driven, of course, and he will get better, but how soon?  And can the Saints' defensive coaching staff handle him?  Rob Ryan certainly has a knack for making his player want to play for him, but it's Fowler's skill set, not his commitment, that is being questioned early in the combine.  He isn't a physical freak, he just really, really wants to get to the quarterback.

Should New Orleans decide to go corner in the draft, it will really depend on who's on the board.  One could safely presume that Trae Waynes out of MSU and Jalen Collins of LSU will likely be off the board, and Ronald Darby of FSU is improving his stock by the day.  Waynes ran a 4.31 40, Darby a 4.38 and Collins a 4.48.  While Waynes has the most NFL talent coming straight out of college, it could be argued that Darby has the highest ceiling.  Darby is 5'11" with slightly longer arms than Waynes (about 3/8"), and he is nearly the same weight.  Darby's 41.5" high jump was best at the combine for corners, and he outstripped Waynes in both the 3-cone drill and the 20 yard shuttle.

I'm not making an argument that Darby is a better corner than Waynes, the tape absolutely screams otherwise, but he could come into the NFL and make a difference.  Drafting Darby wouldn't be another SJB situation, he can make an impact, but there is a transitional period for corners from college to the NFL.  The Saints don't want to reach for a second round corner with the 13th pick because they feel they need one, and Waynes, Collins and Darby are likely the only corners that really should be going in the first round.  If all three of them are off the board, it makes far more sense to draft a player that will make an immediate impact, and use the middle rounds for depth.  All of this, of course, is presuming that the Saints don't sign a #2 corner in free agency.  If they don't, they're going to need one.

The Saints aren't hopeless in 2015.  Obviously there will be some trepidation heading into next year as opposed to the unbridled optimism of 2014, but they don't lack for talent.  Byrd is returning for like, probably a game before he gets hurt again, Keenan Lewis should be back at full health, Junior Galette and Cam Jordan should be hungry, and Rob Ryan knows that he has a lot of work to do.  Whether the Saints try to find a corner that can cover for 4-5 seconds a play or a pass rusher that makes that unnecessary, what they do in the first round could well largely determine their success in 2015.  The options are on the board, it's just an issue of choosing the right one.  Draft evaluation is a flawed process, but there's a method behind the madness.  If there weren't, none of the speculation around the draft would exist or, indeed, be nearly as fun.