The New Orleans Saints experienced a serious regression defensively in 2014 after an extremely successful 2013 debut campaign from defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. They went from the 4th ranked defense to 31st in the span of just one season, digressed from an 11-5 Wild Card berth to a 7-9 playoff dropout. 2014 was one disappointment after another, and it felt like defensively they were more akin to the 2012 worst defense of all time than the 2013 defense that, while not flashy, was able to stifle opponents.
As a result, there have been few but significant alterations on the defensive side of the ball. Patrick Robinson and Corey White, two of (at least seemingly) the biggest perpetrators of the Saints' sub-mediocrity last season were let go and Curtis Lofton was released. Ultimately, this led to a draft for the Saints that was more defense-heavy than Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis have ever put forth. New Orleans had 9 draft picks, and 6 of them were spent on defense. It was also interesting that they in fact used all of these picks, opting to not use them as bargaining chips, particularly in the later stages of the draft.
First Round (Pick 13): Andrus Peat - OL; Stanford
This pick felt to be a bit of a head scratcher at the time of its announcement, but it was a draft in which offensive linemen were at a premium. The Saints have been trying to reform their line's image for the duration of this past offseason after they struggled, particularly on the interior, in 2014. Peat is a player that has no where near peaked in terms of his potential; he's still extremely green; but he can play anywhere on the line. Whether he fills the spot left by the trade of Benjamin Grubbs or replaces Terron Armstead on the outside remains to be seen (and likely won't be determined until he sees on-field action), but Peat is a player that is still growing and honing his athleticism. Eventually, the Saints obviously hope to make a him a staple of their line for years to come in the anchor position of Left Tackle, and it will be interesting to see if he pans out.
First Round (Pick 31 - Acquired from Seattle): Stephone Anthony - ILB; Clemson
Inside linebacker was a serious need for the Saints coming into this draft, as the void left by the release of Curtis Lofton had not been addressed through the duration of free agency. Anthony was a 2014 Butkus award finalist and an absolute anchor on the Clemson defense. He plays the game cerebrally as well as physically, which is so important for an interior linebacker. He may play alongside Dannell Ellerbe or David Hawthorne in 2015, but he would have to be horrific in training camp/preseason play to not be a day one starter and an immediate contributor on the Saints' defense. The Saints flipped Jimmy Graham for this pick and Max Unger, and they were able to address two serious positions of need with the trade. Obviously losing Graham still hurts for the Saints, but what they gained from the trade dulls the pain, if only a little.
Second Round (Pick 44): Hau'oli Kikaha - OLB; Washington
Addressing another position of need, Kikaha was a pass rushing specialist at Washington throughout his career. He led the nation in sacks, and he has an explosive first step. The only real knock against him is that there are concerns that he's already reached his ceiling and he was playing in a relatively weak Pac-10 conference (whether or not these knocks are founded remains to be seen). Kikaha provides some much needed relief for the New Orleans' pass rush, as Cameron Jordan didn't play up to par throughout the 2014 campaign for the Saints. Junior Galette continued to play well, but his effect was often mitigated by lines focusing in on him, plus his antics off the field make him a bit of a wild card for the Saints. Parys Haralson was a player that didn't particularly excel in getting to the quarterback, he was more equipped to play as a gap filler. Kikaha should help the Saints' weakened 2014 pass rush, even if it's only in a rotational capacity.
Third Round (Pick 75): Garrett Grayson - QB; Colorado State
This was the pick that made a lot of fans' ears perk up when it was announced. It had been speculated in the days leading up to the draft that the Saints were going to take a quarterback in the fairly early stages of the draft, but most seemed to expect it to be Bryce Petty out of Baylor, who was still on the board at the time of this pick. Instead, the Saints went for the big, sturdy Grayson, a quarterback that is largely confined to the pocket and can occasionally struggle going through his reads. The evidence of this being Brees's protege comes largely in the fact that the Saints used a third round pick on him, which is high for roster fodder. Of course, Grayson has a few years to come into his own so this pick is a bit of a nonstarter as of now, but it will interesting to see how Payton utilizes him, even if his only exposure comes from preseason play.
Third Round (Pick 78 - Acquired from Miami): PJ Williams - CB; Florida State
Williams being on the board at this point came as somewhat of a surprise, as he was one of the more rounded corners coming out of the 2015 draft. He has decent size, above average speed and solid length. He wasn't, however, a standout corner, which is what teams look for in the draft nowadays. His biggest knocks are his passive zone coverage and his apparently fluctuating motivation, in addition to his physicality downfield. Williams will need to earn his spot in the Saints' secondary, with Keenan Lewis and Brandon Browner presumably playing the edges. The inside, however, is firmly up for grabs and will likely be between Delvin Breaux, Brian Dixon, Kyle Wilson and Williams. It's hardly terribly stout competition, but competition will be good for a corner like Williams, especially if one of those players are always breathing down his neck while he's on the field.
Fifth Round (Pick 148): Davis Tull - OLB; Tennessee-Chattanooga
It's very likely that this pick was to make the Saints' defensive line think twice about their production, since despite being listed as a linebacker Tull is really, at his core, another pass rusher. At Tennessee-Chattanooga, Tull spent most of his time with his hand in the dirt. In reality, Tull is really a depth pick as he middles in size for a lineman but spent very little time in a two point stance. However, he's a motivator and he's a player that uses a ridiculous work ethic in conjunction with his excellent hands at the line to get past offensive linemen. The annual Sean Payton Small School Pick was well spent on Tull, as it is abundantly clear that he'll do everything in his power to work his way up the roster, something that every roster needs on it in some form or another.
Fifth Round (Pick 154 - Acquired from Kansas City): Tyeler Davidson - DT; Fresno State
Davidson was another attempt to beef up at the defensive line position for the Saints. He led Fresno State in 2014 with 8 sacks, and Davidson thrived when he was played as a 0 tech by Fresno. With the middling to poor production of both Broderick Bunkley and John Jenkins (who the jury is still out on), Davidson is a player that specializes on the inside and can provide some much needed depth at the position. Davidson, however, struggled when moved outside by Fresno, showing a certain one dimensionality in his game that the Saints may have difficulty overcoming.
Fifth Round (Pick 167): Damian Swann - CB; Georgia
Swann is another corner that can play in any area of the field, whether it's inside or outside, and he's another big, rangy corner (something that the Saints have shown an affinity for in recent years). Swann is a spectacular blitzer out of the nickel, but he struggles instinctively. He's a bit slow on his breaks and won't make a lot of big plays in coverage. In reality, it's very likely that Swann is a player that can inject competition into the corner camp battle, but it isn't impossible that he could end up being a "diamond in the rough pick" for the Saints.
Seventh Round (Pick 230): Marcus Murphy - RB; Missouri
Murphy is a player that may or may not make the roster, with the already crowded backfield of Mark Ingram, CJ Spiller and Khiry Robinson in front of him. However, his abilities on special teams may be able to be utilized for the Saints, as he was a decorated return specialist for Mizzou. The Saints may want to avoid having Jairus Byrd and Brandin Cooks back deep returning kicks / punts, and with the departure of Travaris Cadet to New England the Saints find themselves particularly thin in special teams.
The Saints treated 2015 as a very need heavy draft, which is pretty far outside of how they treat their normal drafts. None of the picks felt like a "camp body," but some are greater projects than others. Defensively they used the draft as replenishment, and the veterans on the Saints' defense will likely be looking over their shoulder come the preseason.