Following the the Saints’ disappointing 2014 season where they posted a 7-9 losing record, a major restructuring was ordered over the scouting team. Perhaps reaching for cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste in the second round of the NFL draft was the final nail in former Saints director of scouting Rick Reiprish’s professional coffin.
Spending a second round pick on a player who rarely saw the field his rookie year didn’t look good. Spending a second round pick on a player who was released before his second season looked even worse. But spending a second round pick on a player who is now at best a practice squad player for the Seattle Seahawks looked simply unforgivable.
But the Saints didn’t just miss in the second round. They missed in the fourth, fifth, fifth again, and sixth rounds too. Of the entire Saints 2014 draft class, only Brandin Cooks remains on an active NFL 53-man roster. If you are looking for a really good practice squad player or Canadian football hopeful, then the former Saints scouting team is perfect for you.
With the exception of the 2013 draft class from which they still have three contributing players, the Saints decision makers have laid one stinky egg after another dating all the way back to 2007. It’s hard to find players among those draft classes (2007-2014) who are even still playing in the league, let alone for a practice squad.
The fact that every player from the past two drafts have initially made the Saints roster is reason enough to rejoice. Looking over the drafts from the past 11 years, it’s pretty clear that the former Saints scouting department under Reiprish had a hard time identifying NFL ready talent. From the following list of Saints draft classes, here are the numbers of players that are on an active NFL 53-man roster today:
2006 - 5
2007 - 1
2008 - 1
2009 - 2
2010 - 2
2011 - 2
2012 - 3
2013 - 4
2014 - 1
Rick Reiprish Fired, Jeff Ireland Hired
2015 - 6
2016 - 5
We’ve all heard about how great the 2006 draft class was. If Colston didn’t retire this year, there would be six players remaining in the NFL today from that class. That many drafted guys still playing 11 years later is amazing, no doubt.
But it’s time to stop heralding that draft and look upon the God Awful results in almost every year since, with the lone exception of 2013. It’s not surprising that the Saints best year in the past five years was the one with the strongest draft class.
Sure, the Saints did pretty well with their first and second round (when they had them) picks, but players drafted that high are absolutely expected to make an impact. When it came to mid and late round picks, it looked as though the Saints were just blindly throwing darts at a board and hoping they would stick.
Outside of punter Thomas Morstead, tight end Jimmy Graham and offensive linemen Jermon Bushrod and Carl Nicks, draft picks taken after the first two days were almost useless. It’s no wonder the Saints have become the premier undrafted free agent destination in the NFL. They claim it’s because they give everyone a fair chance; but really, it’s because they draft so poorly, undrafted free agents, like Pierre Thomas have had an easy time winning starting jobs over the likes of fourth-round pick Antonio Pittman.
Much was made of the possible negative trickle down effects of the Saints losing two consecutive second-round picks from Bountygate, but they didn’t help themselves any more by constantly trading up in the draft over the past decade. 2015 was the first year since 2007 that the Saints even walked away from the draft with at least seven picks.
Even with all of the research and predictions that go into preparing for the draft, it’s impossible to know who is going to succeed or stay healthy at the next level. That’s why it’s paramount to cast as wide of a net as possible.
Meanwhile, the Saints have repeatedly gone trolling with a butterfly net while still expecting the same results as teams like the Patriots, who stack up their draft picks year after year. Not coincidentally, the Patriots have probably been the Saints’ number one draft trade partner over the past decade, so who do you think is coming out ahead?
But enough with the doom and gloom, because this article is more about how the Saints have made better decisions recently. The first positive change came with the firing of Rick Reiprish and the hiring of Jeff Ireland as assistant general manager and college scouting director. Following Ireland’s hiring, the Saints selected eight draft picks; the most since 2006. All eight rookies made the team. Shocker!
Injuries have simply decimated this class, but in a few years, I am confident at least half the class will be contributing to an active NFL roster. Both P.J. Williams and Damian Swann have shown tons of promise that were unfortunately eclipsed by severe concussions. Hau’oli Kikaha, when healthy, may also become an important pass rusher.
In my opinion, both Stephone Anthony and Andrus Peat are the victims of bad coaching and too much shuffling around. I don’t think they have been put in positions that enable them to be successful, so their lack of second year development may be chalked up to that mismanagement of their talent.
They say it takes at least five years to adequately review a draft class, but the 2016 class is proving to be more than promising. Sheldon Rankins looked great before breaking his fibula, and his late season return could potentially bolster the Saints defensive line more than any other pick of recent memory. After three games, Michael Thomas already reminds me of Marques Colston. He catches almost everything, runs great routes, and has established a great rapport with quarterback Drew Brees.
Vonn Bell, though young and inexperienced, has a chance to learn behind some savvy veterans and has already usurped high-priced free agent Jairus Byrd on the depth chart. David Onyemata might end up becoming the steal of the 2016 draft. He’s incredibly raw, but is making his presence felt on the defensive line. I noticed him making strong plays several times this past Sunday against the Chargers. Finally, Daniel Lasco is killing it on special teams where many of the great teams separate themselves from the mediocre.
Racking up their first win of the season against the Chargers, these young players tasted what it takes to win. Finally, the offense and defense both played well at the same time. That boosts confidence tremendously when everyone can finally get on the same page. Heading into their bye week at 1-3, the Saints have a chance to lick some of their wounds and prepare for an important interdivisional opponent in the Carolina Panthers.
With a growing cast of young players who are able to contribute on the professional level, the Saints’ arrow is pointing up. Sean Payton was right when he said "the status quo can be your enemy." Although I still think Payton has retained some of that status quo across his coaching staff (cough, Joe Vitt, cough), the shakeup to the scouting staff has certainly paid its share of dividends.