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New Orleans Saints move into 2017 NFL Draft’s Top 10 picks

Sitting sore at 5-7, the Saints’ season is effectively over. It’s time to look at their 2017 NFL Draft outlook.

NFL: Detroit Lions at New Orleans Saints
Drew Brees runs out of the tunnel pregame in the Mercedez-Benz Superdome.
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

If there’s any silver lining to the New Orleans Saints’ shellacking (at home!) by the Detroit Lions, it’s that they’re officially jockeying for position in the 2017 NFL Draft.

If the season ended today, the Saints would own the ninth-overall draft selection. They would rotate with the San Diego Chargers and Philadelphia Eagles for draft position in the later rounds of the draft, giving them the eleventh pick in the second round, the tenth pick in the third round, and the ninth pick again in the fourth round, and so on.

Some fans have voiced a bitter, wailing hope that the Saints will play badly enough down the stretch to get into the top five picks of the draft. That’s not likely given the records of the teams currently in the top five: none of them have won more than three games on the year.

Here’s the current draft order. Teams are organized by win/loss record, then strength of schedule. Any ties at that point are settled by tiebreakers ranging from conference record to a coin flip. Teams picking in the slots from 21 to 32 will decide their order by playoffs results.

For comparison, here’s the players selected ninth overall in the last few years:

  • 2016: OLB Leonard Floyd. The Chicago Bears’ rookie out of Georgia has picked up seven sacks in only nine games.
  • 2015: OT Ereck Flowers. The New York Giants’ left tackle has appeared in 1,733 of 1,884 possible offense snaps since being drafted last year.
  • 2014: OLB Anthony Barr. The Minnesota Vikings’ third-year dynamo is a jack-of-all-trades, with 9.5 sacks, 6 forced fumbles, 13 pass deflections, and 139 solo tackles (13 for loss of yards) in his career.
  • 2013: CB Dee Milliner. The New York Jets’ wayward cornerback serves as a cautionary tale out of just drafting players from good defensive units.
  • 2012: DT Fletcher Cox. The Philadelphia Eagles’ interior lineman is one of football’s most-feared, thanks to his 26 career sacks.
  • 2011: OT Tyron Smith. The Dallas Cowboys’ left tackle may be the best player at his position. He anchors an offensive line that sets the bar for how to play “in the trenches.”

And in USA Today's latest mock draft review at The Draft Wire, analyst Luke Easterling has explained why Bleacher Report's Ryan McCrystal mocking Vanderbilt Commodores linebacker Zach Cunningham to the Saints at the ninth overall pick is a great call. Cunningham is my favorite linebacker in the draft and the most-similar prospect to Luke Kuechly we’ll see.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Both linebackers have intense football IQ, command their units with confidence, and are used to doing the dirty work of shedding blocks by offensive linemen, reading their keys and reacting to fill gaps in run defense, and putting tight ends in handcuffs in pass coverage. They both are the unquestioned leaders of their units, and happened to be listed at 6-foot-4 and 230-pounds in college.

Cunningham has yet to declare for the 2017 draft, but the redshirt junior isn’t even 22-years old yet and projects to be a home run at middle linebacker in the NFL. Given the busted pick spent on Stephone Anthony last year and James Laurinaitis’ not panning out, the Saints need a proven quantity in the middle of the defense so that Dannell Ellerbe and Craig Robertson can create havoc on the edges.

Regardless of who they pick up five months from now, the Saints should still be a competitive and entertaining team. They’ve got three divisional games left on the slate and have a great opportunity to spoil a flailing Atlanta Falcons team in Week 17 - the last regular season game to be played in the Georgia Dome.