During the 2015 NFL Draft, the Saints surprised many Who Dats by passing over several promising pass rushers and cornerbacks before selecting Stanford tackle Andrus Peat with their first pick of the first round. After a horrendous performance in 2014, most fans expected the Saints to use both first round picks to bolster their lackluster defense.
While their second pick, Stephone Anthony, became a serviceable and promising starting linebacker, fellow rookie Peat never grabbed a starting job with the same authority. Peat’s role is expected to grow in his second season, but no one knows for sure what the offensive line will look like when the regular season kicks off against the Raiders on September 11th.
In a cap space saving move this offseason, the Saints cut veteran and perennial Pro-Bowl guard Jahri Evans. Though Evans turned in perhaps the worst season of his illustrious career, the Saints haven’t exactly upgraded the position by retaining Senio Kelemete and Tim Lelito to replace him. Even if Zach Strief is shuffled to guard, the Saints offensive line still feels like an unfinished patchwork quilt ripe for another team’s pass rush. Drew Brees has thrown under pressure more often over the past few seasons and along with strengthening the defense, the Saints must consider their options for strengthening the offensive line through this year’s draft.
Many pro scouts have already touted the depth of defensive line players available this year, however, just as many have stated how thin the guard position is. Unfortunately, few prospects separate themselves from a large pack of possible late round picks. Those who do seem a cut above, like Kansas State’s Cody Whitehair, are forecasted to be drafted in wide ranging analyses from the first to as late as the fifth round. With such disparity in player analysis and draft projection across many draft sites, I find it very hard to feel comfortable taking a guard where the Saints currently sit with the 12th overall pick.
According to Pro Football Focus draft analyst Steve Palazzolo, the teams drafting in spots 1-6 are "sitting pretty" as there may only be 6 or 7 amazing, can’t miss players in the entire draft. He thinks the Ravens at 6 are in the sweet spot, but between 7 and 70, the field is a muddled and indistinguishable glob of more than decent college talent. If that’s true, the Saints have lots of research to do in order to make their 12th and 47th picks valuable. Numbers and analytics never tell the full story, however, and they do not deserve our full faith so let’s discuss some of the possibilities at guard in this year’s draft where the Saints hold six picks.
Cody Whitehair, Left Tackle, Kansas State
A durable college starter since freshmen year, Whitehair was the top ranked tackle in all of college football. Palazzolo believes he may be the best fit for New Orleans’ pass-heavy offense as his pass protection is stellar. Though he played well at tackle in college, he is probably undersized for that position in the pros and projects better as a guard. With good run blocking production and fabulous technique, Whitehair’s play is successful because of his experience and intelligence rather than brute strength. In fact, Whitehair raised some other hairs on pro scouts’ heads by posting the lowest bench press reps (16) of all offensive linemen at the combine.
Pro Football Focus and NFL.com project Whitehair coming off the board in the later half of the first round, which makes him a bit of a reach for the Saints at 12. Walter Football, on the other hand, spoke with teams that had second, third, and even some fourth round grades on the young lineman. Though I believe Whitehair can come in and play right away, it’s hard to tell if his short arms and lack of size will inhibit him from becoming a future standout.
Garnering comparisons to the Cowboys Zack Martin, he is very quick and athletic with incredible core strength for a player his stature, so if he’s still around at 47 when the Saints pick again, I say pluck him up.
Joshua Garnett, Offensive Guard, Stanford
Over the past two years at Stanford, Garnett has grown into a road-grating, run-blocking mauler. At a whopping 325lbs., he always seeks to establish a new line of scrimmage on every run play and finishes blocks well. In 2014, Garnett paired with Saints 2015 first round draft pick Andrus Peat. They both played well together in a pro style system under head coach David Shaw, and it’s easy to see from other former Stanford players around the league (ie. Andrew Luck, Toby Gerhart, Richard Sherman, Doug Baldwin) that these players come to the NFL prepared, intelligent and mature beyond their years.
While Sean Payton seeks to enhance the running game, Garnett could be the final piece that tips the scales in the Saints favor. A glaring weakness, however, is Garnett’s pass protection. It remains to be seen if his inconsistencies can be corrected with proper coaching or if they are part of a larger problem. Do the Saints have time to develop his pass protection techniques while Brees hits the deck? If we extend Brees this offseason, like many speculate, I think Payton wouldn’t want to gamble a pick on a player who may not be capable of keeping the team’s most expensive asset upright.
Again, the 12th pick is a reach for this fella, but as a Stanford fan, I wouldn’t argue with the Saints scooping him up with the 47th or 78th picks. I might give the edge to Whitehair if they are both available simply because he is a more proven pass protector.
Isaac Seumalo, Offensive Guard, Oregon State
After sustaining a season-ending foot injury in 2014, Seumalo put all doubters on notice with his blistering 3 cone (7.40 sec) and 20 yard shuttle (4.52 sec) drill times at this year’s combine. He has quick feet and great technique, but often doesn’t finish blocks as it appears his hands aren’t strong enough to retain the grip on his opponents. He finished this season as the second highest rated pass blocker and ninth highest rated run blocker. He has experience at both tackle spots, right guard, and center, so he could be a reliable and versatile backup if he never grabs a starting spot.
Projected as a backup or eventual starter, I’m not sure the Saints are in need of another player who is being most compared to current Saints guard Tim Lelito. I wouldn’t feel excited about taking him until at least the 78th pick.
Christian Westerman, Offensive Guard, Arizona State
Fleet-footed and technically savvy, Westerman’s pass protection was off the charts in 2015. His performance at the Senior Bowl drew mixed reviews, however. Pro Football Focus thought he dominated most defensive linemen while never allowing a single pressure in 26 pass attempts against the nation’s best seniors. Walter Football scouts were not as impressed. They believed he had trouble with talented defensive linemen at the Senior Bowl, but they also thought he vindicated himself with a strong performance at the combine.
NFL.com believes Westerman could become a starter as early as his rookie year. Drawing comparisons to Alex Mack, Westerman is intriguing, especially if he can get a little bigger without sacrificing speed. I would be stoked to take him with the 78th pick.
Boston Stiverson, Offensive Guard, Kansas State
Stiverson makes the list based on his working relationship with Cody Whitehair. Though he is certainly limited by his smaller stature at the pro level, his technique is impeccable, and he could become a quality back-up.
He’s not flying off the board, but if we do indeed draft Whitehair earlier, it may be prudent to grab another guard later with the 237th pick in the seventh round. For some reason, I really like the idea of pairing either Peat with Garnett or Whitehair with Stiverson. Chemistry goes a long way, and these players have shown they play at a high level together.
Sebastian Tretola, Offensive Guard, Arkansas
Tretola is not super athletic, but proved to be quite the force in the run game anyway. He paved the way for multiple 1,000 yard rushers at Arkansas in 2014 and 2015. It’s not clear if he has the length and coordination to hold his own in pass protection, which the Saints clearly value as Brees needs a clean pocket to operate.
Projected as a backup or possible future starter, Tretola is a project the Saints may value on Day 3 of the draft with either the 152nd or 237th pick.
Vadal Alexander, Guard/Tackle, LSU
After playing his junior season at guard and senior season at tackle, Alexander graded poorly over both seasons. The reason teams may be interested in him is his gargantuan size. When he gets his long arms and strong hands locked onto an offensive lineman, he usually wins the battle one on one. He may be strong, but his athleticism is lacking to the point he probably can not play any offensive line position except guard as tackles typically need to handle speedy, athletic edge rushers.
Saints fans love a former Tiger so I couldn’t leave Alexander of this list. I would not be ok with the Saints taking him before the seventh round, as his technique, foot speed, and coordination just don’t seem ready for the next level.
Most of the Saints best offensive lineman in the past have been drafted in the third through seventh rounds. Terron Armstead was drafted in the third round. Jermon Bushrod, Jahri Evans, and Carl Nicks were all drafted in the fourth round. Zach Strief was drafted in the seventh round just ahead of another late round gem, Marques Colston. The Saints need to draft the best player available and keep themselves from reaching too far for a project player like they did with Stanley Jean-Baptiste in 2014.
If the Saints let the board come to them, good things will happen. Getting too stuck on where to draft a player can muddle the results. By drafting the best player available, the Saints can be sure to add more quality pieces to a team that sorely needs it.