It’s always too soon to talk about the upcoming NFL draft. Few events in sports are more overhyped; we spend months trying to learn everything about young football players to see how they may be able to contribute in games six months away. The draft itself lasts only three days.
So let’s get this out of the way now: I’m not trying to accurately predict who the New Orleans Saints will pick next spring, or even where they’ll be picking. I projected their draft slot based off the latest odds from Las Vegas, which are as objective a measurement as we’ll get. Last I checked, the Saints are projected to win 7.5 games, which puts them at the 13th overall pick again. Yikes.
The purpose of this mock draft is to get a feel for where talent lies in the upcoming draft class. Which positions are expected to have pro-ready contributors stacked deep in the group, where the top-level athletes are, that sort of thing. If anything, think of this as my preseason watch list of possible Saints targets for the draft. Trying to nail down exactly who they’ll target at which spot this far out is hilariously futile.
One more thing to get out of the way: I haven’t projected a quarterback to be drafted by Sean Payton’s team. One way or another, a veteran passer will be running the show: whether it’s Drew Brees (still the most-likely) or a nightmarish carousel of Luke McCown and Garrett Grayson, or a proven outside veteran like Kirk Cousins.
I don’t see the Saints losing enough games to get one of the top-rated passers in Deshaun Watson (Clemson) or Brad Kaaya (Miami), and I’m not familiar enough with the mid-round guys to throw their names into the hat. So for now we’ll assume the Saints and Payton resolve the quarterback situation without spending a draft pick.
Round One, 13th Pick (13th Overall): LB Jarrad Davis, Florida
The New Orleans Saints are almost done rebuilding their linebacker corps, which was one of the NFL’s worst for nearly five long years. Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis is the alpha dog of the unit, and the 10-year veteran has done a phenomenal job in helping a defense stocked with young, inexperienced players gel into a cohesive unit.
Dannell Ellerbe is a glass cannon but has been on fire lately, flying around the field during training camp and preseason exhibitions to look like one of the best defenders on the squad. New signees Nathan Stupar and Craig Robertson form a great middle-class on the roster, while 2015 first round pick Stephone Anthony gets his bearings and works on trusting his instincts to be a playmaker.
But work isn’t done. Laurinaitis is a rental, not a long-term fixture. Ellerbe’s availability is in question on a weekly basis. The other linebackers aren’t enough by themselves to field an ascending corps.
Jarrad Davis w a VERY impressive drive on the alley. Not an easy lane to pick up; let alone intersect from backside. pic.twitter.com/lSev92PmqH— Kyle Crabbs (@NDTScouting) June 19, 2016
Enter Jarrad Davis. The Florida Gators were not expected to compete for much last year, but wound up clawing their way into the SEC Championship game. They did that largely by rallying around a defense loaded with talent including first round picks Vernon Hargreaves III (Tampa Bay) and Keanu Neal (Atlanta).
Davis was the breakout star of the unit. The junior linebacker and special teams captain started 12 of 14 games and finished second on the team in tackles (98), while totaling the third-most tackles for loss (11) and snagging six pass breakups (one of them an interception).
It took head coach Jim McElwain’s staff a few games to figure out how to best use Davis as a blitzer, but once let loose he was very productive; he recorded 18 quarterback pressures (3 of them sacks) in only seven games. The instinctive linebacker played like a man possessed in the same mold of Jaylon Smith and Myles Jack, making splash plays all over the field.
He’s a rising star in the SEC, suggested by some to be the new face of Florida Gators football, and should only continue to improve in his pursuit of All-American honors. Davis played last year at a rocked-out 6-foot-2, 240-pounds and ran a 4.5-second 40-yard dash at Florida’s pro day. If Davis can improve his ball skills and show he can consistently make an impact in pass coverage, he could very well end up as one of the top-rated players in the 2017 NFL draft.
Easy completions for quarterbacks attacking underneath coverage to tight ends and running backs have continued to plague the Saints’ defense, so going with the likely best player available who also fills a gaping need would be a smart move.
With an uncertain future ahead, the Saints couldn’t do much better than to add an intense, focused playmaker like Davis to study behind Laurinaitis and Ellerbe while complimenting Stephone Anthony’s athleticism and burgeoning football IQ. Think of Davis as the potential K.J. Wright to Anthony’s Bobby Wagner.
Round Two, 12th Pick (43rd Overall): OG Dorian Johnson, Pittsburgh
There’s an argument to be made that the Saints should be drafting guards early and often, but that doesn’t look like the right call in the upcoming draft class. Based off preseason watch lists and reports from experienced scouting agencies, there doesn’t seem to be any interior linemen worth considering with a first round pick in the 2017 NFL draft. That may change between now and next spring, but at this time investing a first round pick into an interior offensive lineman seems wasteful.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that there a number of prospects currently grading out as worthy of selections during Day Two of the draft in the second and third rounds. That depth of talent includes Pat Elflein (Ohio State), Ethan Pocic (Louisiana State), Jay Guillermo (Clemson), Danny Isidora (Miami), Dan Feeney (Indiana), and my personal favorite: Dorian Johnson (Pittsburgh).
Dorian Johnson is a 22-year-old senior who enters the 2016 season with 27 consecutive starts at left guard. Listed at 6-foot-5 and 315-pounds, Johnson looks pro-ready with long arms and a dense lower body that helps him move exceptionally well for an offensive lineman. The former five-star recruit is one of the leaders of Pittsburgh’s team, which head coach Pat Narduzzi elaborated on at a recent press conference:
“You know [Dorian Johnson]’s a super kid, a super, super kid. He’s a quiet guy. He’s not a guy that’s a vocal leader, but he’s a guy that leads by example. He won’t miss a practice. He doesn’t want to miss a thing. He’s a leader by example. Again, he’s got a lot of class. He’ll anchor that offensive line.”
That description of Johnson perfectly fits the template for what kind of player Sean Payton has been targeting to add to his locker room. Johnson is a responsible, reliable and mature lineman who could definitely steady the rockiness the Saints are experiencing at left guard.
It helps that Johnson is a great player. He’s got a nasty streak in the same vein as Kelechi Osemele (60th overall draft pick in 2012) and Josh Sitton (135th overall draft pick in 2008), but restraining that bullying style of play could be a struggle similar to what those top-tier guards experienced early in their careers.
Johnson’s specialty is using his great flexibility and quick feet to pick up pass rushers on stunts and take out defenders on the move. He could add a little muscle to get stronger for competing in the NFL, but Johnson looks as ready as any offensive lineman in college football to start from day one.
He played a few games at left tackle in his rookie season, and Johnson’s athletic upside (he ran a 5.09-second 40-yard dash at Pitt’s pro day this year) has some talent evaluators thinking he could thrive there as well. But so far as I’m concerned that’s just an afterthought that gives Johnson some added value. He’s a true guard and should be able to plug-and-play for whichever team drafts him – hopefully the New Orleans Saints.
Round Three, 11th Pick (74th Overall): RB Wayne Gallman, Clemson
The 2017 running back class looks to be flush with talent, ranging from SEC stars like Leonard Fournette and Nick Chubb to PAC-12 sensations like Christian McCaffrey and Royce Freeman. High-profile runners are drawing the attention of scouts nationwide, whether it’s Florida State’s legendary Dalvin Cook, Tennessee’s Jalen Hurd, Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine, or Oregon’s Royce Freeman.
But the draft-hopeful who fits what the Saints will be looking for best is quietly putting Dabo Sweeney’s Clemson Tigers on his back.
Wayne Gallman may not have the raw power of Fournette or the gamebreaking speed of McCaffrey or Cook, but he may be the best all-around tailback in college football. Only Fournette (1094) and Freeman (1067) had more yards gained after initial contact than Gallman (937). Last year’s sensational tailback, Derrick Henry, needed 90 more carries to match Gallman’s missed/broken tackle total (82).
Gallman spent the post-National Championship title run refining his body, showing up for spring practice at a rocked-out 6-foot-1 and 210-pounds with only 7-percent body fat. Despite being lighter than other, bigger-name tailbacks, the 21-year-old redshirt junior is known as one of the most-physical football players in the country. He is the best pass-protector charted by College Football Focus, having not allowed hands on quarterback Deshaun Watson in his last 181 snaps in protection.
I'd take Gallman on my NFL team any day. Can't teach this. pic.twitter.com/LkiHUMp07H— Trevor Sikkema (@TrevorSikkema) January 12, 2016
Gallman’s intelligence shows up in a number of areas, whether it’s setting up bad pursuit angles for defenders or executing his pass-block technique better than some offensive linemen. He has a very physical nature and seems to always be looking for someone to hit or run over, whether the ball is in his hands or a teammate’s. Those are all qualities valued by Saints head coach Sean Payton.
With Mark Ingram turning 27 this December and no sure-fire backs behind him, the Saints could well be looking to solidify the position with an ironman like Gallman. C.J. Spiller has looked better this preseason but it’s unknown if he can produce when games matter. Daniel Lasco has been very impressive on special teams and proven to be more pro-ready than anticipated on offense.
Marcus Murphy and Travaris Cadet are on the fringe of the roster. Even Ingram has the durability question hovering over him, having played in 13 or fewer games in all but one of his seasons as a pro. If Gallman goes pro next spring, odds are good that Sean Payton will want him in black and gold.
Round Four, 10th Pick (108th Overall): DT Lowell Lotulelei, Utah
The New Orleans Saints’ defensive line has made huge strides thanks to the additions of Sheldon Rankins, Nick Fairley, and David Onyemata, as well as the growth of Tyeler Davison. The team’s switch to a one-gapping, disruptive front has quickly paid dividends but improvements should still be made.
John Jenkins was drafted a few years ago to be a long-term fix at nose tackle, but he’s struggled to stay on the field and has been largely ineffective at holding up against the run or getting after quarterbacks. Unless he’s going to reinvent himself in 2016, I don’t see him getting re-signed next spring. Davison was recently named the new starter at nose tackle, so he’ll probably need a backup next year.
That’s where Lowell Lotulelei, the younger brother to Carolina Panthers standout Star Lotulelei, comes in. The bearded 6-foot-2, 310-pound defensive tackle isn’t as mean and talented as his older sibling, but you can see the family resemblance in his style of play. Lotulelei is a force against the run, consistently winning his blocks at the line and disrupting opposing offenses. He does a great job of occupying blockers and freeing up his teammates to make plays.
Lotulelei’s 2015 numbers aren’t world-beating by any measure (12 solo tackles, 14 assists, 5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 1 pass deflection, and 1 forced fumble) but that’s as good an indication as any that there’s more to playing defensive line than bagging big sack totals. Lotulelei’s lowkey demeanor and quiet statline betrays a monstrous defensive lineman patiently waiting to make his impact.
I believe Lotulelei is an NFL-ready run defender with some upside in the right scheme; he’s logged 9.5 tackles for loss and five sacks in two years as a starter while not being asked to be the guy getting upfield. The Saints could strike oil here by putting him in position to wreak havoc and disrupt plays himself more often.
Pairing Lotulelei with Davison at nose tackle could result in a great combination. Some analysts are picking Lotulelei to rise up draft boards this fall, and that’s certainly possible. But the NFL hasn’t put a premium on players like Lotulelei who are primarily run defenders and don’t create their own pressure, so if things break their way the Saints may fall into a bargain next spring. First, he needs to enter the draft; the 21-year-old is only a junior, and has another year of eligibility left for 2018.
Round Five, 9th Pick (148th Overall): Traded
Traded to Washington along with the New Orleans’ 2016 Round Five pick (152nd overall) in exchange for Washington’s 2016 Round Four pick (120th overall), which was used on defensive lineman David Onyemata.
Round Six, 8th Pick (183rd Overall): WR Josh Reynolds, Texas A&M
The New Orleans Saints receiving corps looks to be in much better shape now than it did a year ago, but that shouldn’t mean we can get complacent. There isn’t much to find confidence in after the top three receivers – Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead, and Michael Thomas – though a young undrafted guy in Tommylee Lewis is flashing. Other hopefuls like R.J. Harris and Brandon Coleman have had their moments.
What’s troubling is that while each of the three main receivers has their talents, the Saints still don’t have a dedicated deep threat. Cooks is one of the fastest wideouts in the game but rarely picks up yards after the catch, limiting his value as a vertical specialist. Snead is an underrated receiver when working underneath coverages on flat, slant, and curl routes. Thomas comes from Ohio State with a savvy understanding of running himself open with nuances to his routes.
Josh Reynolds thrived in that role as the “burner”, reeling in 103 catches over the last two years for a combined 1,749 yards and 18 scores (averaging 17.1 yards-per-catch). Per Pro Football Focus, Reynolds converted 11 of his 20 long targets in 2015 into completions to the tune of 450 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He consistently got separation downfield and showed off an ability to make catches with his hands rather than his body.
Josh Reynolds working on Cyrus Jones here. 6-4 and lean but super quick and can elevate. pic.twitter.com/yZPgGmY4GF— Justen Gammel (@gamscout) June 28, 2016
That’s not to say that Reynolds succeeds in spite of his physical tools. If anything he’s got untapped athletic potential. Reynolds is listed on Texas A&M’s roster at 6-foot-4 and 195-pounds, and reportedly ran a 4.46-second 40-yard dash in his senior year of high school.
Reynolds has the potential to go much higher in the draft than the sixth round, with some draft analysts comparing his possible rise in draft stock to former West Virginia wideout Kevin White (Chicago’s first round pick in 2015) and Josh Doctson (Washington’s 2016 first round pick). Neither White nor Doctson were projected first round picks until late in the draft process, and they didn’t break out until they were 22 and 23, respectively. Reynolds turns 22 this upcoming February and has already shown he can play at a high level.
Round Seven, 7th Pick (228th Overall): OG Danny Isidora, Miami
I’ll go on the record now and say that I’ll be stunned if Danny Isidora is a seventh round pick next year. Surprisingly, the longtime Miami Hurricanes right guard is flying under the radar among preseason scouting agencies despite having built a strong resume during his 26 consecutive starts en route to his senior year.
Isidora (listed at 6-foot-4, 325-pounds) has been the unquestioned leader of Miami’s line and its only real bright spot for almost two full years now. He’s earned praise from his position coaches for his consistency and leadership in practice this summer, and credits new head coach Mark Richt’s emphasis on sports nutrition and conditioning for helping him grow further as a player.
Miami Hurricanes offensive line coach Stacy Searels gushed about Isidora’s performance earlier this year:
“The most consistent lineman this spring has been Danny Isidora. I really like the way the whole group has grown as a unit. I think Danny’s sort of taken a leadership role. He has graded as the most consistent in all the scrimmages. He’s been the most consistent in practice, he’s the most consistent in drills, so I’m really pleased with the way Danny is working.”
There aren’t many technicians with more polish at this position than Isidora. He looks very comfortable coming out of his stance at right guard and clearly knows his role on every play. Isidora competes on every snap and rarely looks like he’s not in control of his battles.
That’s not to say Isidora is a perfect prospect. If that were the case his draft stock would be higher. A disastrous outing at right tackle last year against Clemson removed any possible value he could have in a future position-switch. He lacks top-end athleticism and doesn’t seem to have very long arms, which could leave him vulnerable against long, twitchy edge rushers in the NFL. But Isidora compensates with quick feet and great spatial awareness to work with the linemen around him.
I would like to see Isidora move better in space and have a more physical presence at the line of scrimmage. He doesn’t pick up a ton of pancake blocks or block guys out of the TV screen. However, he is consistently stout from one snap to the next, and could be part of the impetus needed to move Andrus Peat to right tackle full-time. For now he’s a sleeper to watch and see if he can rise throughout the predraft process.