The 2016 New Orleans Saints have finally been put away on the shelf along with forgettable turnouts from 2015, 2014, and years before that. Now it’s time for fans to look toward the offseason for reasons for optimism in 2017.
I’ll be dropping a seven-round mock draft every other Monday from here until the draft. This way I can account for the many changes that come in the offseason – takeaways from the Senior Bowl, NFL free agency, the NFL Scouting Combine, and more. The lead-up to the draft is an organic process with tons of variables, and I want to reflect that in this mock draft series.
A common criticism of mock drafts, justifiably, is that free agency happens first and usually throws them all out of whack. To counter that without digging too deeply into it, I’ll make a loose assumption that the Saints address the following positions through free agency signings:
- Starter-quality cornerback like A.J. Bouye or Dre Kirkpatrick
- Starter-material guard such as Kevin Zeitler or T.J. Lang
- Mid-tier option at defensive end like Jabaal Sheard or Melvin Ingram
- Mid-tier linebacker such as A.J. Klein or Zach Brown
- Pass-catcher for depth like Cordarrelle Patterson or Andre Ellington
- Returned 2016 contributors including DT Nick Fairley, WR Willie Snead IV, G Jahri Evans, and CB Sterling Moore
So here we go, let’s dig into mock draft version 1.0.
First Round, Eleventh Pick: DE Derek Barnett, Tennessee
Derek Barnett (6-foot-3, 265-pounds) has been a model of consistency during his collegiate career and is being heavily-courted by possible agents ahead of his early declaration for the 2017 NFL Draft. The 20-year old defensive end has broken Pro Football Hall of Famer Reggie White’s college record for sacks, picking up 33 in 40 games. Going into bowl season, Barnett was credited by Pro Football Focus with 77 wins (64 total pressures, 12 of those sacks) on passing-plays. Barnett has also bagged a ridiculous 54.5 tackles for loss.
As a disruptive force against the run and the pass, Barnett has shown off rare bend in his ankles to turn the corner and make a mess in opposing backfields. Barnett hasn’t developed a full repertoire of pass-rushing moves, but he has the work ethic to develop them. He’s already off to a fast start thanks to uncanny snap anticipation – something NFL all-star Von Miller recently discussed at length as a foundation of his own success at The Players’ Tribune. As an impactful pass rusher from day one, the captain of Tennessee’s defense would be a welcome addition to the Saints’ young defensive line.
Second Round, Tenth Pick: CB Desmond King, Iowa
Desmond King (5-foot-10, 203-pounds) is one of college football’s top-rated cornerbacks and is one of the reasons the 2017 draft class is seen as so deep at defensive back. In most years a player with King’s resume – 13 interceptions, 33 pass breakups, 258 tackles, graduating college a semester ahead of schedule – would be a sure-fire first round pick, but scouts are already nitpicking King and lowering his draft stock. King is a stocky corner who is built to hit and make plays, not cover punts and sprint an eyebrow-raising 40-yard dash.
King played in a number of different coverages at Iowa, but was at his best hanging back in his zone and keeping the play in front of him. The 22-year old has been one of the surest of tacklers in run defense and shows real passion cutting through traffic to shut down screens and runs to his side of the field. Even with Delvin Breaux and P.J. Williams returning healthy and a starter-quality veteran signed in free agency, the Saints need to take advantage of this deep cornerback class. Talents like King are hard to come by, but he could be available in the second round thanks to a lack of top-end speed and length.
Third Round, Twelfth Pick: G/T Taylor Moton, Western Michigan
Taylor Moton (6-foot-5, 328-pounds) is a large human being who enjoys moving other people around the football field. Having spent his career on the right side of the offensive line, Moton has started full seasons at both right guard and right tackle depending on where the team needed him. He is arguably a quality starter at either position thanks to his quick feet, remarkable functional strength, and experience in a dynamic offense.
Moton, who will be a 22-year old rookie, is likely the best player in his school’s history despite lining up in the trenches. He arrived on campus to see through a dismal 1-11 season as a 270-pound redshirt freshman, but now is playing in the Cotton Bowl and has recorded a 570-pound squat and 400-pound bench press in workouts. With the Saints’ offensive line still questioning itself (Where does Andrus Peat line up? Will Terron Armstead be healthy? Can Jahri Evans and Zach Strief each start 16 games again?), Moton is a perfect fit as a starting guard, tackle, or reserve.
Fourth Round, Eleventh Pick: NT Jaleel Johnson, Iowa
Jaleel Johnson (6-foot-3, 310-pounds) has made life hell for quarterbacks across the Midwest. The big man really put his game together as a senior, notching a career-best 7.5 sacks (12.5 career), 10.0 tackles for loss (18.5 career), and 55 tackles (112 career). Johnson spent his 2016 wrecking quarterbacks’ pockets, bullying their offensive linemen, and playing the part of the coveted “dancing bear” in Iowa’s locker room.
What’s impressive is that Johnson did this from the nose guard position. Usually that player is designated as a defensive blocker; he just has to occupy opposing linemen so that his teammates can run free and make plays. But Johnson is more than that, thanks to an aggressive mentality and some nice technique. Johnson isn’t an elite run defender yet, but he’s shown year-to-year growth as a starter that warrants attention.
Sixth Round, Twelfth Pick: TE Jeremy Sprinkle, Arkansas
Jeremy Sprinkle (6-foot-5, 256-pounds) has been in the headlines surrounding the 2017 Belk Bowl for all the wrong reasons. Sprinkle was suspended from playing in his final college game after being charged with shoplifting – not just shoplifting, but at a promo event at a Belk department store where attending players were given a complimentary $450 gift card. This foolish lapse in judgment is worth all the Internet trolling that it has garnered, but it could be an enticing opportunity for the Saints.
Sprinkle has been a three-down player for Arkansas, though criminally underused in their offense. Sprinkle has just 71 career catches in 39 career games, but his 11 scores and 13-yards-per-catch are interesting. Couple that with an aggressive mentality when blocking and you have a complete player. The Saints are going to see two of their top three tight ends return from extensive leg injuries in 2017, so adding Sprinkle as insurance in case either Josh Hill or Michael Hoomanawanui can’t go in the fall makes sense. The Saints haven’t shied away from players with nonviolent offenses before, but an incident like this could drop Sprinkle down to their sixth-round pick.
Seventh Round, Eleventh Pick: LB Matt Milano, Boston College
Matt Milano (6-foot-0, 221-pounds) may be the most-violent tackler in college football. Every time he hits someone he looks like he’s trying to break their ribs and bury them on the spot. In almost three years as a starter, Milano has posted some impressive numbers: 140 tackles (32.5 of them for loss!), 14 sacks, and five fumble recoveries. Milano is also a key special teams player for Boston College, having notched three blocked punts and regularly leading the team in special teams tackles on the punt and kickoff coverage units.
Milano flies around the field and is more likely to knife through a gap and lay someone out than patiently work through traffic, shedding blocks and taking on linemen. Milano wins with his intelligence and speed to the ball more than superhuman athleticism, but he could be a nice addition to the Saints’ linebacker corps if it continues to look unstable in 2017.