We all know that free agency comes before the draft, giving teams an opportunity to address roster needs. We know, too, that the New Orleans Saints are going to be aggressive in free agency thanks to the more than $30-million in 2017 salary cap space at their disposal.
That in mind, I’m working with this general assumption: the Saints will find secure starters at cornerback and offensive guard, contributors at defensive end and linebacker, plus reinforcements among the pass-catchers.
The Saints’ own key veterans like defensive tackle Nick Fairley, fullback John Kuhn, and receiver Willie Snead should all return. That still leaves plenty of room for rookie contributors.
Okay, let’s dig into version 3.0 of my 2017 Saints mock draft.
First Round, Eleventh Pick: Defensive End Takkarist McKinley, UCLA
Even if they find a pass rusher in free agency, the Saints should consider drafting another one. Free agents Kasim Edebali, Darryl Tapp, and Paul Kruger each disappointed in the hunt for quarterbacks, and third-year players Hau’oli Kikaha and Obum Gwacham are each coming off of injuries. The Saints have to revamp their personnel at the position opposite Cameron Jordan.
My top choice for this role remains Tennessee star Derek Barnett, but a name to watch if that falls through is UCLA’s Takkarist McKinley. The 21-year-old turned into a force off the edge in his senior year, seeing an increased snap count with career highs in every category. McKinley has similar physical dimensions to Khalil Mack (6-foot-2, 258-pounds) and has challenged himself to time in the 4.4’s in the 40-yard dash.
McKinley is still raw, showing some signs of difficulty in reading his keys and picking up on opponents’ vulnerabilities. He’ll need work at the next level to succeed. But he’s automatically the best athlete the Saints would have at defensive end in decades, and there’s a clear role for him in day one as the speed rusher they’ve missed since Junior Galette went crazy.
- Defensive End Derek Barnett, Tennessee
- Cornerback Quincy Wilson, Florida
Second Round, Tenth Pick: Tailback Alvin Kamara, Tennessee
At first glance, this looks like a luxury pick. The Saints fielded a strong rushing attack in 2016 with tailbacks Mark Ingram and Tim Hightower running for nearly 1,600 combined yards and 10 touchdowns. Fullback John Kuhn was a force in short-yardage situations, and third-down back Travaris Cadet was a fixture in no-huddle drives. However, Ingram is the only member of that group not headed for free agency in the spring.
There’s another area of concern: 2016 marked the first time in the Sean Payton era when a tailback failed to average 20-plus receiving yards per game (Ingram came close with 19.9, and Cadet was next at 18.7). If we expand that focus to 30-plus receiving yards, it’s just the second time Payton’s tailbacks failed to pass muster; Reggie Bush averaged 23.9 on the 2009 Super Bowl-winning team.
Alvin Kamara can cure what ails us. He is an underrated athlete in this draft class with great experience as a receiver out of the backfield, catching 76 passes in two years as a starter. He’s a natural receiver who makes it look easy, as evidenced by just four drops in his career. Kamara can take his share of carries, too; he ranked third on the team in both receptions and rushing attempts this past year. Pairing him with Ingram would be a home run.
- Cornerback Desmond King, Iowa
- Offensive Lineman Forrest Lamp, Western Kentucky
Third Round, Twelfth Pick: Defensive Back Cameron Sutton, Tennessee
I can see the Saints waiting to draft a cornerback given the depth of talent in this draft class, assuming they add an experienced starter through free agency. If the many injured guys like Delvin Breaux, P.J. Williams, Damian Swann, and Kyle Wilson return that seems even more likely.
One defensive back the Saints got a good look at during the Senior Bowl practices was Tennessee Vols alum Cameron Sutton. Sutton showed impressive versatility, executing a number of responsibilities from his usual boundary corner spot as well as the slot corner and safety. I like what he did on blitzes, which are a staple of Dennis Allen’s pressure packages.
Sutton is known as a playmaker with 13 career tackles for loss, 37 pass breakups (7 of those intercepted), and three forced fumbles. He’s also returned three punts for scores. Sutton would fit in really well with the locker room culture and zone-heavy defense the Saints have built.
- Offensive Lineman Taylor Moton, Western Michigan
- Linebacker Anthony Walker Jr, Northwestern
Fourth Round, Eleventh Pick: Quarterback Brad Kaaya, Miami
This is sure to be a contentious pick among fans. We all want to believe that Drew Brees can play forever, and I’m not one to bet against him. But sooner or later, the Saints will have to get a succession plan in place.
Enter Brad Kaaya. The three-year Miami Hurricanes starter is one of the youngest players in the draft, having turned 21-years old this past September. Kaaya has already thrown nearly 1,200 passes in a 38-game college career while improving his efficiency and cutting down on his rate of turnovers.
Kaaya is a good fit in the Saints’ offense because he comes from a pro-style offense with spread concepts like Sean Payton runs. The young quarterback throws with confidence and anticipation from the pocket with better awareness than he gets credited. If Brees does throw his final pass in 2017, Kaaya would be poised to take over the following year at just 23-years old with a full season of practice experience behind him. Teammates Andrus Peat, Terron Armstead, Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead, and Michael Thomas would each be 27-years old or younger.
- Defensive Tackle Jaleel Johnson, Iowa
- Defensive End Ejuan Price, Pittsburgh
Sixth Round, Twelfth Pick: Offensive Guard Danny Isidora, Miami
The Saints offensive line is in an odd state of things. When healthy and firing on all cylinders they were dominant in 2016, but questions abound for 2017. Where will Andrus Peat line up? When will Terron Armstead get healthy? What is Ronald Leary’s inevitable contract going to look like? How far away is Zach Strief from the cliff? Can Jahri Evans start another 16-game season?
University of Miami right guard Danny Isidora can help resolve some of those questions. The big lineman is a good run blocker and experienced pass protector. He plays with sound technique and and has a mean edge to him, though you’d like to see that aggression more consistently. Taking a drink for every defender Isidora bodies and buries on game tape is a dangerous game.
One area of his game that Isidora needs to work on is initially punching with his inside hand. This can get him off-balance and exposed to a counter-move, which savvy NFL pass-rushers will identify and exploit. Isidora should be able to clean that up with the help of pro coaching, and it may be caused by something as simple as being naturally left-handed.
- Tight End Jeremy Sprinkle, Arkansas
- Tailback Justin Davis, Southern California
Seventh Round, Eleventh Pick: Tight End Blake Jarwin, Oklahoma State
The Saints are entering 2017 with two of their top three tight ends returning from bad leg injuries. Josh Hill and Michael Hoomanawanui have both played at high levels before but we can’t assume they will both be full-go. John Phillips threw some effective blocks, but he’s purely a depth addition. Coby Fleener deserves another chance to play up to his contract.
Blake Jarwin was underused at Oklahoma State but he has an impressive set of skills. Jarwin threw critical blocks to help create big touchdowns throughout his career. He is a sure-handed receiver in his own right despite seeing a low volume of targets (41 catches in 28 games). Observers at Shrine Game practices didn’t credit Jarwin with any drops during the week, and he looked good running routes at the Senior Bowl as well.
Jarwin looks the part of an NFL tight end (6-foot-5, 248-pounds) and he should be suiting up on Sundays in the fall. At worst he can compete with Hoomanawanui for playing time while contributing on special teams. His untapped receiving ability suggests he can become much more.
- Linebacker Matt Milano, Boston College
- Defensive End Al-Quadin Muhammad, Miami