Round One: DE Derek Barnett, Tennessee
Derek Barnett is a popular prospect to connect to the Saints and happens to be someone that Miller and I agree on as a fit in New Orleans. The 6-foot-3, 265-pound Barnett is a consistent pass-rusher as well as run-defender and should be a high draft pick if his athletic testing and timing goes well. Barnett broke Reggie White’s record for career sacks at the University of Tennessee for a reason.
The Saints’ connection to Barnett – or any other highly-rated pass-rusher – is obvious: the current roster can’t get sacks. Even with promising building blocks on the interior in defensive tackles Sheldon Rankins and Nick Fairley, defensive end Cameron Jordan was largely working alone as the team produced just 30 sacks to rank 27th in the NFL. Adding a bookend pass-rusher to team up with Jordan would do wonders.
Barnett may be that guy, but we shouldn’t get locked onto him as the savior of the defense. This draft is flush with talented young pass-rushers like Stanford’s Solomon Thomas (who declared for early entry today) as well as seniors like Alabama’s Tim Williams, UCLA’s Takkarist McKinnley, Kansas State’s Jordan Willis, and many others.
Round Two: QB Brad Kaaya, Miami
The Saints will draft a quarterback sooner or later, and in this scenario Miller has them picking Miami’s Brad Kaaya. Kaaya combines youth with experience, having started 38 games in his career despite having turned 21-years old this past September. Kaaya already has nearly 1200 pass attempts under his belt, which he’s turned into 69 touchdowns but only 24 interceptions. His listed size of 6-foot-4, 210-pounds hits any physical benchmarks.
Kaaya generally makes good decisions with the football and throws with good anticipation. I like his ability to hit receivers on their outside shoulder, throwing them open and keeping defensive backs out of arms’ reach. I do think that Kaaya has a ways to go when reacting to pressure and working the pocket. Getting more reps at the college level would have helped him in that area.
So long as Drew Brees is around the Saints consider themselves to be in title contention, so the lion’s share of first-team reps in practice and all snaps in games will go to him. Brees isn’t eager to train his replacement after he himself replaced Doug Flutie in his youth. It’s possible that a young, driven passer could learn and grow on limited practice time but until Brees is out of the picture I don’t anticipate anyone thriving in that role – whether that’s Garrett Grayson, Brad Kaaya, or someone else.
Round Three: CB Chidobe Awuzie, Colorado
This is a strong defensive backs class and Chidobe Awuzie is one of my favorites. The lanky senior (Awuzie is listed at 6-foot-0, 195-pounds) was third on Colorado’s defense in tackles for loss with six, and has 25 such tackles in his career. Awuzie regularly contests catches and understands how to target the football in an opponents’ hands – he’s matched his number of tackles for loss in passes deflected (25), with three interceptions to boot. His six career forced fumbles are also noteworthy.
The Saints will need to draft a cornerback this offseason, and should probably consider adding several of them through free agency. They don’t have any known quantities at cornerback after injuries derailed the young careers of Delvin Breaux, P.J. Williams, and Damian Swann. The team can’t trot out guys off the street like Sterling Moore, B.W. Webb, and Ken Crawley next year and expect to win games.
So Awuzie makes a ton of sense at this point in the draft. He plays like a bull in a china shop and has experience lining up on the boundary as well as over the slot and moonlighting as a safety. He fits what the Saints like their defensive backs to do and is a disruptive player. I really like this pick.
Round Four: WR Amba Etta-Tawo, Syracuse
The Saints’ receiving corps is in great shape, but adding another option can’t hurt. Young stars Brandin Cooks and Michael Thomas each bagged 1100 yards this year, and third wheel Willie Snead flirted with 900 yards himself. But too often the game was put in Brandon Coleman’s hands, a guy who has struggled to put his game together.
Enter Amba Etta-Tawo. The slender receiver transferred to Syracuse after two forgetful years at Maryland, then went on to explode into a 94-catch, 1482-yard, 14-touchdown breakout senior year. Etta-Tawo has looked dynamic as a receiver on the outside, at times making deep receptions looks easy. He has the look of a sure-handed option who can continue to refine his game on a depth chart stocked with playmakers.
With Thomas entering the second year of his rookie contract, Cooks expected to have his fifth-year option picked up some time this spring and Snead’s status as an exclusive-rights free agent, the Saints could potentially field the league’s best wide receiver corps by adding an electric deep threat like Etta-Tawo. Upgrading Coleman’s roster spot would definitely be a luxury given the defensive issues, but it could pay big dividends. We’ll get a better look at Etta-Tawo’s skills live at the Senior Bowl.
Round Six: DL DeAngelo Brown, Louisville
Sheldon Rankins would probably love this pick. His college teammate rose up as the defensive leader in Rankins’ absence in 2016, manning the nose tackle spot to free up his linebackers while still leading the team in tackles for loss (14). Brown isn’t much bigger than Rankins (listed at 6-foot-1, 317-pounds) but his ability to anchor the defensive line is obvious.
The Saints will need to add a nose tackle in 2017. Tyeler Davison is the only guy they have who can reliably play that alignment and he spent most of last year battling through a labrum injury. They shifted Nick Fairley to the position at times to compensate but didn’t find much success. Getting another strong nose tackle who can ease the workload on Davison while being an asset in his own right could help take the Saints’ defensive line to the next level.
Brown is a mature young man who turns 23-years old next month. He’s active at the line of scrimmage and averaged 3.3 tackles per game the last two years – compare that to former Saints nose tackle John Jenkins, who barely hit 3.1 tackles per game at Georgia. That .2 difference doesn’t look big, but for nose tackles it’s a huge difference. The Saints could do much worse than selecting Brown this late in the draft.
Round Seven: C Jon Toth, Kentucky
The Saints probably don’t need a center to do more than spot starts thanks to Max Unger’s high level of play and consistent starts. Unger did have streaks of missed games in Seattle (he had only played in 19 of 32 possible regular season games in two years before being traded) but since joining the Saints he has had to sit out just once.
However, they could do worse with a backup than Jon Toth. The big lineman – Toth is listed at 6-foot-5, 310-pounds – has started 48 consecutive games for Kentucky and was listed Second Team All-SEC in 2016. Toth is known as a hard worker and leader on offense, and led Kentucky’s offensive line in blocks at the line of scrimmage on run plays (195) and knockdowns in pass protection (69).
It remains to be seen if Toth has the athleticism to excel in the NFL, but the popular consensus seems to be he will be in the league a long time. Toth is technically sound and has the right mentality to go toe-to-toe with NFL defensive lines, and could possibly play at guard. The 23-year old senior graduated this year with a degree in mechanical engineering and has been invited to the Reese’s Senior Bowl as well as the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine. This is a great pick in the seventh round.