The New Orleans Saints were left for dead after opening the year with two losses, right in line with the script they’ve followed for three straight losing seasons.
But this year’s team wasn’t having it. A young core of talented players has fought hard, week after week, to show that they’re different. Now they’ve won four straight and own a lead on the division title.
So national analysts are taking attention and asking, “What’s different?” How can a perennial underachiever suddenly turn into a trendy playoff contender?
The answer to that question is third-year Saints college scouting director Jeff Ireland. Ireland also holds the assistant-general manager title and may be the team’s biggest front office add in a decade. Formerly general manager of the Miami Dolphins, Ireland’s tenure ended ignominiously with everything from airplane banners demanding his resignation to scandals surrounding how he interviewed draft prospects. The job was too overwhelming for Ireland, and he left it in 2014.
But now he’s back where he’s comfortable, evaluating college talent and designing the team’s offseason strategy, and the Saints are winning games because of his influence. The players Ireland has helped bring into the organization are making plays and changing the culture in New Orleans’ locker room.
Let’s start with 2015, Ireland’s first year on the staff. Hired during a whirlwind of interviews at that year’s Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, Ireland still had to work with the previous regime’s scouting staff - which had gotten only 8 of its 22 previous draft picks to stick on the Saints’ roster. Ireland also relied on input from Rob Ryan’s defensive coaching staff, including since-ousted names like Joe Vitt and Bill Johnson.
Nevertheless, Ireland’s influence rapidly took shape. The Saints moved some assets around including Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills to maneuver the draft board, eventually making nine selections; five of those came in the first 100 picks.
It generally takes three years to evaluate a pro player as they find their niche in the NFL and battle through inevitable injuries. Still, things change quickly and you have to accept a certain level of hindsight plays into these reviews.
With that in mind, it looks like Ireland’s 2015 draft class was a moderate success. It netted two full-time starters in offensive lineman Andrus Peat and nose tackle Tyeler Davison, as well as two reserve contributors in pass rusher Hau’oli Kikaha and defensive back P.J. Williams. Linebacker Davis Tull and defensive back Damian Swann suffered repeated injuries in their young careers and are no longer in the league, while others simply washed out and left the team. That includes linebacker Stephone Anthony, quarterback Garrett Grayson, and running back Marcus Murphy.
Those results - two starters, two reserves, two injuries, and three washouts - were typical of Saints draft classes before Ireland’s arrival. Considering the Saints worked that year with largely the same staff, it shouldn’t be very surprising.
Bigger changes came in 2016. Ireland was allowed to build his own scouting department, purging it of long-time scouts and adding new eyes. Dennis Allen rejoined the team and slowly began to push Ryan out of the room. The Saints moved towards that year’s draft with a more-focused philosophy than it had used in the previous year, stockpiling draft picks inside the first 100-or-so selections.
So while the Saints only added five prospects in the 2016 draft, three of them came in the top 100 picks. All three of those guys have crucial starting jobs: defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, wide receiver Michael Thomas, and defensive back Vonn Bell. David Onyemata, a talented member of the defensive tackle rotation, was picked just outside that at 120th overall. The team’s final pick in the last round, running back Daniel Lasco, plays often as a reserve and highlights the special teams unit.
Again, it’s early so these grades will probably change. But in Ireland’s second year on the job the Saints added three starters, a rotational piece, and a reserve. None of these guys have fallen off of the roster. Let’s also not forget two undrafted free agents have caught on as starters: cornerback Ken Crawley and kicker Wil Lutz.
That brings us to 2017. The Saints’ overhauling of defensive personnel has completed and we got to see how Ireland operates with a full slate of draft capital. He again stocked up on high draft picks with wide receiver Brandin Cooks’ move to the New England Patriots. A more-coherent vision of the defense emerged, and the players since added have won games for New Orleans.
First-round cornerback Marshon Lattimore looks like a future All-Pro, flashing the generational talent once seen in New York Jets great Darrelle Revis. He and offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk, defensive back Marcus Williams, and (before his injury) linebacker Alex Anzalone have all lined up as rookie starters. Running back Alvin Kamara and pass rusher Trey Hendrickson are playing frequently in the rotations at their positions. Late-round pick Al-Quadin Muhammad may have overtaken Kikaha as a reserve quarterback-hunter.
So while this isn’t permanent, the Saints seem to have exited the 2017 draft with three full-time starters, two guys in rotation, one season-ending injury (to another rookie starter), and one reserve. That’s a stellar turnaround however you look at it.
But, let’s review. Since joining the Saints, Ireland’s draft classes have produced:
- 8 regular starters (2 undrafted)
- 3 rotation members
- 4 reserve players
- 3 roster washouts
- 3 injured (1 former starter)
That’s just six guys who aren’t still contributing, and the book isn’t shut on whether Anzalone can return to form. But take things a step further and focus on Ireland’s picks in the first 100 (okay, 103) selections of the last two years when he had his own hand-picked scouting staff:
- 6 regular starters
- 2 rotation members
- 0 reserve players
- 0 roster washouts
- 1 injured (former starter)
Now that’s awesome. Nobody is relegated to a reserve role or getting pushed off the team. Just one guy is working through an injury. The Saints are getting serious production out of their draft picks and, again, it’s turned into wins. Lattimore has caught as many touchdowns as Atlanta Falcons superstar receiver Julio Jones (caveat: so has defensive lineman Cameron Jordan).
With a revamped scouting department led by a talented evaluator in Jeff Ireland, the Saints are primed for nothing but more success. Let the good times roll.