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Defense still driving Saints mock drafts

Draft analysts still like the Saints to add defense despite an offense that’s stalling out in big moments.

WACO, TX:  Linebacker Malik Jefferson (46) of the Texas Longhorns lines up against the Baylor Bears offensive line in the second half at McLane Stadium.
WACO, TX: Linebacker Malik Jefferson (46) of the Texas Longhorns lines up against the Baylor Bears offensive line in the second half at McLane Stadium.
Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

We’re inching closer to NFL draft season in earnest with underclassmen declaring and Senior Bowl invitation acceptances being announced almost daily. So it’s no surprise that mocks of the 2018 NFL Draft are picking up. But the most important question is: who are the New Orleans Saints picking?

The first mock draft we’ll look at comes from Luke Easterling at USA Today’s, which projects the initial four rounds of next spring’s selections. Easterling has the Saints making a first round pick that should please many fans in Texas Longhorns linebacker Malik Jefferson:

The Saints have been much improved on defense this season, but they still desperately need more athleticism at the second level. Jefferson still needs plenty of polish, but he’s got rare range and explosiveness for his size, with limitless upside.

Coincidentally, Jefferson was also slotted to the Saints in a mock draft put together by SB Nation’s Dan Kadar:

The Saints could go into the offseason needing another linebacker even though they've brought in several players at the position. Jefferson is a player who can work on all three rounds thanks to his athleticism and football smarts.

Jefferson is an elite athlete. He made history a few years ago at The Opening’s SPARQ Testing, weighing in at 6-foot-2, 225-pounds, and running an electronically-timed 4.39-second 40-yard dash. The knock on the former five-star recruit comes for his heat-of-the-moment instincts on the field. His knowledge of the defense isn’t in question, but he has been known for taking bad angles and occasional false steps. Jefferson also turned 21-years old just last month, and could be a great talent for Saints linebackers coach Mike Nolan to develop.

The Saints don’t have a second round pick, but Easterling connects them with Florida State Seminoles defensive end Josh Sweat in the third round. Sweat has all the traits you look for though he hasn’t yet worked out pass-rushing with a plan. He’s not the patient technician that Derek Barnett was as a prospect. Easterling finishes out his mock draft with Maryland Terrapins wideout D.J. Moore; a shifty run-after-catch threat who runs the precise routes the Saints value. He would be a strong fit in New Orleans.

Elsewhere, ESPN’s draft analyst Todd McShay debuted his first mock of the 2018 NFL Draft. You need ESPN Insider to access the full piece, but here’s what he had to say about the Saints and Michigan Wolverines defensive tackle Maurice Hurst:

New Orleans could use more depth and versatility on an improving defensive line, and Hurst would be a good value at this point in the draft. The Saints could also go for [Baker] Mayfield here if he’s still available.

Maurice, who also goes by Mo, can do many of the things Nick Fairley offered the Saints until a heart condition sidelined him. Hurst is excellent at getting into the backfield and disrupting plays; he’s credited with 24.5 tackles-for-loss in his last 24 games, and ranks second among the nation’s defensive tackles in quarterback pressures per Pro Football Focus charting. It’s interesting that McShay lends his voice to the chorus connecting Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield to the Saints.

Let’s check one more: Chris Trapasso of CBS Sports swings for left field with a pick of Virginia Cavaliers safety Quin Blanding:

The Saints could be interested in another run-stuffing safety if they move on from former first-round pick Kenny Vaccaro. Blanding would be an awesome replacement, as his superior athleticism and quick play-recognition skills keep him around the football near the line.

Blanding is a big safety (listed at 6-foot-2, 210-pounds) who makes tons of plays. He’s very alert and rarely drops an interceptable ball when it comes his way, but he’s truly special defending the run. Blanding has picked up 12 or more tackles in 17 of his 48 career games. He’s a good football player, though I wonder if the Saints don’t already see Vonn Bell as an in-house replacement for Vaccaro.

So that was fun, we’ll check the pulse on Saints picks again next week maybe. Let’s get back to being excited for the Saints winning this year’s Super Bowl.