The New Orleans Saints have made no secret of their favorite fountain of college talent, selecting three standout starters - wide receiver Michael Thomas and defensive backs Vonn Bell and Marshon Lattimore - from the Ohio State Buckeyes in the last two years. The Saints’ personnel department, led by assistant general manager Jeff Ireland, will have their hands full covering tonight’s prime time Cotton Bowl between the Buckeyes and the USC Trojans.
Sure, some of it’s luck. Ohio State has seen seven players drafted in this year’s crop and twelve the year before that, so they’re a popular source around the league. That the Saints have prioritized these players highly is interesting:
- Thomas was picked in 2016’s second round, 47th-overall
- Bell was also selected in 2016’s second round, 61st-overall
- Lattimore was the 11th-overall draftee in 2017’s first round
Each of these players has worked out wonderfully in New Orleans, with Thomas and Lattimore earning Pro Bowl honors while Bell is an every-down starter. Saints management’s infatuation with Ohio State goes back further, including guys like defensive back Malcolm Jenkins (2009), running back Antonio Pittman (2007), defensive end Will Smith (2004), linebacker Cie Grant (2003), offensive tackle LeCharles Bently (2002), and even free agent signees like Ted Ginn Jr (2007 Miami Dolphins pick).
Anyway, what are the names to know for this year’s upcoming draft class?
When the Buckeyes have the ball, focus in on the center. Billy Price checks every box as a draft prospect: he set a new school record for consecutive starts (55), earned the Rimington Award for the nation’s best center, was named to the Associated Press All-American first team, and graduated back in May with his master’s degree in business administration. He plays both center and either guard spot well, consistently shows great play strength, keeps his feet clean, and surveys the field well to identify where pressure is coming from. Given Max Unger’s age and injury history, the Saints should absolutely consider Price with their first round pick if he’s available, especially if they fail to re-sign backup lineman Senio Kelemete.
But spending four eyes tracking a center manning his gaps and adjusting the line can get to be a chore, so other potential Saints fits include tight end Marcus Baugh and quarterback J.T. Barrett. Baugh has the prototypical size you look for out of a tight end at 6-foot-5 and 250-pounds, though he’s not as accomplished a wide receiver as you’d like. That said, he’s a more-experienced blocker than bigger names like Mark Andrews (Oklahoma Sooners) or Mike Gesicki (Penn State Nittany Lions), and could be a solid backup. Barrett has had a productive college career as Ohio State’s quarterback, but the consensus seems to be that he processes the game too slowly to start at the next level.
Things should really get interesting once the field flips and Ohio State has to defend Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold and his crew. The talk surrounds the Buckeyes’ talented defensive front, and rightly so, but first I want to highlight cornerback Denzel Ward. Like Lattimore before him, Ward is more slightly-built (listed at 5-foot-10, 191-pounds) but outraces the wind and easily interrupts receivers at the catch point. He offers some position versatility as a slot corner or even at safety, so the Saints likely have him on their radar. Lattimore has impressively developed into one of the Saints’ best open-field tacklers, but I think Ward is a more violent hitter now than Lattimore was at this time last year.
But up front is where the serious action is. Ohio State has at least three defensive ends who will be playing in the NFL next season, chiefly Sam Hubbard, Tyquan Lewis, and Jalyn Holmes. They’re each tall, long, and play with well-coached technique. The Saints will get a closer look at Holmes at next month’s Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, but I would be surprised if at least one of this trio doesn’t end up in New Orleans. For what it’s worth, Lewis is my favorite of the bunch thanks to his consistency - he’s posted at least six sacks in each of the last three years. Buckeyes defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones is also one to watch, though he plays fewer snaps in a heavier interior rotation than these guys on the edge.
I would be remiss to not mention the solid Ohio State linebacking corps, headlined by Jerome Baker and Chris Worley. Worley missed some games early in the season to injury but he’s otherwise the complete package at middle linebacker. Pro Football Focus charted him as missing just one tackle on the year while locking down his zones in pass coverage and chipping in plenty of pressures when the call was a blitz. Baker led the team in tackles but got exposed at times when running with tight ends or recognizing play-action passes as they developed. Worley and Baker will have their hands full defending Trojans star running back Ronald Jones.
So which of these prospects would you most like to see in black and gold? Is there someone else I didn’t mention you like more? Is this trend just bunk, with the Saints having added great players from Columbus purely by luck of the draw? What do you think?