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Saints re-open Ohio State Buckeyes pipeline in 7 round mock draft 4.0

The Saints found success in rookie receiver Michael Thomas and safety Vonn Bell, both out of Ohio State. Sean Payton’s staff goes back to that pool of talent in the latest seven round mock draft.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Notre Dame vs Ohio State
Ohio State Buckeyes wide receiver Michael Thomas (3) celebrates with offensive lineman Pat Elflein (65) after scoring a touchdown in the first quarter against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the 2016 Fiesta Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

As I’ve said throughout this series of New Orleans Saints seven round mock drafts, I’m assuming the Saints will be active players in free agency and address the following roster needs:

  • starter-quality cornerback like Logan Ryan (New England Patriots)
  • starter-material guard such as Ronald Leary (Dallas Cowboys)
  • mid-tier option at defensive end like Nick Perry (Green Bay Packers)
  • mid-tier linebacker such as Kevin Minter (Arizona Cardinals)
  • depth pass-catcher like Andre Ellington (Arizona Cardinals)
  • returned 2016 contributors including defensive tackle Nick Fairley, wide receiver Willie Snead IV, guard Jahri Evans, and cornerback Sterling Moore

My main motivation in these biweekly mock drafts is to draw attention to NFL draft prospects for Saints fans who may not otherwise know about them. There’s so many variables at play that it’s impossible to accurately predict what’s going to happen. So don’t take this too seriously.

Alright, let’s dig into the latest edition of my 2017 Saints mock draft.

NCAA Football: Georgia at Missouri
Georgia Bulldogs quarterback Jacob Eason (10) is sacked by Missouri Tigers defensive end Charles Harris (91) in the first half at Faurot Field.
John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

First Round, Eleventh Pick: Defensive End Charles Harris, Missouri. The biggest name at edge rusher that fans are hoping for is Tennessee Vols sack artist Derek Barnett, but Charles Harris is a sleeper to watch out for. His career began as Missouri’s third pass rusher behind Marcus Golden (led the Arizona Cardinals with 12.5 sacks in 2016) and Shane Ray (8 sacks, second on the Denver Broncos to Von Miller’s 13.5).

The 6-foot-3, 255-pounder plays like a souped-up version of Saints favorite Hau’oli Kikaha thanks to his array of pass-rush moves, including a signature spin counter after making initial contact. Harris needs to practice more patience in setting up those moves over the course of a game - too often he jumps right into a spin or swim move without luring the opposing blocker into a trap. The fact that he has those moves is great, he just has to learn when to best employ them.

This may be the highest I’ve seen him mocked, but evaluators I respect prefer Harris to more-heralded pass rushers like Barnett, Takkarist McKinley, and Solomon Thomas. Harris should rise quickly after the NFL Combine.

Previous picks:

  • DE Takkarist McKinley, UCLA
  • CB Quincy Wilson, Florida
  • DE Derek Barnett, Tennessee
Ohio State v Maryland
Running back Curtis Samuel #4 of the Ohio State Buckeyes scores a touchdown against the Maryland Terrapins in the first quarter at Capital One Field at Maryland Stadium.
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Second Round, Tenth Pick: Tailback Curtis Samuel, Ohio State. The more I look at the group of pass-catching tailbacks and tight ends in this draft class, the more I see Sean Payton treating himself to one of them in the second round. Whether it’s Ole Miss tight end Evan Engram, Tennessee tailback Alvin Kamara, or by luck Stanford Heisman Trophy-contender Christian McCaffrey, I’m increasingly certain that Payton will seize this moment to upgrade the Saints offense to absurd levels of productivity.

Don’t be shocked if Payton looks to Ohio State again for offensive help; Curtis Samuel is being overlooked in this class thanks to rare depth at tailback, but he shouldn’t be. Samuel is equally-effective as a runner or pass-catcher, averaging 7.9 yards per carry on nearly 100 rushes and 11.7 yards per catch on 74 receptions. He would slot into the Saints offense perfectly in Darren Sproles’ role, which has stood vacant too long.

Previous picks:

  • RB Alvin Kamara, Tennessee
  • OL Forrest Lamp, Western Kentucky
  • CB Desmond King, Iowa
NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Ohio State vs Clemson
Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett (16) runs with the ball with center Pat Elflein (65) leading the way against the Clemson Tigers at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Third Round, Twelfth Pick: Offensive Lineman Pat Elflein, Ohio State. The Saints had great luck with a pair of Ohio State Buckeyes in 2016, and I want that pipeline of talent to keep running. Pat Elflein has been lost in the shuffle in this draft class so far, overshadowed by tackle-to-guard converts like Forrest Lamp and Taylor Moton, but his is a name worth knowing. Elflein has anchored an offensive line that constantly saw moving parts as guys like Taylor Decker (Detroit Lions) and Jack Mewhort (Indianapolis Colts) left for the NFL.

Elflein played right guard for most of his 40 career starts, though he moved to center during his senior year and was named a team captain. He’s a day one asset at guard who can take over center in a few years when Max Unger moves on. Also, Elflein is spending the months leading up to the draft training with former Buckeyes and Saints lineman LeCharles Bentley at his L. Bentley O-Line Academy in Avon, Ohio.

Previous picks:

  • CB Cameron Sutton, Tennessee
  • LB Anthony Walker Jr, Northwestern
  • OL Taylor Moton, Western Michigan
NCAA Football: Colorado at Southern California
Colorado Buffaloes defensive back Ahkello Witherspoon (23) breaks up a pass intended for USC Trojans wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (9) at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Fourth Round, Eleventh Pick: Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, Colorado. If you value cornerbacks with great length, Ahkello Witherspoon is your guy. He’s listed at a solid 6-foot-2, 195-pounds and may have competed for every target into his coverage throughout college, garnering an outlandish 20 pass breakups as a senior. Just one of those was an interception, but I subscribe to Bill Belichick’s philosophy:

“... it’s important for a cornerback to get his hands on the ball, and some guys can be real close in coverage and not get their hands on the ball much, (while) other players seem to have their hands on the ball a lot. So whether that’s instincts, or anticipation, or knowing how to play, or whatever you want to call it, there’s definitely something to be said for that.”

The point Belichick is making is that the difference between an interception and a mere pass deflection is often negligible. It could be as simple as a guy not fully angling one of his hands towards the ball. What’s important is that the player is in position to make a play on the ball and disrupt the pass. Witherspoon has done that very well.

Previous picks:

  • QB Brad Kaaya, Miami
  • DE Ejuan Price, Pittsburgh
  • DT Jaleel Johnson, Iowa
NCAA Football: Georgia Southern at Mississippi
Ole Miss Rebels quarterback Chad Kelly (10) is hurried by Georgia Southern Eagles linebacker Ukeme Eligwe (7) during the first half at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Sixth Round, Twelfth Pick: Linebacker Ukeme Eligwe, Georgia Southern. I was sitting in on Senior Bowl practice, listening to Gregg Williams bark questionable advice to a group of linebackers, when one of the prospects in front of me caught my eye. Maybe it was the fact he was wearing Rickey Jackson’s number. Maybe it was the fact he was moving with quicker reflexes, higher energy, and more violence than the guys around him. I didn’t know, but I penciled #57 down in my notebook and made a point to come back to him.

Turns out Ukeme Eligwe is a 6-foot-2, 240-pound instinctive wrecking ball who transferred to Georgia Southern from Florida State after failing drug tests early in his career. Now he’s a coach’s favorite who has stayed clean and made a quick impression at the Senior Bowl as a hard worker. Eligwe has the potential to contribute right away at inside linebacker while chipping in on special teams.

Previous picks:

  • OL Danny Isidora, Miami
  • RB Justin Davis, USC
  • TE Jeremy Sprinkle, Arkansas
Mississippi v Alabama
Chad Kelly #10 of the Mississippi Rebels passes against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Seventh Round, Eleventh Pick: QB Chad Kelly, Ole Miss. Chad Kelly’s off-field antics speak for themselves. Will he make mistake? Probably. Will he drive Saints head coach Sean Payton mad with untimely turnovers? Most likely. Has anyone else come close to matching the inimitable Rex Grossman for combined Herculean arm strength with a callous disregard for ball placement? Absolutely not.

Here are the facts: Kelly has rare arm talent in this draft. Only Pat Mahomes out of Texas Tech has more visible throwing velocity. Kelly has displayed poor judgment and a toxic personality. Only he and Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson have put 300+ yards passing on the Alabama Crimson Tide defense in multiple recent outings. The Saints have also sent scouts to watch Kelly play live in at least three 2016 games. Kelly was very involved in Senior Bowl practices and meetings despite not being cleared to throw.

So the Saints’ interest is as obvious as the perils of giving Kelly a bunch of cash just miles away from Bourbon Street. Given his history of off-field incidents and injuries, Kelly will be lucky to be drafted. But picking him here is the safest possible investment the Saints can make, and he could be cut loose without any real repercussions should he come back to bite them. Maybe the influence of a noted good-guy like Drew Brees and a strong locker room culture could help Kelly get on the right path.

Previous picks:

  • TE Blake Jarwin, Oklahoma State
  • DE Al-Quadin Muhammad, Miami
  • LB Matt Milano, Boston College