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Ryan Berger’s New Orleans Saints Mock Draft 1.0

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A post combine/early free agency mock to get the blood pumping for the Saints.

NFL: Combine
The Saints continue their Buckeye pipeline and add some much needed speed
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re like me and you find yourself trying to sneak in Draft Breakdown cut-ups of guys you know for a fact you don’t even like whenever you have a free five minutes (or a free five hours), the draft is an exciting time for you. And there’s nothing that makes draft fans more giddy in the months leading up to the big show than when your team secures an additional first-round pick.

The acquisition of the pick has been highly scrutinized, and many are debating whether or not a first-round pick even matters if it’s that low (it does). In any case, nothing can be done about it now. The Saints have an opportunity to avoid the “abyss” on the horizon that is post-Drew Brees life while also giving New Orleans another shot at relevance. So without further delay, let’s get to the mock. I’ll provide some general thoughts down below.

Round 1: Pick 11 - Marshon Lattimore, CB, Ohio State

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Ohio State vs Clemson Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s a popular pick you’ll see a lot from now until draft day, so I won’t dwell on it too much here. Early in the process, there was absolutely no consensus in who the top cornerback in this draft was. There was a time when there were upwards of seven or eight different corners that were touted as the best at their position. Fast forward to after the combine and that picture has gotten much more clear, especially after the unfortunate injury to Sidney Jones.

Cornerback is by far the most stacked position in this class, similar to the absolutely bananas wide receiver class of 2014 that just gets better with age. As such, the value of these guys is going to be in flux. No team wants to be the first to start the run of corners, because there will inevitably be guys picked later for a much better value because of the sheer abundance of talented cover men.

The Saints don’t exactly have that luxury of waiting, and would be overjoyed to take the first CB off the board in Lattimore.

Lattimore is a one-year starter at Ohio State, but you would never guess it by how comfortable and smooth he looks. At 6-foot presence with a 4.36 40 time, Lattimore adds some much needed speed and athleticism to the defense while also grabbing a guy who isn’t too dependent on scheme. The Saints are content to have their secondary sit in zone for the majority of a game, partially because they didn’t have anybody available last year to consistently get jams off at the line of scrimmage. Lattimore can mimic receivers at the line and smother them at the top of routes, as evident by his 14 passes defended on 35 targets.

Lattimore is at his best when he can challenge receivers at the line, so putting him in a zone-happy Saints defense will be a challenge. Drafting a guy whose biggest strength doesn’t fit in the Saints scheme sounds like a losing move, but because of his A++ athleticism, he’ll be more than capable to break on the lion’s share of passes into his zone. Lattimore has Pro Bowler written all over him in his future, but he has as good a chance of anyone else in this draft to contribute as a rookie in a positive way.

It’s a massive disappointment to see Jones go down, because his fit and skill set would have been amazing for New Orleans, and his draft position seemed far more likely than Lattimore.

There is some debate as to whether the Saints will have an opportunity to even draft Lattimore, but because of the silly-good value of corners later in the draft and the inherent nature of rookie DBs (They are almost always bad) I think the Saints will luck out.

Round 1: Pick 32 - Obi Melifonwu, S, UCONN

NCAA Football: Connecticut at South Florida
In a defense in desperate need of athleticism, Melifonwu makes a compelling case
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

They say the combine is the ultimate job interview for NFL hopefuls. Obi Melifonwu made sure his resume would be held onto.

After a great Senior Bowl week, Obi went berserk at the combine, taking the top spot on the proverbial pedestal among safeties in the 40-yard dash (4.40), vertical jump (44 inches), and broad jump (141 inches). Great numbers, no doubt. And then you add in the fact that Melifonwu is 6-foot-4 and 224 pounds.

That doesn’t make a lick of sense.

Scouts reportedly asked Melifonwu how he would feel about playing cornerback, which is insane. Guys that big aren’t supposed to be that explosive or fluid athletes.

For a league that claims to be moving towards more size from players in the secondary, there appears to be sweet spot as far as the elite NFL talents in this league. 6-foot-4 would tower over pretty much all of the top shelf safeties in the league (Earl Thomas, Landon Collins, Harrison Smith, Tyrann Mathieu and Cam Chancellor to name a few). For all the Mike Mayocks in the world saying the NFL is getting bigger on the back end, the tiny guys who can be a heat-seeking missile reign supreme.

/soapbox

So why would I willingly mock Melifonwu to the Saints?

Even at 6’4”, Melifonwu is more Mathieu than Stanley Jean-Baptiste.

The combine numbers are insane, and while that doesn’t quite show up on tape, he’s still an athletic marvel to watch. He has no trouble opening up his hips or charging downhill to strike down ball carriers on his way to leading UCONN in tackles in 2016 (a safety leading the defense in tackles is the warning sign of a bad defense, but we’re looking at Obi in a vacuum, and the Huskies weren’t horrible because of him).

Melifonwu is much more comfortable and content to keep the offense in front of him and then come downhill to make a tackle if need be rather than display ball skills on deep balls. And that’s okay and will surely serve him well as a rookie as he learns the breaks of the game.

With Melifonwu, the Saints would have another guy who can play corner or safety to pair with Vonn Bell, as well as a guy who makes his money around the line of scrimmage like Kenny Vaccaro. And if there’s a criticism to the shorter guys who have excelled in this league, challenging tight ends is still a problem. At 6-foot-4 with CB skills, the Saints would have a clear guy to match up with bigger targets.

The Saints are reportedly one of three teams meeting with Melifonwu later this month, so interest is clearly there.

His athleticism and jaw-dropping workouts will get him overdrafted for sure, but Melifonwu is a guy you can take here and feel really good about it.

Round 2: Pick 42 - Curtis Samuel, RB/WR, Ohio State

NCAA Football: Michigan at Ohio State Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

The Buckeye to New Orleans pipeline is real. The Saints doubled dipped last year when they took Michael Thomas and traded up for Vonn Bell. I could absolutely see them going to that well again and again.

Sean Payton is a creature of habit. He’s going to pass a lot, he’s going to call a lot of screens, and he’s going to keep making Travaris Cadet happen (it’s not going to happen)

In comes Curtis Samuel.

If you search on a myriad of NFL draft sites and search for running backs, you likely won’t find Samuel there even though that’s what he played for Ohio State. Scouts are extremely skeptical about his ability to run through the trenches or carry even a light workload touting the rock. And that’s completely fair.

Cadet is a former college wide receiver that has been Frankenstein Monster’d into a pass-catching running back. The problem being that Cadet doesn’t possess nearly enough agility or skill to make this offense fire on all cylinders.

The fact of the matter is that the Saints offense has a ton of empty calories. They finished with the number one offense in the NFL, but no fan is going to really pound the table and say the offense was really that great. Though it manufactured yards at an astonishing rate, it was prone to spits and spurts and breaking down at the worst possible time.

This is because of a couple of reasons, but a massive part of it was because of the offense’s lack of ability to really keep defenses guessing or burn them out of the backfield.

The offense misses Darren Sproles probably more than any other player to depart in the past five years besides maybe Jabari Greer.

Samuel is a spark plug out of the backfield that led the Buckeyes to the college football playoffs. He had a great season on all accounts with 771 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground (on 97 carries, no less. Good for 8 yards per carry!) and added 74 catches for 865 yards and seven more scores to lead the Buckeyes with 15 total touchdowns. His production could have been even better when you account for how many times Barrett overthrew him or was not able to hit him in stride to maximize his burst.

Samuel does a phenomenal job making himself available in the passing game in a way that Cadet or even Mark Ingram just can’t. Either you have a great sense of the geometry of pass patterns or you don’t. Samuel absolutely does.

Having a guy like Samuel would completely change the offense, though he does come with concerns.

Samuel could be another Dri Archer type who wasn’t able to catch on because of his tweener abilities and less than ideal frame. And while he caught a ton of passes, he doesn’t exactly have “plus” hands, and thus his route tree will be limited (though I’d love to see him get together with Curtis Johnson)

Samuel is going to be a guy linked to A TON of teams before the draft because his skill set is so highly coveted, but I don’t think the actual bump to where he gets drafted will be all that much. The middle of the second round is appropriate for him. I think this high in the second round is a little rich for me, but I am a firm believer in getting your guy, and Samuel could be the missing link in returning the Saints to dominance.

Round 3: Pick 76 - Cordrea Tankersley, CB, Clemson

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Ohio State vs Clemson Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Three top 100 picks to improve the secondary?

Three top 100 picks to improve the dang secondary.

I’m of the mind that you can only really solve one positional crisis a year (that goes for every NFL team). And that’s only if you go all in and commit. This is a team that was forced to recruit and deploy Sterling Moore, Ken Crawley, and B.W. Webb like some kind of sick and twisted version of the Avengers. Some of that is absolutely due to injuries, but CBs Delvin Breaux and P.J. Williams are complete unknowns at this point. Breaux was outstanding in his first season, but then was constantly hobbled and ineffective when he came back, while Williams has but a single game under his belt in two NFL years to go along with a frightening head injury that knocked him out for the year in Week 2. The Saints should go into 2017 starting from ground zero in the secondary.

To play Devil’s advocate, even though the likes of Webb and Moore were leaned on heavily last year, they were still much better than what the Saints had at DE aside from Jordan. You could make the case that the Saints should use a similar strategy here, but focus on the D-line and linebackers. I wouldn’t complain, and I would be hard-pressed to come up with a reason why that’s a bad idea. You could go either way. Because the draft is so stacked with corners, I want a big slice of the pie and increase the chance of more hits.

Tankersley started in the secondary for back-to-back NCAA championship trips, one of them resulting in a title. He was a linchpin for the Tigers defense, and actually produced (8 interceptions in two years) unlike Mackensie Alexander who was drafted last year out of Clemson.

Because of the glutton of corners in the draft, there is bound to be some that will fall. Remember, nobody could agree who the top corner in this draft was about a month or two ago, and there seems to be no consensus on anyone. Tankersely is a guy that I think is being way overprojected, but in that same breath I think that makes him a nice target for the Saints.

When you watch Tanksersley play, he has a game that will struggle to translate to the NFL. He’s a Cover 2 corner that always wants to stay hip-to-hip with his man, but that can lead to problems. He was dinged for 8 pass interference calls over two years, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but the way he plays is going to get him in trouble early in often as he adjusts to the NFL game. Because of this, I think he will be red-flagged by teams and drop him down ever so slightly behind some of the other talented guys in this draft.

Tankersley is probably going to be vilified in his rookie year, but again, rookie DBs are often terrible. The Saints can afford to let a guy with obvious talent take his lumps.

Round 3: Pick 103 - Tanoh Kpassagnon, DE, Villanova

NCAA Football: Senior Bowl
Kpassagnon is a big man, man
Glenn Andrews-USA TODAY Sports

With four picks in the top 100 (5 in that range, as this pick comes in at 103rd overall) and then no picks for the 5th and 6th round, this pick is a challenge.

Through the first four picks of this mock, the Saints have neglected the DE spot, which is by far the biggest weakness on the team. It feels like a blur, but this team really sent out guys like Kasim Edebali, Darryl Tapp and Paul Kruger to get devoured by offensive tackles on a weekly basis. If they didn’t have Cam Jordan, they would be the worst positional group in the NFL hands down.

The Saints will likely not find a guy who will fix their pass rush this late in the draft. They can however, take a guy with upside almost as big as his 6-foot-7, 289-pound frame.

Tanoh Kpassagnon played at Villanova of all places, a program not known for their football prospects. He arrived there all the way back in 2012, where he was able to stay as a reserve and then play and stay for four years to get his degree (scouts rave about his commitment to education and learning) and eventually make enough noise to draw the eye of scouts.

Kpassagnon didn’t have some ridiculous stat-line on the year like we’ve seen from some smaller school players in the past (Saints fans will remember the gaudy numbers Davis Tull racked up at Tennessee-Chattanooga) though he had a very nice 11.0 sacks (good for 5th in the nation) and 21.5 tackles for a loss.

Here’s the thing about Kpassagnon: He is so incredibly raw. At 6-foot-7, he is a giant even by DE standards. Just watching him play makes you wonder what would happen if he put it all together. He doesn’t have many secondary rush moves to speak of and will get taken for a ride past QBs by most technically sound tackles. He gets by on his size and physique exclusively.

And that wouldn’t be the worst thing ever to add to this Saints defense, whose DEs last year lacked any and all desirable traits.

With Jordan, Sheldon Rankins and Nick Fairley solidifying most of the line, adding Kpassagnon sounds like an interesting prospect. If Rankins is the player we think he is, he’ll cause tons of havoc on the interior. And Jordan, while a great player, can be known to come just shy of actually making the play. Adding Kpassagnon with his size should result in even a small amount of cleanup sacks that would dwarf the production of guys who came beforehand.

Kpassagnon isn’t the answer at DE, and might be too similar to David Onyemata, whose place in the defense is a bit of a head scratcher. I’m intrigued by the idea of lining Hau’oli Kikaha up outside of Kpassagnon and running stunts with the two to absolutely torture OTs should Tanoh ever figure it out and put his game together. When you watch his game, you come away slightly disappointed. Picture his place on this defense, and it’s really easy to talk yourself into Kpassagnon.

Round 6: Pick 196 - Amba Etta-Tawo, WR, Syracuse

NCAA Football: Senior Bowl-North Practice
Etta-Tawo battles with another player in this mock, Obi Melifonwu
Glenn Andrews-USA TODAY Sports

To recap, the Saints to this point would be coming away with:

2 CBs, 1 safety, 1 RB, 1 DE

That’s a decent way of addressing needs while also going BPA in most situations. Now, onto the fun stuff.

After not drafting for two whole rounds, the Saints will need to go BPA pretty much the rest of the way.

Allow me to introduce you to one of the draft’s best kept secrets: Wide receiver Amba Etta-Tawo.

Etta-Tawo is a Maryland transfer who didn’t move the needle much as a Terp. His senior year, he transferred to Syracuse to play under the fast-paced offense of Dino Babers. And man, did he flourish.

Watch him dominate the UCONN defense for a school record 270 yards and two TDs against UCONN (And potential teammate, Obi Melifonwu).

That wasn’t even his best game, as he scored 5 touchdowns vs. Pitt (in a loss, amazingly) scoring from all over.

His game is kind of raw, but he’s shown the ability to track the ball extremely well, get vertical easily, show off some impressive RAC skills by shedding a ton of tackles and even go up and catch the Hail Mary ball.

Etta-Tawo also took home First-Team All-ACC honors to pair with Mike Williams. His production is inflated by Syracuse’s offense and only one year of it is enough to make scouts weary. Add in the fact that his hands are somewhat suspect and his senior bowl practices was reportedly a disaster, and you have a guy not many would blame you for passing over.

Drafting another receiving option probably doesn’t help the team too much this year, but as a Brandon Coleman doubter and a Ted Ginn Jr. skeptic, I think he would be a fantastic guy to groom down the line.

Sidebar: I owe Saints fans who pound the table for LSU players every year an apology. As a long suffering fan of Syracuse football, I don’t especially know what it’s like to have good football prospects. Allow me to offer some small token.

Round 7: Pick 229 - Tashawn Bower, DE, LSU

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Louisiana State
No really, an LSU player
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Hey! An LSU Tiger!

Honestly, once we get down this low the odds of hitting in a mock draft are slim to none. I’d like for the Saints to roll the dice on another edge rusher and create some more competition.

With Bower, you have a guy you’ve had a close eye on for the past four years. He’s never quite grabbed attention away from the carousel of prospects LSU puts out every year, but he’s an intriguing athlete who moves surprisingly well if you put him in space.

Final Thoughts

The Saints are left caught in between trying to win with Brees and trying to prepare for life without him. They want to have their cake and eat it too. With this draft, I made the executive decision to try and avoid the cliff fast-approaching.

The fact of the matter is, the Saints have no shot of winning it all this year. None. New England is a superpower and just added Brandin Cooks (the means to which they did are irrelevant to this point). It’s the reason NBA teams aren’t making blockbuster trades when no one can catch the Warriors or Cavs.

Drafting three DBs won’t make this year any less rough, but down the line, it’s possible that the Saints have a good enough roster to bring in a QB at some point and have them succeed. With the extra picks, it’s a chance to plant the seed for life after Drew Brees.