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Mock Draft 6.0: Saints (finally) invest big on defense

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The Saints have had an active first week in free agency, dealing out star players and making smart signings. Now we can start to look to the 2017 NFL Draft in earnest.

COLUMBUS, OH - Ohio State Buckeyes safety Malik Hooker (24) intercepts a pass against the Indiana Hoosiers at Ohio Stadium.
COLUMBUS, OH - Ohio State Buckeyes safety Malik Hooker (24) intercepts a pass against the Indiana Hoosiers at Ohio Stadium.
Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

The New Orleans Saints added a new first round pick and upgraded one of their mid-round picks in dealing Brandin Cooks to the New England Patriots, so that’s going to have obvious ramifications on my mock draft series. Word the Saints aren’t done making trades with the Patriots and a complicated process hopefully ending with star cover cornerback Malcolm Butler joining the team has already kicked off. So times are very much a-changing in New Orleans.

As with every other entry in this series, this mock draft is designed to introduce Saints fans to new prospects and new situations that may come up on draft day. If you get too attached to the idea of the Saints adding Reuben Foster or Derek Barnett, you’ll probably get caught blindsided. Head on a swivel, folks.

First Round, 11th Pick (11th Overall): DB Malik Hooker, Ohio State

COLUMBUS, OH - Ohio State Buckeyes safety Malik Hooker (24) returns an interception against the Indiana Hoosiers at Ohio Stadium.
COLUMBUS, OH - Ohio State Buckeyes safety Malik Hooker (24) returns an interception against the Indiana Hoosiers at Ohio Stadium.
Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Every year it seems like the Saints are in position to draft a prospect just outside the range of “elite” guys, and this year seems to be no different. But unexpected early-spring surgeries to Ohio State star defensive back Malik Hooker (6-foot-1, 206-pounds, 21-years old) may get things playing right into the Saints’ hands. NFL teams picking in the top 10 are notoriously wary of selecting a rookie who couldn’t suit up the day after they’re picked, so there’s a chance that Hooker can be available at the Saints’ pick. New Orleans’ defense has been at its best with one safety patrolling the flats and slot at the line of scrimmage (Kenny Vaccaro), another safety manning the tackle box (Vonn Bell), and a third hanging back deep centerfield (Rafael Bush, Malcolm Jenkins, and Jairus Byrd in an alternate timeline). Hooker brings the range and ball skills to elevate the Saints’ defense. He’s also put his big hands (10 1/2”-inch wide, half an inch wider than infamous “hand yoga” practitioner and teammate Michael Thomas) to good use with seven interceptions in 2016, returning three of them for touchdowns.

Previous picks:

  • DE Derek Barnett, Tennessee
  • CB Quincy Wilson, Florida
  • DE Takkarist McKinley, UCLA
  • DE Charles Harris, Missouri
  • CB Marshon Lattimore, Ohio State

First Round, 32nd Pick (32nd Overall): RB Christian McCaffrey, Stanford

BERKELEY, CA - Stanford Cardinal running back Christian McCaffrey (5) breaks a tackle along the sideline against the California Golden Bears defense at California Memorial Stadium.
BERKELEY, CA - Stanford Cardinal running back Christian McCaffrey (5) breaks a tackle along the sideline against the California Golden Bears defense at California Memorial Stadium.
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

An underrated area of need on the Saints’ roster is running back: while Mark Ingram is a more than capable starter, he can’t do it alone. He’s also not a hugely productive receiver - between Ingram and the Saints’ other top two backs, Tim Hightower and Travaris Cadet, just eight catches of 20 or more yards came out of the Saints’ backfield on 112 completions. 2016 was also the first year under Payton that no running back averaged 20+ yards receiving per game. Christian McCaffrey (5-foot-11, 202-pounds, 20-years old) is the best fit for the Saints at the position: he is a talented receiver out of the backfield, has experience moving into the slot and running routes, can throw a block, and might be the most efficient between-the-tackles runner in this draft class. Pairing him with Ingram would keep them both fresh and productive.

No previous picks.

Second Round, 10th Pick (42nd Overall): DE Trey Hendrickson, Florida Atlantic

BOCA RTON, FL - Florida Atlantic Owls pass rusher Trey Hendrickson (9) sacks Rice Owls quarterback Driphus Jackson (6) during the third quarter at FAU Stadium.
BOCA RTON, FL - Florida Atlantic Owls pass rusher Trey Hendrickson (9) sacks Rice Owls quarterback Driphus Jackson (6) during the third quarter at FAU Stadium.
Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images

The depth of this class of pass rushers can’t be understated. Whatever kind of quarterback hunter you prefer, there’s a couple of different varieties to be found in the draft. One great fit for the Saints is Trey Hendrickson (6-foot-4, 266-pounds, 22-years old) out of Florida Atlantic. Hendrickson didn’t win a starting role until early in his sophomore year, but in the 32 games since entering the starting lineup he’s posted 28 sacks, 39.5 tackles for loss, and seven forced fumbles. Hendrickson bursts off the snap like he’s shot out of a cannon. He’s exactly the kind of player the Saints should look to pair up with Cameron Jordan at defensive end.

Previous picks:

  • RB Curtis Samuel, Ohio State
  • CB Desmond King, Iowa
  • OL Forrest Lamp, Western Kentucky
  • RB Alvin Kamara, Tennessee
  • OLB Tyus Bowser, Houston

Third Round, 12th Pick (76th Overall): WR Chris Godwin, Penn State

PASADENA, CA - Penn State Nittany Lions wide receiver Chris Godwin (12) reacts after scoring a 72-yard touchdown against the USC Trojans during the 2017 Rose Bowl.
PASADENA, CA - Penn State Nittany Lions wide receiver Chris Godwin (12) reacts after scoring a 72-yard touchdown against the USC Trojans during the 2017 Rose Bowl.
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Trading Brandin Cooks opens up a void in the Saints offense that I’m not prepared to trust Brandon Coleman and Ted Ginn Jr with filling. Both of those guys are decent role players but I have trouble slotting either of them into the rotation as the third guy behind Michael Thomas and Willie Snead. That’s why I like Chris Godwin (6-foot-1, 209-pounds, 21-years old). Godwin is one of the best all-around receivers in the draft and has experience running routes from both the left and right flanks. He’s an excellent receiver on contested catches but can also be dominant on targets outside the numbers. Godwin has averaged 16.3-yards per catch the last two years in the starting lineup and projects to make an immediate impact in the NFL.

Previous picks:

  • OL Taylor Moton, Western Michigan
  • LB Anthony Walker Jr, Northwestern
  • CB Cameron Sutton, Tennessee
  • OL Pat Elflein, Ohio State
  • OL Dion Dawkins, Temple

Third Round, 39th Pick (103rd Overall): DE Derek Rivers, Youngstown State

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - Youngstown State defensive lineman Derek Rivers (41) runs through a timing drill during the NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium.
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - Youngstown State defensive lineman Derek Rivers (41) runs through a timing drill during the NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

There’s a popular stigma against NFL Draft prospects from smaller programs, but it’s largely undeserved. After Khalil Mack burst into the NFL out of Buffalo, I’m not up for questioning the merits of similar star defensive ends from the further reaches of college football. Derek Rivers (6-foot-4, 250-pounds, 23-years old) fits that bill. He’s a talented edge defender with all-world athleticism and impressive production, having dominated his level of play at Youngstown State. Rivers also stood out at the Senior Bowl practices in Mobile, regularly going toe-to-toe with some offensive linemen who will be highly drafted this year. Even with former Arizona Cardinals third-down rusher Alex Okafor and (in this scenario) Florida Atlantic rookie Trey Hendrickson at defensive end opposite Cam Jordan, Rivers could be a steal at this point in the draft. You can’t have enough pass rushers.

Previous picks when this was the 118th Overall selection:

  • DT Jaleel Johnson, Iowa
  • DE Ejuan Price, Pittsburgh
  • QB Brad Kaaya, Miami
  • CB Ahkello Witherspoon, Colorado
  • DT Tanzel Smart, Tulane

Sixth Round, 12th Pick (196th Overall): LB Jayon Brown, UCLA

UCLA has been a linebacker factory in recent years, putting out NFL talent like Minnesota Vikings stars Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, as well as Jacksonville Jaguars second-year playmaker Myles Jack. So it’s no surprise that Jayon Brown (6-foot-0, 231-pounds, 22-years old) was lost in the shuffle. But Brown seized his opportunity as a starter the last two years, averaging almost nine tackles per game and bagging three interceptions in his senior year. He also got a dozen pass breakups through those two years and cemented himself as a leader on the team. Brown is a similar player to Craig Robertson coming out, specializing in dropping into coverage and making efficient tackles on the perimeter. Brown will need to add more strength to make it as a pro, but his experience on special teams should at least get him onto the squad.

Previous picks:

  • TE Jeremy Sprinkle, Arkansas
  • RB Justin Davis, USC
  • OL Danny Isidora, Miami
  • LB Ukeme Eligwe, Georgia Southern
  • QB Alek Torgersen, Penn

Seventh Round, 11th Pick (229th Overall): DB Sojourn Shelton, Wisconsin

ARLINGTON, TX - Wisconsin Badgers defensive back Sojourn Shelton (8) takes the field with his defense against the Alabama Crimson Tide at AT&T Stadium.
ARLINGTON, TX - Wisconsin Badgers defensive back Sojourn Shelton (8) takes the field with his defense against the Alabama Crimson Tide at AT&T Stadium.
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

It’s not often that a late round defensive back excites you, but Sojourn Shelton (5-foot-9, 177-pounds, 22-years old) caught my eye. It’s easy to write off Shelton for his size, but he wouldn’t be the first player to turn it on in the NFL after failing not initially looking the part. The senior leader of Wisconsin’s secondary is a baller who consistently gets involved in the action, as seen by his nine career interceptions and 30 pass breakups - a mark that ranks fifth in Big Ten history. You would think Shelton’s small stature would result in injuries, but he’s rarely missed a start in his four-year career. His work ethic, competitive nature, and intense football I.Q. provide all the earmarks of a long NFL career.

Previous picks:

  • LB Matt Milano, Boston College
  • DE Al-Quadin Muhammad, Miami
  • TE Blake Jarwin, Oklahoma State
  • QB Chad Kelly, Ole Miss
  • TE George Kittle, Iowa