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Saints mock draft 8.0: defense, defense, defense, offense, defense again

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PHILADELPHIA, PA - Temple owls linebacker Haason Reddick (7) forces a fumble out of Southern Methodist Mustangs quarterback Ben Hicks (8) at Lincoln Financial Field.
PHILADELPHIA, PA - Temple owls linebacker Haason Reddick (7) forces a fumble out of Southern Methodist Mustangs quarterback Ben Hicks (8) at Lincoln Financial Field.
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

As always, the point of my mock drafts is to introduce fans to new draft prospects and shed some light on why they’re being regarded so highly by the draft community. I’m not trying to guess who the New Orleans Saints will pick next weekend - not even head coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis can do that - so much as help get fans even more excited for and informed about the upcoming 2017 NFL Draft.

So, don’t take this too seriously. Let’s enjoy the ride before it’s over.

First Round, 11th Pick (11th Overall): LB Haason Reddick, Temple

PHILADELPHIA, PA - Temple Owls linebacker Haason Reddick (7) disrupts a pass thrown by Cincinnati Bearcats quarterback Gunner Kiel (11) at Lincoln Financial Field.
PHILADELPHIA, PA - Temple Owls linebacker Haason Reddick (7) disrupts a pass thrown by Cincinnati Bearcats quarterback Gunner Kiel (11) at Lincoln Financial Field.
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Saints fans have been pounding the table for months and chanting a singular phrase: draft good players. The top prospects possibly available at the Saints’ first pick look to be safety Malik Hooker and linebacker Reuben Foster, but in their absence the team couldn’t go wrong with Temple Owls linebacker Haason Reddick.

Reddick is a weapon on the defensive side of the ball. He’s got comparable size (6-foot-1, 237-pounds, 32 3/4-inch arms) to Denver Broncos all-star Von Miller (6-foot-3, 246-pounds, 33 1/2-inch arms). Obviously Miller is a better athlete and player, which is why he went second-overall in the 2011 draft. The point is that Reddick has been cut largely from the same cloth.

Originally walking on to the roster as a defensive back, Reddick found his groove as an outside linebacker. He still shows off his roots with a smooth backpedal and confident recognition skills in zone coverage, but Reddick is at his best battling with offensive tackles. He was wildly disruptive the last few years for Temple, posting a solid 18 sacks and staggering 47 tackles for loss.

Something you’ll pick up on with Reddick is his habit of finishing pass rushes. Despite seeing fewer opportunities at getting after the quarterback than other top-end sack artists in this class, Reddick converted more of his pressures into sacks (23.8-percent) than almost anyone else. Jordan Willis (18.8-percent), Ryan Anderson (18.3-percent), Derek Barnett (16.7-percent), Charles Harris (16.1-percent), and Carl Lawson (13.4-percent) couldn’t come close to finishing their pass rushes as often as Reddick.

The Saints would see a massive change in disruption in the front seven with Reddick in the fold. He would easily be the best athlete in the linebacker corps while possessing a quick first step that none of the other ends can match. Dennis Allen became the Broncos’ defensive coordinator and immediately put Miller to work as a rookie, finding success (67 tackles, 13 sacks, three forced fumbles in 17 games) that Reddick could hope to match.

Previous picks:

  • DE Derek Barnett, Tennessee
  • CB Quincy Wilson, Florida
  • DE Takkarist McKinley, UCLA
  • DE Charles Harris, Missouri
  • CB Marshon Lattimore, Ohio State
  • FS Malik Hooker, Ohio State
  • RB Leonard Fournette, LSU

First Round, 32nd Pick (32nd Overall): CB Chidobe Awuzie, Colorado

BOULDER, CO - Colorado Buffaloes cornerback Chidobe Awuzie (4) lowers the boom against Central Arkansas Bears wide receiver Justin Burdette (82) to break up a pass target.
BOULDER, CO - Colorado Buffaloes cornerback Chidobe Awuzie (4) lowers the boom against Central Arkansas Bears wide receiver Justin Burdette (82) to break up a pass target.
Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The Saints need cornerbacks. The only guys I’ve got any confidence in right now are Sterling Moore (granted, as the third or fourth guy on the depth chart) and Delvin Breaux (cautiously given his shaky return from a broken leg). Even if P.J. Williams returns to full health after losing 2015 to a hamstring injury and 2016 to a scary concussion, the Saints should add at least one cornerback. This pick may end up being traded to the New England Patriots for All-Pro corner Malcolm Butler, but the Saints should still explore all options.

Chidobe Awuzie is my guy here. He’s a perfect fit for the Saints’ preferences in coverage, having run in zone as well as press-man for Colorado. Awuzie is a big corner (6-foot-0, 202-pounds with 30 5/8-inch arms) with playmaking ability. He is one of just a few cornerbacks with extensive experience in defending the slot, and can also line up at safety in a pinch.

Awuzie was often deployed on blitzes and trusted to hold up in run defense, where he racked up nine sacks and an awesome 25 tackles for loss of yards. Few defensive backs fly around as quickly (he ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash) or as physically as Awuzie, as seen in his six forced fumbles, three interceptions, and 25 pass breakups.

Adding Awuzie here upgrades the play speed and football smarts of the entire Saints secondary. If the Saints find a way to pick up Butler, it’s fun to imagine a defense featuring Awuzie, Butler, Breaux, and Williams matching up with opposing wide receivers. Not to mention what could happen if they get Haason Reddick bursting off the edge.

Previous picks:

  • RB Christian McCaffrey, Stanford
  • CB Tre’Davious White, LSU

Second Round, 10th Pick (42nd Overall): LB Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State

COLUMBUS, OH - Ohio State Buckeyes linebacker Raekwon McMillan pressures Michigan Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner (98) at Ohio Stadium.
COLUMBUS, OH - Ohio State Buckeyes linebacker Raekwon McMillan pressures Michigan Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner (98) at Ohio Stadium.
Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Two linebackers in the first three picks? It’s more likely than you’d think. I had the Saints taking Haason Reddick earlier, but he fills a different role than Raekwon McMillan. Reddick is more of an outside linebacker who can get after the quarterback and drop into coverage on the perimeter. McMillan is very much a middle linebacker who can captain the defense and comfortably make plays in the tackle box.

Besides being the token Ohio State Buckeyes selection, McMillan is a well-rounded athlete (6-foot-2-inches, 240-pounds, 33-inch arms) with the athleticism (4.61-second 40-yard dash) and experience (39 college starts) to step into a starting role right away. The Saints signed A.J. Klein and Manti Te’o to play middle linebacker earlier this spring, but I could absolutely see McMillan winning that starting job and moving Klein to strongside linebacker, where he looked more comfortable for the Carolina Panthers. Te’o would be an okay backup for McMillan (or Klein), but he can be released without salary cap penalty thanks to just $600,000 in guarantees.

Anyway, back to McMillan. He showed quick play recognition and patient eyes when defending the run during his career at Ohio State, but he has some work to do in pass coverage. The patience McMillan shows on run plays seems to recede when backpedaling, causing him to lose track of receivers in his zone. That may be something new linebackers coach Mike Nolan can work on, but it caused Ohio State’s staff to pull McMillan off the field on a lot of third downs.

Either way, McMillan is a fast, smart, reliable presence at middle linebacker that the Saints desperately need. He would be a solid pickup here.

Previous picks:

  • RB Curtis Samuel, Ohio State
  • CB Desmond King, Iowa
  • OL Forrest Lamp, Western Kentucky
  • RB Alvin Kamara, Tennessee
  • OLB Tyus Bowser, Houston
  • DE Trey Hendrickson, Florida Atlantic
  • LB Duke Riley, LSU

Third Round, 12th Pick (76th Overall): RB Kareem Hunt, Toledo

PROVO, UT - Toledo Rockets running back Kareem Hunt (3) weaves through the Brigham Young Cougars defensive secondary at Lavell Edwards Stadium.
PROVO, UT - Toledo Rockets running back Kareem Hunt (3) weaves through the Brigham Young Cougars defensive secondary at Lavell Edwards Stadium.
Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

The Saints don’t have anybody who scares opposing linebackers. In the past, players like Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles were legit threats to leak into the flat, reel in a reception, and follow their blockers into the open field. These talents have been replaced with the likes of Travaris Cadet and Tim Hightower, who are nice guys but aren’t giving pause to the likes of Thomas Davis and Kwon Alexander.

Enter Kareem Hunt. The Toledo Rockets tailback won’t wow you with his frame (5-foot-10, 216-pounds, 31 3/8-inch arms) or breakaway speed (4.62-second 40-yard dash), but he’s a dynamic football player. Hunt is one of the shiftiest ball-carriers in this draft class, recording missed tackles on more of his touches (32.5-percent) than Joe Mixon (25.4-percent), Christian McCaffrey (22.4-percent), and Curtis Samuel (16.4-percent). He runs with impressive balance and vision that bodes well for his NFL future.

Hunt has also fumbled just once (as a freshman, and he recovered it) in a career spanning 850-plus combined carries and catches. He’s as reliable a prospect at the position you could want. Best of all, Hunt is a proficient pass-catcher but not limited to that role. He could easily fill that job (Hunt ranks fourth in the draft class in receptions) but he’s also the guy you want taking over for a drive to run between the tackles as well as split out and run a route.

Let Hunt and Mark Ingram split reps and go to work, maybe with Adrian Peterson in cleanup duty during the fourth quarter.

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
  • WR Chris Godwin, Penn State
  • OL Ethan Pocic, LSU

Third Round, 39th Pick (103rd Overall): DE DeMarcus Walker, Florida State

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - Florida State Seminoles defensive end DeMarcus Walker (44) and head coach Jimbo Fisher celebrate their 33-32 victory over the Michigan Wolverines during the Capitol One Orange Bowl at Sun Life Stadium.
MIAMI GARDENS, FL - Florida State Seminoles defensive end DeMarcus Walker (44) and head coach Jimbo Fisher celebrate their 33-32 victory over the Michigan Wolverines during the Capitol One Orange Bowl at Sun Life Stadium.
Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The Saints brought back veteran defensive end Darryl Tapp on a modest salary, and the 32-year old should do a solid job of backing up Cameron Jordan again in 2017. He’s a decent run defender in a limited role, but the Saints can get more out of that roster spot by picking up DeMarcus Walker.

DeMarcus Walker (6-foot-4-inches, 280-pounds, 33-inch arms) looks like a first round pick on paper. He’s logged 27 sacks in his career, bagging 25 of them in the last two years as a full-time starter. Walker has also been disruptive versus the run, posting 41.5 tackles for loss of yardage, and made more splash plays with seven forced fumbles. Those are awesome numbers.

What’s not awesome is actually focusing on Walker in his game tape. Even though he has great size, Walker was bullied by smaller players like Ole Miss tight end/wide receiver Evan Engram. Walker lacks play strength and anchor and was blown off the ball more often than you’d like to see. He lacks the bend and burst to start on the edge in the NFL. Walker’s hesitation to compete in athletic testing at the NFL Scouting Combine and poor outing at Florida State’s pro day (timing as low as 5.0-seconds in the 40-yard dash) has pushed him down draft boards.

But that’s not to say Walker isn’t a good player. He’s got some reliable pass rush moves including a vicious club and polished swim. Like Haason Reddick, Walker is a good finisher: 17 of his 63 quarterback pressures ended in sacks last year, an eyebrow-raising rate of 27.9-percent. If the plan is for Walker to replace Tapp and spell Jordan with 10 to 20 high-energy snaps per game, Walker could be a very disruptive addition to a young Saints defensive line.

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
  • DE Derek Rivers, Youngstown State
  • WR Malachi Dupre, LSU

Sixth Round, 12th Pick (196th Overall): OL Sam Tevi, Utah

CORVALLIS, OR - Utah Utes right tackle Sam Tevi (52) helps clear the way for running back Joe Williams (28) against the Oregon State Beavers defense at Reser Stadium.
CORVALLIS, OR - Utah Utes right tackle Sam Tevi (52) helps clear the way for running back Joe Williams (28) against the Oregon State Beavers defense at Reser Stadium.
Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

The Saints are on the lookout for a successor for Zach Strief (who will soon be 34-years old) at right tackle, who has played at a high level for some time now. The hope was that Andrus Peat could shift to the right side successfully, but he’s proven to be at his best at left guard. Saints head coach Sean Payton briefly indicated as such at the recent NFL owners meetings:

“I kind of see [Peat] right now at left guard. I see [Larry] Warford at right guard. The lesson learned there for [Peat] was that he likes his left hand down and he is comfortable there just in that stance.”

A right tackle prospect I like is Sam Tevi out of Utah. The Saints met with Tevi at Utah’s pro day and scheduled a follow-up official visit in New Orleans, so they’ve got some interest in him. Originally recruited as a defensive lineman, Tevi converted to left tackle in 2014 when injuries decimated the roster. He started there until 2016 when the JUCO transfer of first round draft prospect Garett Bolles presented an upgrade. Tevi then dominated at right tackle despite sitting out two weeks with a back injury.

Tevi presents the size (6-foot-5, 311-pounds, 34-inch arms) and versatility teams value. His past experience along the defensive line shows up in Tevi’s quick feet, violent tone-setting blocks, and penchant for keeping his chest clean. But his lack of experience will mean his future position coaches will need to focus on developing Tevi’s weight distribution (he gets set off-balance too easily by pass rushers lining up outside his shoulder) and timing the firing of his hands out of his stance.

That’s great news for the Saints’ staff, who have a pedigree of turning out quality offensive linemen. With Strief still rock-solid at right tackle, Tevi can take patiently refine his craft and be ready to rock once it’s his turn to start. In the meantime, Tevi could do well as the sixth “tackle-eligible” lineman in unbalanced sets. Tim Lelito split about 250 snaps there with rookie guard Landon Turner last year before departing for the Tennessee Titans in free agency, so there’s opportunity for Tevi to play right away.

Previous picks:

  • TE Jeremy Sprinkle, Arkansas
  • RB Justin Davis, USC
  • OL Danny Isidora, Miami
  • LB Ukeme Eligwe, Georgia Southern
  • QB Alek Torgersen, Penn
  • LB Jayon Brown, UCLA
  • DL Davon Gaudchaux, LSU

Seventh Round, 11th Pick (229th Overall): WR Mack Hollins, North Carolina

DETROIT, MI - North Carolina Tar Heels wide receiver Mack Hollins (13) celebrates a blocked punt against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights during the 2014 Quick Lane Bowl at Ford Field.
DETROIT, MI - North Carolina Tar Heels wide receiver Mack Hollins (13) celebrates a blocked punt against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights during the 2014 Quick Lane Bowl at Ford Field.
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Like last year’s late-round draft pick, running back Daniel Lasco, Mack Hollins makes his immediate impact on special teams. He walked onto the Tar Heels’ program but was selected to be the special teams captain all four years. If not for injuries to his collarbone and hamstring, Hollins probably gets drafted highly. He is a talented cover man on both punts and kickoffs, having posted 20+ special teams tackles, two blocked punts, and an onside kick recovery through four years at Chapel Hill. North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora emphasized Hollins’ role on special teams ahead of last year’s season-opener versus Georgia:

"Mack is pretty unique talent in far as what he can do on special teams. The biggest thing for us is that he has been a starter on all four special teams. So you are talking about four different units that you are having to prepare for."

So adding Hollins helps shore up the Saints’ woeful special teams unit, which is seeing a new approach to coaching under first-year hire Bradford Banta. Defensive end Kasim Edebali was second on the team in special teams snaps played (281), but he’s left a void after signing with the Denver Broncos in free agency. Hollins’ experience and knack for impacting that area of the game could be big.

That’s not to say that Hollins is limited to a role on special teams. He’s a legitimate deep threat (averaging 20.6 yards per catch in his career) with great speed (4.53-second 40-yard dash) for his size (6-foot-4, 221-pounds, 33 1/4-inch arms). 20 of Hollins’ 81 career receptions went for touchdowns. Specializing in blowing past press coverage and adjusting to passes thrown over his shoulder, Hollins can immediately contribute as a downfield target opposite free agent signee Ted Ginn Jr.

In a best-case scenario, imagine Hollins as the Robert Meachem to Ginn’s Devery Henderson, while Willie Snead IV and Michael Thomas handle the tougher assignments. At worst, he’s pushing Brandon Coleman for reps as the Saints’ fourth receiver. Either way, adding receiver depth and beefing up special teams coverage is a smart decision at this stage of the draft.

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
  • DB Sojourn Shelton, Wisconsin
  • OLB Tashawn Bower, LSU