The week of the 2017 NFL Draft is finally upon us, threatening to put months of speculation and mock drafts to rest. Teams have invested hundreds of hours in film study, interviews, and workouts to figure out what makes prospects tick.
Some teams do that better than others. The Saints have been fortunate to get a lot of production out of recent draft picks, but looking over their history you’ll see more misses than hits.
As we draw closer to draft day, it’s important to remember who calls which shots in the New Orleans Saints front office. Some titles can be misleading.
A major force in turning the tide of bad draft fortune has been Jeff Ireland. The former Miami Dolphins general manager has been working as a scout for NFL teams since 1997, and got his start as an area scout for the NFL Scouting Combine in 1994. Despite the Dolphins’ shortcomings under his management, Ireland is a respected talent evaluator and has done a good job as the Saints’ college scouting director/assistant general manager.
Ireland’s job is to coordinate his scouting staff’s search for future Saints all around the country. The Saints employ three national scouts who report back to Ireland with what the team’s four area scouts (the typical assignments are West Coast, East Coast, Southeast, and Midwest) learn from visiting college campuses and speaking with prospects, their coaches, instructors, academic advisors, and friends and family. It’s an intensive process.
So that gives you an idea of Ireland’s role in the organization. He is responsible for scouting and compiling reports on college prospects, so he has a strong influence in draft selections and undrafted free agency. Some rumors have bounced around implying that Ireland has been more of a cautioning voice in the front office, having learned from his mistakes in Miami like trading up for Dion Jordan. He values draft pick capital and the opportunities that come with having multiple picks.
This may come as a surprise to fans who perceive Saints general manager Mickey Loomis as the shot-caller in the war room on draft day. Sure, Loomis carries the title of general manager; but he’s more of a contract negotiator and aggressive accountant than talent scout. Loomis manages the salary cap. He can’t really be credited with hitting on draft picks or slandered for selecting busts.
On the other hand, consider Saints head coach Sean Payton’s role in all of this. He is effectively the CEO who sets priorities for the rest of the front office, who then make it happen. If Payton wants an experienced All-Pro cornerback in Malcolm Butler, Loomis handles the negotiation of terms with the New England Patriots.
So if the Saints don’t hit on their picks this weekend, who’s to blame?
It all starts at the top with Payton. He and his coaching staff have spent all spring going back over last year’s game tape, figuring out exactly when and where things went wrong. The self-scouting they conducted is what shaped the Saints’ plans for this offseason and will culminate in their draft selections.
If they got it wrong and identified the wrong areas of need, and Ireland’s scouting staff went off on a snipe hunt for the wrong prospects, Payton should shoulder that blame. If they’ve gotten it wrong, it may cost him his job. With quarterback Drew Brees in the last phase of his career, the stakes - reloading for a last playoff push for Brees’ Hall of Fame career, versus laying foundations for success in the future - have never been higher. Thursday can’t get here soon enough.