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Saints swing for the fences on top-rated prospects; NFC South gets better

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The Saints filled a big need at cornerback and doubled down on the strength of their offensive line, but an arms race around the division continues.

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PHILADELPHIA, PA - New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore visits the SiriusXM NFL Radio talkshow after being selected with the 11th overall pick during the 2017 NFL Draft at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
PHILADELPHIA, PA - New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore visits the SiriusXM NFL Radio talkshow after being selected with the 11th overall pick during the 2017 NFL Draft at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Photo by Lisa Lake/Getty Images for SiriusXM

Well that was fun, right? It’s safe to say few viewers considered the New Orleans Saints drafting an offensive player in the first round of picks in this weekend’s NFL Draft, much less an offensive tackle, but here we are. We’re going to take a brief look around the NFC South to review the Saints’ picks and check in on the competition with an assist from the good folks over at Pro Football Focus, who charted every FBS Division 1 game in the 2016 season. PFF’s live blog is a great up-to-the-minute primer on every draft selection this weekend.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - Former Ohio State cornerback Marshon Lattimore poses with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being drafted 11th overall by the New Orleans Saints at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
PHILADELPHIA, PA - Former Ohio State cornerback Marshon Lattimore poses with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being drafted 11th overall by the New Orleans Saints at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The team’s first selection was unexpected but very welcome. The Saints’ defensive backfield was battered with injuries, causing Sterling Moore and B.W. Webb to start most of the year; together, Moore and Webb combined for just three interceptions. The Saints were fortunate to have Ohio State Buckeyes corner Marshon Lattimore fall into their laps, who Saints head coach Sean Payton later claimed was the third- or fourth-highest graded prospect on their board. Here’s PFF’s take on Lattimore, a 20-year old who stands 6-foot-0, weighs 193-pounds, runs a 4.36-second 40-yard dash, and allowed 14 of his 35 targets to go incomplete last year:

Three quarterbacks and three wide receivers in the top 10 pushed down some very talented defensive players, and the Saints were happy to capitalize. Marshon Lattimore is the premier prospect in a deep cornerback class, and a fantastic selection for a team that needs defensive back talent. Lattimore only allowed a QB rating of 30.2 last season when opposing quarterbacks threw into his coverage. Lattimore also showed his ball skills by making 10 plays on the ball in 2016 (four interceptions and six passes broken up). Lattimore only allowed two of 12 go routes thrown into his coverage to be caught last season, and will go a long way in improving the Saints’ coverage ability. — Jordan Plocher, @PFF_Jordan

PHILADELPHIA, PA - Former Wisconsin Badgers offensive lineman Ryan Ramczyk poses with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked 32nd overall by the New Orleans Saints at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
PHILADELPHIA, PA - Former Wisconsin Badgers offensive lineman Ryan Ramczyk poses with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked 32nd overall by the New Orleans Saints at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Saints did their homework on this offensive line class. It’s notoriously thin in talent, with draft guru Gil Brandt saying it was the least-appealing position group he had seen in nearly 60 years of covering the draft. This was the first time no offensive linemen were picked in the first 19 selections since 1952! So getting the top guy in Wisconsin Badgers tackle Ryan Ramczyk (a prospect they reportedly had rated as the 15th- or 16th-best draft prospect in the entire class) at the end of the first round is a coup. Here’s what PFF analysts Jordan Plocher and Taylor Wright had to say about the pick:

The Saints were able to add PFF’s top-rated offensive tackle in the draft class in Wisconsin’s Ryan Ramczyk with the final pick of the first round. He only played one year of FBS football, but was dominant in 2016 at Wisconsin, and never allowed more than two pressures in any game. Ramczyk uses athleticism and quick feet to help him shut down pass-rushers, and his pass blocking efficiency mark of 97.5 ranked 15th in the draft class. Ramcyzk only allowed one sack, three QB hits, and eight hurries on his 378 pass-blocking snaps in 2016. — Jordan Plocher, @PFF_Jordan

Ramczyk is the most refined offensive lineman in this year’s draft. He performed well in Wisconsin’s power blocking schemes, generating great movement in double-teams at the point of attack. Ramcyzk showed versatility in his run-blocking ability; however, and his natural size and ability to press and control defenders in pass protection will be of value to New Orleans. — Taylor Wright, @PFF_Jordan

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - Former Stanford Cardinal running back Christian McCaffrey runs the 40-yard dash during the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium.
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - Former Stanford Cardinal running back Christian McCaffrey runs the 40-yard dash during the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Looking around the division, the fiercest upgrade looks to be in Charlotte. The Carolina Panthers broke my heart into a thousand pieces by selecting Stanford Cardinal running back/slot receiver/special teams returner/2015 Heisman Trophy runner-up Christian McCaffrey with the eighth overall pick. Say a prayer for every Saints defensive player’s ankles and knees. Every one of them. PFF’s analysis:

Christian McCaffrey was PFF’s top RB prospect in the draft, and the Panthers were able to hold tight and select him eighth overall. His running ability between the tackles is understated, as he is extremely patient setting up blocks; he forced a whopping 120 combined missed tackles the past two seasons for the Stanford Cardinal. What makes him truly the most dangerous offensive weapon in this class is his ability as a receiver, as he racked up 83 catches and another 35 forced missed tackles in 2015 and 2016. If that wasn’t enough, he is also a dynamic kick and punt returner. Expect to see McCaffrey toting the ball plenty on first and second downs, and starting out of the slot on third downs this fall. — Josh Liskiewitz, @PFF_Josh

MOBILE, AL - South Team tight end O.J. Howard of Alabama (88) is tackled by North squad linebacker Haason Reddick of Temple (57) after the catch during the 2017 Senior Bowl at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
MOBILE, AL - South Team tight end O.J. Howard of Alabama (88) is tackled by North squad linebacker Haason Reddick of Temple (57) after the catch during the 2017 Senior Bowl at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
Glenn Andrews-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers also juiced up their offense with the addition of Alabama Crimson Tide tight end O.J. Howard at the eighteenth overall selection. Howard was rarely used as a receiver at Alabama but showed out on the biggest stages as a dynamic threat to take off after the catch.

The Buccaneers were rumored to be very high on running back Dalvin Cook (FSU), but the opportunity to get the best tight end in the draft proved to be too much to pass up for GM Jason Licht. Howard can play in-line tight end and earned the highest run-blocking grade of any TE in FBS last season; he will make an impact in the ground game for the Bucs. Howard’s receiving ability is the real reason he was the pick here, as he gives a great target for Bucs QB Jameis Winston and will aid the third-year quarterback’s development. Howard is a mismatch player in the passing game who can line up in the slot in addition to in-line. Howard recorded 7.3 yards after catch per reception in 2016 and can help Winston and the Buccaneers’ offense move the chains. — Jordan Plocher, @PFF_Jordan

PHILADELPHIA, PA - Former UCLA Bruins defensive end/outside linebacker Takkarist McKinley poses with a photograph of his grandmother after being picked 26th overall by the Atlanta Falcons at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
PHILADELPHIA, PA - Former UCLA Bruins defensive end/outside linebacker Takkarist McKinley poses with a photograph of his grandmother after being picked 26th overall by the Atlanta Falcons at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Elsewhere, the Atlanta Falcons, who lost Super Bowl LI after going up 28-3, traded up to get another pass rusher to pair with Vic Beasley. UCLA Bruins edge defender Takkarist McKinley is a fun athlete to watch when he’s on but vanished for stretches last season. He lacks flexibility and is more of a straight-line runner, but shouldn’t be underestimated if he develops as well as Beasley did between his rookie year (4 sacks) and second campaign (16).

The Falcons gave up a third-round pick and a seventh-round pick to move up five spots and select edge rusher Takkarist McKinley. McKinley will likely be used to rush the passer on the opposite side of Vic Beasley. The former UCLA Bruin is an athletic prospect who plays with a high level of effort and will chase plays downfield; he was one of the few defensive players in the Pac-12 that was capable of taking over games. McKinley recorded nine sacks, 11 QB hits, 37 hurries, and one batted pass on 339 pass-rushing snaps in 2016. — Jordan Plocher, @PFF_Jordan

The draft has been a whirlwind of chaos, fun, and strategic team-building so far. Let’s see what happens in the next two days.