The New Orleans Saints strategy of selecting best player available means that they truly don’t know who the selection will be till they are on the clock. So while Saints fans may want specific positions filled, needs satisfied, and players selected, the reality is that nobody can know how the selections will play out because of the inherently unpredictable nature of the NFL Draft. However, now that the picks are rolling in, we can start to understand how the new players will be integrated into the team.
Marshon Lattimore (Round 1, Pick 11)
Marshon Lattimore is the type of cover corner that enables you to alter your scheme to adjust for the defensive leeway he allows. Lattimore is a rare breed of human, with the hip fluidity and foot speed to keep up with any player he’s faced thus far in his short career. The match with him and the Saints couldn’t be better. The Saints have long tried to find a reliable starting corner that can play man coverage and stay on top of the receiver in Cover 3. Fortunately, that’s exactly the areas in which Lattimore specializes. Often times you’ll see him mirror a receiver in man-to-man while pressed up on the line of scrimmage; other times he’ll bail at the snap of the ball as he plays the role of Cover 3 corner, staying on top and outside of the receiver and keeping his eyes on the QB.
While Marshon Lattimore seemingly has the skills and athleticism to track the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver all over the field, he has yet to do that at Ohio State. He played almost exclusively left cornerback (LCB) under Urban Meyer, locking down one sideline and eliminating whatever receiver the opposing team chose to put on his side of the field. Whether he will track receivers all over the field, and into the slot, remains to be seen but I would say that early on it’s doubtful.
The Saints have two players in Kenny Vaccaro and Vonn Bell that are quite proficient at covering the slot from the nickelback position. The most likely course of action for the Saints is that he competes with PJ Williams and Delvin Breaux for the rights to one of the starting outside cornerback spots. In time, Lattimore may learn to play over the slot thus giving him the ability to follow a receiver anywhere, but the probable best case scenario early is that he earns a starting spot outside, with Breaux or Williams manning the other side, and Bell or Vaccaro handling slot duties.
Ryan Ramczyk (Round 1, Pick 32)
Unlike Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk wasn’t the perfect marriage of overwhelming value and critical need. However, he was one of those things: overwhelming value. Many pundits considered Ramczyk as the top offensive tackle in the draft, although it could be argued that his best position is specifically right tackle. While he only played one season of FBS football, during his one season he played at a good program, in a major conference, against premier competition. Additionally, Wisconsin has a pro-style offense and a pro-style running game, suggesting that Ramczyk has a brand of experience that best prepares him for life as an NFL offensive lineman.
As far as where Ramczyk fits on the Saints, it seems clear that the Saints drafted him with the intention of him taking over for Zach Strief whenever that inevitable departure occurs. The Saints were most likely going to draft an offensive tackle to groom as Strief’s replacement during this draft, and that happened earlier than anticipated. It’s possible that this even expedites the split between the Saints and Strief, as the Strief’s competition just got exponentially more severe. That could very well happen in 2017, but flipping a player from left to right tackle is more difficult than billed; the kick, punch, and overall pass set is reversed on the other side and there is often a period of adjustment for that. If Ramczyk doesn’t take over for Strief at RT in 2017, the Saints still have a backup swing tackle, a powerful weapon in Jumbo/6 offensive linemen sets, and the future starter at RT.
Also, just for one moment, consider the inevitable future starting Saints offensive line and their youth:
Terron Armstead (25)
Andrus Peat (23)
Max Unger (31)
Larry Warford (25)
Ryan Ramczyk (23)
You want an offensive line as dominant as the Dallas Cowboys? That’s how it’s done.
Marcus Williams (Round 2, Pick 42)
With Marcus Williams, the vision is as clear as it could in terms of how he will fit into the Saints defense. When the Saints elected to release Jairus Byrd earlier in the offseason, it alleviated some cap pressure but also created an absence on the playing field: who would play deep safety? The truth of the matter was that while Jairus Byrd wasn’t a bad player overall, he was put in a position on the Saints that wasn’t best suited to his abilities, especially after injuries took their toll on his physical tools. Playing deep safety in the middle of the field in single-high coverage, or even taking half of the field in split safeties coverage, requires range and confidence in speed.
Enter Marcus Williams from Utah. While Williams didn’t post an elite 40 yard dash for the safety position (4.56 s), he shows significantly more range on the back end of the defense than that time would suggest. His range and ball tracking at Free Safety, significant experience playing deep, and playmaking skills to make contact with the ball suggest that he can immediately find a way on to the field early, especially in expected passing situations. Vonn Bell and Kenny Vaccaro have similar strengths in that they can both tackle, cover the slot, blitz, and be assets in run support. Their abilities mean that keeping them closer to the line of scrimmage is the best way to maximize what you get out of them, whether it be at box safety, nickelback, or matched up on a tight end. Williams can comfortably be put over the top of the defense to patrol and be the last line of defense.
While I wouldn’t expect Marcus Williams to start full-time from Day 1, as Rafael Bush was signed to provide some veteran insurance for the position, I do anticipate that he will get coverage snaps early as the deep safety. The Saints have made it so that their safety position is a group of overall significant strength and versatility, and inserting Williams into the depth chart allows each player to utilize their individual strengths.
Alvin Kamara (Round 3, Pick 67)
Alvin Kamara, similar to the previous 3 previous players drafted by the Saints in 2017, has an incredibly clear role coming into the team. Coming out of Tennessee as a change-of-pace back and weapon out of the backfield, Kamara has the combination of balance, vision, and pass-catching ability that the Saints haven’t had at running back since the departure of Darren Sproles. Whether it’s splitting him out wide, into the slot, or out of the backfield, Kamara is a coverage issue for opposing linebackers. The Saints screen game has been lacking in recent years and Kamara is the clear favorite to play the role of primary receiving tailback.
Kamara will go into the Saints offseason program with plenty of experience already playing in the role the Saints will ask him to fill. At Tennessee, he never carried the ball more than 18 times in a single game. However, he had an incredible scoring rate: over his 2 year career, Kamara averaged a touchdown every 12 touches at a clip of 7 yards per touch. That is an absurd level of efficiency and productivity given the limited opportunities presented to him. Luckily for both Kamara and the Saints, he won’t likely be asked to do more than just continue to prosper and develop as the efficient player he’s already shown himself to be.
Alex Anzalone (Round 3, Pick 76)
The first of the Saints 2017 draft class that doesn’t have an obvious role for the upcoming season, Alex Anzalone is a highly athletic linebacker who has had injury concerns throughout his entire collegiate career at Florida. After struggling with shoulder injuries for his first 2 seasons at Florida, he finally won a starting job as a junior before quickly redshirting due to re-injuring his shoulder in the second game of the 2015 season. Anzalone finally played significant snaps as a starter in 2016, playing in the initial 8 games before breaking his left arm and missing the final 4 games of the season.
The injury concerns and lack of significant experience as a starter make the projection to the Saints roster cloudy at best. The best bet is that the Saints view Anzalone as a potential replacement to Dannell Ellerbe, given his athleticism and ability to either cover or rush the passer. He recorded 4 tackles-for-loss, 3 sacks, and 2 pass deflections in the 8 games he played at Florida this past season, indicating he has the type of production and traits to fill the role of versatile joker linebacker. There is a chance that the Saints see him as a strong-side linebacker or middle linebacker, given his frame and combine testing. Hopefully, he can shake the injury concerns or else his athletic potential won’t mean much. Given a clean bill of health, the most likely 2017 contribution from Anzalone is early snaps on special teams while filling in sporadically in sub-packages, depending upon the defensive call.
Trey Hendrickson (Round 3, Pick 103)
Finally, the position that New Orleans Saints fans have been clamoring for: edge rusher. Trey Hendrickson is one of the most athletic pass rushers in the entire draft class, posting incredible combine marks for a 6’4 266 lbs man in the 40 yard dash (4.65 s), 3 cone drill (7.03 s), 60 yard shuttle (11.43 s), and vertical jump (33.5). The remarkable agility for a man his size is backed up by sustained production while rushing the passer: 24 sacks in 2 years, including a Florida Atlantic University school record of 13.5 sacks in 2015.
Hendrickson’s biggest strengths may be rushing the passer, but he suffers in run defense. His hand usage is poor, he doesn’t get low enough to get leverage vs blockers, and he often appears disinterested on the backside of run plays when he’s the contain defender vs runs away from his side. He did, however, often drop off the line of scrimmage as a QB spy, showing the speed to chase down even the most athletic quarterbacks he played against. The Saints likely drafted him in the hopes that he can immediately rush the passer on late, obvious passing downs as he develops the technique and discipline necessary to play an increased workload. Regardless of his current deficiencies as a run defender, Hendrickson’s burst off the edge, pure speed in the open field, and limitless motor mean he can instantly compete for snaps as a 3rd down pass rusher on the outside of the defensive front.
Al-Quadin Muhammad (Pick 196)
The inevitable project pick, Al-Quadin Muhammad has had a rough go of it during his career at Miami University. NFL.com reports that he was suspended for the entire 2014 season due to an altercation at the Miami spring game and played significant time in 2015 before being dismissed in advance of the 2016 season due to allegations of receiving illicit benefits. To take a player of his limited experience and history of turmoil, the Saints must have felt very confident in their vetting process.
So where does Al-Aquadin Muhammad fit on the Saints? He’s likely going to compete for a roster spot as an edge rusher. He has a great frame for 3-4 outside linebacker or 4-3 defensive end, coming in at 6’3”, 253 lbs with 33.25 inch arms and showing an ability to use that length to affect the QB. Muhammad is almost starting new, as he’s played just 1 season of football in the past 3 years. He’s a developmental pick that has an outside shot at the 53 man roster and a significant chance of making the practice squad before competing for playing time in the pass rush rotation in 2018.