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If any undrafted rookie can make the Saints roster, it’s Travin Dural

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The Brandin Cooks trade created instability at wide receiver that fans are skeptical has been addressed. Maybe an undrafted rookie from Baton Rouge can cure what ails them.

TUSCALOOSA, AL - LSU Tigers wide receiver Travin Dural (83) scores the Alabama Crimson Tide defense at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
TUSCALOOSA, AL - LSU Tigers wide receiver Travin Dural (83) scores a long touchdown against the Alabama Crimson Tide defense at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The 2017 NFL Draft ended this past Saturday and LSU Tigers fans were, as scheduled, up in arms. The New Orleans Saints had gone another year without adding a hometown hero, and it seemed almost deliberate. The annual trips made to LSU’s pro day by Saints head coach Sean Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis, and scouting director Jeff Ireland had long ago seemed to become a formality. Why go if you weren’t going to draft any LSU Tigers?

But then lightning struck. Undrafted free agency was in full swing as teams made competing offers to NFL prospects and beat writers struggled to parse through dozens of conflicting reports. One tweet broke through the noise as LSU Tigers wide receiver Travin Dural sent out a single fleur-de-lis. He was signing with the Saints.

That was a sight for sore eyes to many Saints faithful, considering the shakeups at the wide receiver position this spring. Out was Brandin Cooks and in came Ted Ginn Jr from the cross-division Carolina Panthers. Former undrafted free agent Brandon Coleman was expected to split reps with Ginn in place of Cooks. Now a new name was thrown into the arena, and Dural was already on his way to being annointed the team’s third-best (or even second-best, by the more fanatical) receiver.

LSU fans will be quick to point out the team’s deficiencies at quarterback leading to underwhelming production out of the receivers, and some in the NFL agree. One AFC team area scout gave NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein this quote:

"Remember that this is the same program that was able to hold Beckham (Odell Beckham, Jr.) and Jarvis Landry at bay in college. LSU's quarterbacks stink. Dural gets a projection grade because he just didn't do enough on tape."

The numbers back this up: last year, nine SEC West quarterbacks threw 100 or more passes. Of that group, LSU’s starter, Danny Etling, ranked fifth in completion percentage (59.5-percent) and yards gained per attempt (7.6), eighth in rate of touchdowns thrown (6.9-percent). The quarterback Etling replaced, Brandon Harris, was benched after completing just 12 of his first 25 passes. So this was not a situation built to help receivers like Dural succeed, but going from catching passes from the likes of Elting and Harris to Drew Brees might be good for him.

Before we get into the film study, let’s talk about the tools Dural has to work with. To keep the LSU receiver theme going, he’s built much more like Jarvis Landry than Odell Beckham Jr. Dural has good, not great, size at 6-foot-1-inch, 202-pounds with 32-inch arms. His 9-inch wide hands look bad on paper but I didn’t see them as an issue in his game tape. He and Landry are both stocky receivers who tested with marginal athleticism (each timed in the mid-4.5-seconds range in the 40-yard dash), but find ways to win without being the fastest guy on the field.

Dural’s injury history needs mentioning. The biggest hurdle has had to overcome was a torn hamstring in 2015, a freak accident caused by a poorly-aimed pass. Dural explained the injury in his own words to NOLA.com’s Andrew Lopez. It’s kind of gruesome, so feel free to skip past the quote:

"When I jumped for the ball against Ole Miss, I kind of sat on the DB's shoulder and he flipped me. When I hit the ground, my leg snapped back. My knee touched my shoulder. It tore my hamstring off the bone at the top. It was kind of three, four inches off from where it was supposed to be.”

Fortunately, Dural made a full recovery from what could have been a catastrophic injury. Six months of rehab later, he returned and immediately filled into LSU’s rotation at wide receiver as a starter. He was held out of LSU’s 2016 spring game as a precaution, but has otherwise had a clean bill of health. A tweaked knee limited Dural’s reps behind Beckham and Landry back in 2013, and he missed two weeks last year with a badly bruised shoulder. The good thing to take from this is that none of Dural’s injuries were recurring problems, so they should all be behind him.

Dural was a participant in this year’s Reese’s Senior Bowl in Mobile, AL, and I thought he had a solid week. Here is winning a route against Atlanta Falcons fifth round draft pick Damontae Kazee, a former San Diego State Aztecs cornerback:

It was kind of a ho-hum week for Dural. He didn’t show the exceptional speed he had before his 2015 hamstring injury, but he did catch the ball well and consistently competed for catches. I thought he continued to show the ability to make receptions away from his body and made plays through physical, handsy man coverage. He wasn’t an eye-catching presence at the Senior Bowl, but Dural didn’t leave the week of practices with many negative plays.

So, onto the game tape. I watched all of Dural’s game cutups on DraftBreakdown.com, which includes seven games prior to his hamstring injury and two cutups after it. It was good to see that he didn’t lose much of a step to what could have been a career-ending accident, but he notably lacks the short-area burst from before his injury.

First, the bad. Dural is not a burner in the mold of Robert Meachem or Joe Morgan. He eats up the cushion between himself and cornerbacks in zone coverage with long strides rather than natural speed, so his routes take longer to develop than what you’d see from those other players. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you run a ball-control offense that advances downfield in methodical, rhythmic plays (which the Saints often do). But if your expectation is that Dural will be taking the lid off the defense or breaking away on jet sweeps, you’re probably mistaken.

Dural also has a reputation as an aggressive blocking receiver, but I didn’t see it. I would describe his blocking as adequate, but he did show an eagerness to make contact that other receivers lack. Ultimately that’s all a wideout needs to excel in that area of the game, but don’t think of Dural and his blocking skills like you would someone like Hines Ward.

I really like Dural’s ability to make tough catches away from his body. He routinely does a solid job outmuscling defensive backs and using his full wingspan when going vertical, making a play on the ball outside his opponents’ reach. Dural is also very impressive on comeback routes; it’s something that flashed at the Senior Bowl but was more prevalent in film study. He has a great feel for disguising his intentions and when he’s going to plant and turn back to the ball. He made a couple of cornerbacks look dumb.

Dural didn’t get many opportunities to make big plays after his leg injury and the quarterback carousel that introduced new dysfunction to LSU’s offense. Before that he looked to be a dynamic downfield receiver who made plays all over Florida and Alabama’s secondaries, matching up well with highly-drafted cornerbacks like Marlon Humphrey (Baltimore Ravens, first round) and Quincy Wilson (Indianapolis Colts, second round). An encouraging sign before and after his injury is that Dural lined up on both sides of the field, primarily on the right side, but he saw alignments at flanker, split end, and in the slot. That versatility gives him a leg up on more-limited competition.

The players directly in Dural’s path to making the 2017 Saints roster are Corey Fuller, Jake Lampman, and Tommylee Lewis. Fuller was poached from the Lions’ practice squad last year while Lampman and Lewis made significant contributions on special teams. Dural needs to show that he can be a four-down player by chipping into a couple of special teams units (field goal blocking, punt protection, kickoff fielding, etc) while helping the offense. He needs to get past those other guys for the fifth receiver spot before worrying about competing with Ginn and Coleman for looks as the fourth or third guy in the rotation.

A popular take among fans is that Dural can be the Robert Meachem to Ted Ginn Jr’s imitation of Devery Henderson. In 2008, Meachem’s first on the active roster, Henderson converted 32 of his 56 targets (57-percent) into 793 yards and three scores (gaining 24.8-yards per catch). That’s a solid projection for Ginn in today’s version of the Saints offense, though I doubt he achieves that huge yards gained per catch; Ginn averaged 13.9-yards last year catching passes from Cam Newton, and Brandin Cooks led the Saints with 15-yards per catch.

As for Dural? If he fills in the Meachem role, he could project to a similar production: 12 catches on 20 attempts (60-percent) for 289 yards and three touchdowns of his own (24.1-yards per catch). The yards per catch number is, again, unlikely, but both of statlines suggest the kind of opportunities Dural and Ginn could see together.