The Saints’ 2017 draft may go down as one of the greatest drafts for any franchise ever. Six of their seven picks have become important contributors or downright stars on both sides of the ball. With six picks between #11 and #103 overall, the Saints hit pay dirt on every single player selected.
Second rounder, safety Marcus Williams, may be remembered most for his whiff in the Minnesota Miracle, but he’s been solid and reliable for the most part. Third rounders Alvin Kamara, Alex Anzalone, and Trey Hendrickson have all made their marks on their position groups.
Every Saints player from that draft, with the exception of 6th rounder Al-Quadin Muhammad, has positively affected the quality and depth of this team. It’s rare to hit on so many draft picks in the same year.
More often, teams might make mistakes during the scouting and drafting process by grading players unfairly or failing to see their future potential. But forgiveness is rarely reserved for those who miss during the first round. First rounders are expected to be awesome right off the bat.
Luckily, the Saints hit home runs with both of their first round picks as well. Yet, the fortuitous acquisitions of cornerback Marshon Lattimore and tackle Ryan Ramczyk may not have occurred if it weren’t for a couple draft day trades that most likely impacted who the Saints picked with their 11th and 32nd picks.
It was well documented in the press that general manager Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton were intrigued with quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
“The one thing that stood out, this player could climb, escape, throw from all the positions. And we play in an imperfect game where there’s protection issues. And we just saw him make throws going left, going right, through the pocket, up in the pocket,” Payton said.
”I mean really unique throws. And look, man, in a conference and on a team where they had to go into a game feeling like scoring 45 was gonna give ‘em a chance ... And when you meet him, then, and you get a chance to visit with him on the football DNA, I think Kansas City and Andy [Reid] and those guys got a heck of a player. Fortunately for us, their selection of Patrick pushed Lattimore down a spot.”
Loomis agreed completely. “I would say it was possible, but once Lattimore was available to us, there wasn’t much of a decision to make,” Loomis said. “But, look, we did; we liked Patrick Mahomes a lot. I think that’s a really good pick by Kansas City.”
With a durable, accurate, and high character quarterback like Drew Brees, it may have seemed sacrilegious to some Saints fans that Payton and Loomis were even thinking of spending their 11th overall pick on a quarterback who may not see a meaningful snap for a several years.
“Listen, we’ve had discussions about drafting a quarterback maybe 10 picks out, eight picks out -- I can’t recall in the first round. So probably in the time I’ve been here, this would have been the first discussion at 11 or a pick like that that we’ve discussed a quarterback,” said Payton.
The Saints got the best fit for the team in Lattimore, but what if Kansas City or another franchise had scooped up the Ohio State standout first? Kansas City traded into #10 with Buffalo who later selected Tre’Davious White, so they were definitely looking for a cornerback.
The Saints generally employ a philosophy of drafting the highest graded player over a position of need, and Mahomes would have been just that at #11 if Lattimore was off the board.
Mahomes’ sophomore season has proven dozens of scouts and sports writers wrong by showing that his unorthodox throwing style, out of the pocket mobility, and owl-like field vision does work on the professional level. He showed so much promise, in fact, that Kansas City felt good about moving on from the veteran Alex Smith.
Brees made it clear he preferred the Saints draft a player that can help him win now rather than prepare the team for life without him. “If I’m gonna start and that quarterback sits, well, that’s not helping our team right now. So I want somebody that’s gonna help our team right now,” Brees said.
“Listen, when I leave here I want this organization to be successful, whenever that is. So I want them to be prepared for that. They need to be thinking about that. But I don’t want to make it seem like this is my farewell tour.”
Replacing a Hall of Fame quarterback is never going to be easy. Almost no teams, with the exception of Steve Young following Joe Montana on the 49ers, will achieve it. Timing that replacement can be just as difficult as finding one.
After all, the Saints may already have a solid successor in the facility in Teddy Bridgewater, but for now, most of his energy has been reserved for his locker room “Bike Life” dance celebrations.
The Patriots drafted Jimmy Garoppolo, but had to trade him when Tom Brady refused to slow down even at age 40. The Packers drafted and traded Mark Brunell, Matt Hasselbeck, and Aaron Brooks during the Favre era. They then had to let Aaron Rodgers sit and learn behind Favre for three of his four affordable rookie scale contract years before finally moving on from Favre’s annual retirement carousel.
Drafting a future quarterback is also a really good way to irk the incumbent. What if Brees didn’t resign with the Saints because they drafted Mahomes and came to believe his style of play could help them win more? What if the Saints had simply moved on from Brees because they figured they could get similar production from a player on a far cheaper rookie scale contract?
While referencing the 2017 quarterback draft class, Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian reminisced about not picking Andy Dalton the year before Manning’s neck troubles came to a head. “But I’ll say with the exception of Deshaun Watson, none of these guys [this year] are Andy Dalton,” Polian said.
“For a number of reasons, not ability-wise. You just don’t know who they are. ... None of these guys are Drew Brees coming out of college, that much I can tell you.”
When asked whether the time is right to replace an aging star quarterback, Polian countered, “So I guess the short answer is, it depends on the year.” But not every franchise is willing to go 2-14 to draft the next Andrew Luck; assuming that player even plays close to the level Andrew Luck.
When drafting Garoppolo, Bill Belichick said, “I think depth is always important. You never know when you’re going to need it. Other people have different philosophies. I’m just saying that the contrast to that example, I don’t think that’s really what we’re trying to do.”
Hopefully the Saints can avoid a major fall off the cliff when Brees does eventually retire, but no player in the 2017 draft class exemplified their ability to draft for the future than their 32nd overall pick Ryan Ramczyk. At the time of his selection, incumbent right tackle Zach Strief was coming off one of his best seasons of his decade long career.
Some scouts and sports writers claimed the selection was premature and didn’t address an immediate position of need like pass rusher. But the Saints stayed true to their motto of drafting the highest graded player available regardless of position.
”Our grade on Ryan was in the top half of Round 1, inside a grade of (pick) 15,” Payton said. “The next pass rusher grade would be somewhere tomorrow. I mean, there was a big gap, so we weren’t going to go away from just a clear gap in the grades. (Ramczyk) was a player graded in the first round by every one of our scouts, so we felt good about that.”
But Ramczyk wasn’t their highest graded player just moments before. In a crazy turn of events, linebacker Reuben Foster was called by the Saints to inform him he was going to be drafted by them at 32 before clicking over to the 49ers incoming call telling him they had selected him at 31.
The Saints were literally one spot and one phone call away from drafting a player whose football future is now on hold following two failed drug tests, a marijuana charge, a weapons charge, and two separate domestic violence charges.
Instead, the Saints drafted a player who ended up starting three games at left tackle for a briefly injured Terron Armstead and 12 games at right tackle for Strief after he suffered a season ending knee injury. Strief ended up retiring and Ramzcyk is now the second highest rated right tackle in the league according to Pro Football Focus.
What ESPN talking heads can’t seem to grasp about the Saints’ recent three week offensive skid is that they have sustained and persevered through several usually cataclysmic losses along the offensive line. Armstead, PFF’s highest graded offensive linemen in the entire league, has been out with a pectoral injury for five weeks and the Saints have only lost once.
Just this past Monday, the Saints pulled out a close win against the Carolina Panthers with a hodgepodge offensive line comprised of Andrus Peat at left tackle, Will Clapp at left guard, Cameron Tom at center, Larry Warford at right guard, and Ryan Ramzcyk at right tackle. Tom is an undrafted free agent in his second year in the league and Clapp is a seventh rounder from LSU from this past year’s draft.
Armstead and Unger should be able to return soon or at least by the playoffs when it really counts. Hopefully Bushrod’s injury isn’t serious enough to keep him out long either. But with a healthy offensive line, I’m confident the Saints’ offense will return to its’ mid-season juggernaut self.
If the Saints can win one of their two final games this season, they will have achieved all of their regular season goals by securing a division title, the number one seed, and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Just think how different the situation could be if the Saints had drafted Mahomes and Foster instead of Lattimore and Ramzcyk?
The secondary would probably still be a liability instead of a strength without Lattimore’s Pro Bowl level play. DeMario Davis probably wouldn’t be here playing the season of his life. The linebackers would still suck because Foster would have been cut, traded, or worse, in jail.
Brees would probably be on another team still playing at a high level at age 39, and Mahomes’ mobility wouldn’t help much with a shell of an offensive line and no viable downfield threat resembling Tyreke Hill.
Kudos to the Saints scouting department for identifying talent with such accuracy, but many thanks are due to Kansas City and San Francisco for saving the Saints some serious drama and heartache.