The New Orleans Saints are the defending NFC South champions, returning to the playoffs for the first time in four seasons. Over the last three years, the Saints have re-tooled their roster, smartly surrounding veteran leaders Drew Brees, Cameron Jordan, and Mark Ingram with younger and reasonably priced free agents and talented draft choices.
The strategy has paid off, and a large part of a championship caliber New Orleans roster is made up of players 25-yrs. old or younger. The Saints own the 27th pick in the first round of the upcoming draft. Today, we have a look at some of the realistic options that may be available to them at that spot based on team needs.
Future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees will be entering his 18th NFL season. The 39-yr. old Brees is still playing at a high level, and recently signed a two year contract extension. A great concern to some of the team's fans is the fact that the Saints don't currently have a clear succession plan in place once Brees retires.
Last year, the team was rumored to be heavily interested in Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes before he was selected by Kansas City one pick before New Orleans. This year, the Saints have been rumored to be heavily interested in two Heisman Trophy winning signal callers, Lamar Jackson of Louisville, who won the award in 2016 and Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield, last year's winner. Mayfield will almost certainly require a significant trade up in the draft to select, but Jackson will likely be available late in the first.
New Orleans is among the NFC's top contenders, but will need to keep pace with what looks to be a loaded conference. Drafting the "quarterback of the future" with their 1st round pick does not immediately provide the team improvement to keep pace with the Rams, Vikings, and Eagles.
Michael Thomas certainly established himself as one of the league's elite wideouts last year in just his second season, but the rest of the Saints wide receivers underperformed in 2017. Top prospects Calvin Ridley of Alabama, Courtland Sutton of S.M.U.,and Christian Kirk of Texas A&M should be gone by the time New Orleans picks first.
One name that the Saints have been linked to in the first round often is D.J. Moore from Maryland. Some even have them selecting a local favorite, Louisiana State's D.J. Chark, though considered a reach for this spot. Coach Sean Payton has mentioned that the team will focus on additional pass catchers this offseason to support their star wideout. There are some solid options in this wide receiver class that will also be available in days two and three, so we may see New Orleans use multiple picks at this position.
If the New Orleans wide receivers underperformed, then their tight ends were downright invisible in 2017. The team's attempts to bring in Austin Seferian-Jenkins or bring back Jimmy Graham as free agents were unsuccessful, leading many to believe that New Orleans will use a top pick to select a tight end. Hayden Hurst (South Carolina), Mike Gesicki (Penn State), and Dallas Goedert (South Dakota State) are talented receiving threats that are projected to be picked between the late 1st and mid-2nd round. The recent signing of Benjamin Watson provides a perfect veteran mentor for a young tight end.
The Saints have one of the better offensive lines in the league, but suffered some key depth losses in the offseason when tackle Zach Strief retired and Senio Kelemete signed with Houston. Veteran Jermon Bushrod was re-signed to offset some of that, but Terron Armstead has struggled with injuries in recent seasons. Georgia's Isaiah Wynn and Will Hernandez of Texas-El Paso are both mid-late 1st round prospects that would give the Saints further flexibility along a talented line, preventing a big drop off in the event of injury.
The Saints free agent pursuit of a boy named Suh is an indication to some that the team is not satisfied with the production of the interior of it's defensive line. Top prospect Vita Vea of Washington seems likely to be the first defensive tackle off the board. Da'Ron Payne of Alabama and Michigan's Maurice Hurst have been projected anywhere between the middle of the 1st round to even the later part of the second day in Hurst's case, due to medical concerns.
Florida's Taven Bryan has risen to consistent first round consideration, and has been linked to New Orleans in some recent mock drafts. There are some solid interior options that should be available in the middle rounds as well, so the Saints may address this position later in the draft.
Saints coach Sean Payton has made a point all offseason of saying that edge rushers would be a point of emphasis. He said the same thing last season, but the team didn't address the position until the end of the 3rd round, with the selection of Trey Hendrickson. Top prospect Bradley Chubb (N.C. State) and Marcus Davenport (U.T.S.A.) look to be the first two edge rushers drafted, and will take a significant trade up to get.
After them there looks to be a significant drop in talent, but some names mentioned for the Saints have been Sam Hubbard (Ohio State), Arden Key (L.S.U.), Harold Landry (Boston College), and Josh Sweat (Florida State). All are talented players, but are considered a bit of a reach by some as first round picks. Still considered a position of need for the team, the Saints may choose to address the position in day two of the draft, rather then reach for a player with their first pick.
New Orleans added Demario Davis in free agency, which should strengthen a linebacking corps that played better last season. The two best outside linebackers on the board, Georgia's Roquan Smith and Tremaine Edmunds of Virginia Tech, figure to be drafted in the top half of the first round. Prior to free agency, many had the Saints nabbing Alabama's Rashaan Evans with the 27th pick. That seems less likely now, with the addition of Davis, but another athletic linebacker could still boost an improving defense.
New Orleans drafted Marshon Lattimore with the 11th overall selection last year, and Lattimore went on to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year. He teamed with 2nd yr. Ken Crawley to give the Saints one of the more effective cornerback duos in the league. The team then signed Patrick Robinson in free agency to compete with P.J. Williams in nickel packages.
The top cover men in this class are Minkah Fitzpatrick (Alabama), Denzel Ward (Ohio State), and John Jackson (Iowa) will almost certainly be gone before the Saints turn on the clock. Jaire Alexander of Louisville has been mocked to New Orleans in some circles. A team can never have enough quality cornerbacks, but the Saints secondary is more formidable than it has been in quite some time. Unless one of the top cornerbacks fall, New Orleans seems more likely to address bigger needs early in the draft, perhaps selecting a developmental corner in a later round.
Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis are nothing if not unpredictable when it comes to draft strategy. A number of the draft prospects named today would require a trade up, something New Orleans has never had hesitation to do. Trading down is also a possibility, but one that the Saints have never done in the first round since Payton has been the head coach. That may change this draft. There is some depth at some of the positions of need, and would prevent the team from potentially reaching on a prospect, while also picking up additional prospects. One thing seems certain: all eyes will be fixed on the NFL on Thursday, April 26th.
What do you think the Saints will do with the 27th pick?
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