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Saints draft tendencies highlight small-school stars, elite athletes, and Buckeyes

It turns out there’s a little method to New Orleans’ madness.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - Terron Armstead (72) of the New Orleans  Saints takes the field before a game against the New York Jets at the  Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
NEW ORLEANS, LA - Terron Armstead (72) of the New Orleans Saints takes the field before a game against the New York Jets at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The New Orleans Saints go on the clock for the first time in tomorrow night’s 2018 NFL Draft, and I couldn’t be more excited. It’s time to do some last-minute note-checking, so here’s what I’ve found on Saints draft tendencies over the last few years. Justin Mosqueda of Bleacher Report made note of the Saints’ success in targeting standouts from lower levels of collegiate play, writing:

Since 2006, New Orleans Saints general manage Mickey Loomis has hit the small-school market harder than just about anyone.

Over the last 12 drafts, the Loomis-led Saints have used third-round picks on players from Akron, Kent State, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Colorado State and Florida Atlantic. In the fourth round, he plucked prospects from Towson, Bloomsburg and Canada’s Manitoba. In the fifth round, he grabbed guys from Wingate, SMU, Samford and Tennessee-Chattanooga.

Over the years, that small-school and mid-major approach has rewarded the Saints with talents like guard Jahri Evans (the top-ranked New Orleans draft pick in approximate value since 2006), wide receiver Marques Colston (second), tackle Jermon Bushrod (fourth) and current starting left tackle Terron Armstead.

Once the third round comes around, you never know where New Orleans’ draft selection will come from. The Saints are better at identifying small-school gems than just about anyone.

So the Saints are very comfortable looking all over for draft prospects, and we may see that come to fruition with the selection of South Dakota State tight end Dallas Goedert this year. Goedert rarely faced top-shelf talent but he posted elite wide receiver production while playing at around 260-pounds. He’s very much in play for the Saints’ first round pick, partly due to his off-the-charts athletics testing, which brings us to the next point.

The Saints have their own in-house metrics for athletic performance since Jeff Ireland took over college scouting, but SPARQ is a good public measurement. SPARQ takes the results from multiple different Scouting Combine drills to make a composite score, then compares it against historical results to give context.

We won’t know how players performed by the Saints’ calculations, but SPARQ testing results show some correlation: 9 of their last 15 draft picks in the top four rounds have cleared SPARQ’s 80th-percentile at their position groups per Aaron Freeman of Locked on Falcons. Results later in the draft are spotty at best, but two notable SPARQ stars are edge defender Davis Tull (99th-percentile) and running back David Lasco (92nd-percentile), both drafted in 2015.

For comparison, Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki cleared the 99th-percentile at the Scouting Combine. Goedert’s agent held him out of drills until his pro day, where he nearly-matched most of Gesicki’s numbers. We won’t get an official SPARQ score for him, but I would expect he clears the same 80th-percntile as most of the Saints’ recent draft picks.

It’s hard to pin down positions the Saints value over others, but we do have an idea of how they look at offensive linemen. Their recent first-round picks - Ryan Ramczyk in 2017, Andrus Peat in 2015 - suggest that New Orleans wants linemen from run-heavy offenses like the Wisconsin Badgers (66.9-percent of plays were runs in Ramczyk’s 2016 season) and Stanford Cardinal (60-percent of plays were runs in Peat’s 2013 and 2014 seasons), giving them some physicality out of the gate. While neither of those guys were seen as accomplished pass protectors coming out of college, the Saints trust Drew Brees’ rare pocket mobility to make their jobs easier.

And lest we forget, the Saints love themselves some Ohio State Buckeyes. They have drafted three Buckeyes in the top 50 picks of the 2017 and 2016 NFL Drafts, adding Marshon Lattimore, Michael Thomas, and Vonn Bell. Former Buckeyes like Ted Ginn Jr and Kurt Coleman also signed with the team in consecutive offseasons. That’s probably mere coincidence, but it’d be great if they land Ohio State draft prospects like linebacker Jerome Baker (85th-percentile) or edge defender Sam Hubbard (sadly, 53rd-percentile) on draft day.