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Who gets on the field first? Ranking Saints rookies by first-year expectations

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Which rookies can make the biggest impact?

Mobile, AL, USA; South squad wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith of Central  Florida (4) celebrates after catching a pass for touchdown against the  North squad during the first quarter of the 2018 Senior Bowl at  Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
Mobile, AL, USA; South squad wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith of Central Florida (4) celebrates after catching a pass for touchdown against the North squad during the first quarter of the 2018 Senior Bowl at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
Glenn Andrews-USA TODAY Sports

Draft grades are old hat. The only thing that matters is which rookies can help the New Orleans Saints compete for a Super Bowl title the soonest. So I’ve ranked each of these picks in that order, ignoring the draft capital spent on each of them. Here’s what I’ve come up with in listing them, along with a quick projection of their role in 2018:

1. Edge defender Marcus Davenport

Every single draft grade and reaction piece has been dedicated to casting Davenport as “raw”, but few go into what that means. If you take these opinions at face value you’d think Davenport is going to be a gameday inactive for most of the season. That’s not the case. The guy can play and should be starting opposite Cam Jordan from opening day. He has a lot to learn about the game, namely getting more comfortable playing in a three-point stance and attacking blockers with a plan, but it’s not like he’s clueless. The guys he gets compared to most-often (Ezekiel Ansah, Bruce Irvin, Aldon Smith, and Danielle Hunter) averaged 9 sacks in their rookie years. While that feels high at first blush, I’ve got faith in the situation Davenport enters - working under a talented position coach in Ryan Nielsen and alongside refined hands-fighters Jordan and Hau’oli Kikaha - to make that his goal.

2. Running back Boston Scott

This pick puzzled draft analysts who didn’t follow the Saints that closely last year, specifically their Thursday Night Football 20-17 loss against the Atlanta Falcons. Alvin Kamara exited that game after getting concussed a few minutes in. The team collapsed without him, managing just 3.3 yards per carry and converting 3-for-10 on third down, ultimately getting shut out in the fourth quarter. Kamara was the only player on the Saints’ roster with his skills set and they needed someone who could at least do some of what he could. That’s where Scott, one of college football’s most-elusive backs, comes in. He won’t displace Kamara by any means, but can lessen the load on the reigning Rookie of the Year thanks to a Darren Sproles-esque set of skills. Scott is also an accomplished kickoff returner, fielding 29 times for 633 yards the last three years. Tommylee Lewis led the Saints in kickoff returns last year (13) but looks to be displaced by the next rookie I’ll discuss. Would you be shocked if we look up in December to see that he’s picked up 600 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns between his work on special teams and guest appearances on offense?

3. Wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith

There’s an argument to be made for Tre’Quan Smith contributing more than Scott in their rookie year, but I think the logjam at receiver ahead of Smith and Scott’s special teams ability give the edge to the running back. That’s not to say Smith won’t get on the field right away - he just has to compete with Michael Thomas, Cameron Meredith, and Ted Ginn Jr for reps. More than a few draft analysts suggested Brandon Coleman will also keep Smith off the field, which is frankly laughable. The Saints’ fourth wide receiver has struggled to see more than 40 targets in recent years. Smith offers big-play potential (averaging 19.9-yards per catch last year) and was a dominant blocker in college, so if that translates he could be the go-to option on play-action and in single-receiver sets. If Meredith’s injury rehab takes longer than expected we could see Smith get valuable early-season experience against suspect pass defenses like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Week 1) and Cleveland Browns (Week 2).

4. Defensive back Natrell Jamerson

Elite athletic testing? Check. Standout ball skills? Check. Special teams playmaking? Check. Jamerson may be my favorite prospect the Saints have added, especially on the third day of the draft. He figures to compete with Justin Hardee and Chris Banjo as one of the lead special teamers while finding his role on defense. Jamerson lined up everywhere for Wisconsin, putting his best tape out at safety, but the Saints have indicated they will first try his strong man coverage skills at outside cornerback. It’s open season on the back end of the defense so I won’t be surprised when Jamerson is playing significant snaps come December. In the meantime, he’ll be killing it on punt and kickoff coverage.

5. Defensive back Kamrin Moore

Moore offers similar skills to Jamerson, which makes sense considering the Saints graded them similarly before drafting both defensive backs. They’re both strong open-field tacklers with some ball skills thanks to playing wide receiver earlier in their careers. However, Moore specializes in zone coverage over the slot whereas Jamerson is more of a man corner. Between the two of them we will probably have seen the last of De’Vante Harris and are in the last year of the P.J. Williams experience, though I’ll be surprised if Moore plays ahead of Jamerson early in the season.

6. Offensive lineman Will Clapp

The Saints may have just found a succession plan for Max Unger in the draft’s final minutes. Clapp is a competent center with experience at guard and already a fan favorite thanks to his alma mater. He figures to play more often than the other offensive lineman the Saints drafted, though I expect neither of them outsnaps Jermon Bushrod as the go-to sixth man and initial backup at guard and tackle. But before Clapp can get started on that he needs to outperform last year’s big undrafted free agent, Cameron Tom, who the Saints worked hard to keep on the roster. We’ve got a backup center competition, folks.

7. Offensive lineman Rick Leonard

We need to come together and hope that Leonard doesn’t see the field much in 2018, if at all. He’s only been playing right tackle for two years and is still learning the position despite winning the starting job in 2017. He’s got the size and athleticism you look for but plays with little to no technique. He was a liability in pass protection, allowing five sacks and seventeen other pressures per Pro Football Focus charting. Basically he’s the guy many analysts are making Marcus Davenport out to be. He might be good some day, and the Saints do have a great offensive line position coach in Dan Roushar, but our expectations for what Leonard can contribute in 2018 should be tempered down to a redshirt.

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What do you think? Which rookies do you expect to make the biggest impact this season?