The 2018 NFL Draft wrapped up last weekend, so it’s time to look towards the 2019 NFL Draft. The body has had a week to cool so save your tears and snide comments. I can only write about how the Marcus Davenport trade isn’t as dumb as thousands of podcast hosts insist it is in so many different ways. Turn back now if this isn’t your idea of fun weekend reading. If you’re so put out by it save your bemoaning and vote in the poll next time to save me from myself:
would a very brief four round 2019 Saints mock draft interest you— John Sigler (@john_siglerrr) May 4, 2018
Nobody knows anything about the 2019 NFL Draft class just yet, so this is all speculation delivered to you from me, equal parts optimistic Saints fan (we’re winning the Super Bowl this year, y’all) and enthusiastic fan of college football (#SMTTT). So grab your coffee and think about how much happier we’ll all be come September when the greatest sport on Earth consumes our weekends.
Round 1, Pick 32 (32nd Overall)
Edge defender Marcus Davenport, UTSA Roadrunners
.@Saints @MarcusJD84 welcome to ‘Nola. If you play with max effort and max your talent good things will happen and the fans will ❤️❤️❤️ you. #BaldyBreakdowns pic.twitter.com/NzTk6MzLsj— Brian Baldinger (@BaldyNFL) April 30, 2018
I said I was finished defending the Davenport pick, but didn’t consider I’d have to put a blurb here about him considering he takes the place of next year’s first round draft pick. That’s what we in journalism call an oversight. Anyway, I’m drinking more Kool-Aid on Davenport the more I read about him and his background, as well as what factors drove the Saints into boldly trading up for him.
Davenport comes from a family of Army and Air Force veterans that taught him the importance of disciplined work and a structured home life. He embraced the grind at UTSA as a 6-foot-3, 210-pound freshman wide receiver to turn into a 6-foot-6, 265-pound pass rusher as a senior. Combine that strong work ethic with a great Saints position coach in Ryan Nielsen (twice-nominated for the Broyles Award at NC State, college football’s recognition of the best assistant coach) and an All-Pro mentor in Cameron Jordan, you’ll find it’s easy to get excited.
A great research project from ESPN’s Mike Triplett dove into what price the Saints paid and what kind of returns they could expect on their investment. Nine of the ten Pro Bowl edge rushers last year were top-34 draft picks. To pair that with my own look into the rookie-year production of first-round edge rushers, we can see that they average 5.8 sacks per year during their debut. Only a select few - Joey Bosa, Aldon Smith, and Von Miller - since 2010 have broken the double-digit barrier as rookies. So while the odds are against Davenport having prolific sack totals in 2018, I’m eager to see how his overall pressure profile (combined quarterback sacks, hits, and hurries) looks after a year in the pros.
Round 2, Pick 32 (64th Overall)
Tight end Noah Fant, Iowa Hawkeyes
I am a fan of Iowa TE Noah Fant (6'5 232). Jot the name down for 2019. @DFF_Devy pic.twitter.com/IdDWKjV1L1— Ty Wurth (@WurthDraft) December 1, 2017
The Saints moved heaven and earth to find a tight end last draft cycle, interviewing prospects early and often from official interviews at the Senior Bowl to private workouts across the country. New Orleans’ evaluations just never matched up with their draft positioning. So we’re looking ahead to 2019. Besides a couple of undrafted rookies, the Saints will only have Coby Fleener under contract - deals for Benjamin Watson, Josh Hill, and Michael Hoomanawanui will each expire in March 2019. This is the most-important position of need moving forward.
Noah Fant exploded onto the scene early last October against Fighting Illini head coach Lovie Smith’s defense, catching three passes for 78 yards. Fant went on to score in every game through the rest of the season, playing his best ball against his best competition: the Ohio State Buckeyes and Nebraska Huskers. Those two squads have sent a number of defenders into the NFL over the past few years, and Fant torched them to the tune of 170 yards and four touchdowns on just seven catches.
Fant hasn’t seen many targets in Iowa’s run-heavy offense (he was second on the team with 30 catches; four different running backs had more carries) but he’s remarkably efficient on a small sample size. Coming from Iowa, also called Tight End U, you know Fant can help out as a blocker - but that would be a waste of the nation’s reigning leader in tight end touchdowns.
Round 3, Pick 32 (96th Overall)
Linebacker Shaquille Quarterman, Miami Hurricanes
Here’s a list of the Saints linebackers hitting free agency next March: Manti Te’o, Craig Robertson, Hau’oli Kikaha (he plays more edge defender than linebacker but this helps illustrate my point), Nathan Stupar, Michael Mauti, and Jayrone Elliott. The only linebackers under contract for 2019 are DeMario Davis (who will be 30) and A.J. Klein and Alex Anzalone (neither of whom played all 16 games last year). The Saints can very likely return those free agents-to-be on cheap contracts, but drafting a talented young linebacker would make more sense as a long-term solution.
Not many freshmen start at linebacker for the U, but Shaq Quarterman has. He enters his junior season as a two-year starter at inside linebacker and a leader of one of college football’s most-fiery defenses. He even started four years in high school before joining the Hurricanes, and puts that wealth of experience to good use as the signal-calling MIKE of the defense. That shows up as readily on his game tape as it does on the stat sheet - he’s broken the 80-tackle mark in each season, recording 17 tackles for loss of yardage to go with six sacks and a dozen other quarterback pressures over two years. Quarterman stepped up in pass coverage last year, deflecting five balls thrown into his zone.
Quarterman looks the part of a Saints linebacker, and it’s easy to imagine him patrolling the middle of the field alongside a seasoned veteran in Davis and another intelligent upper-echelon athlete in Anzalone. It’s just a question of whether he returns to school for his senior year and whether the Saints like his fit as much as I do. It’s tough to imagine them passing on a 21-year old rookie who preaches about embracing the grind and ease-of-communication between teammates.
Round 4, Pick 32 (132nd Overall)
Quarterback Ryan Finley, NC State Wolfpack
I grappled with this pick for a bit, waffling between which Clemson Tigers defensive lineman I think doesn’t meet sky-high expectations (Dexter Lawrence) and the latest nice Ohio State Buckeyes offensive lineman (Michael Jordan), ultimately settling on a quarterback. The Saints have given us enough hints to infer what kind of quarterback they like, mostly through Sean Payton’s public praise of Patrick Mahomes, Baker Mayfield, and Lamar Jackson. Each of those guys ran their offense with both hands on the wheel and were in total control of what happened around them, winning games through the air with the ability to make an occasional play with their legs. That’s also true of two undrafted quarterbacks Payton has brought into the fold - Taysom Hill and J.T. Barrett.
Enter Ryan Finley. The underrated senior transferred to NC State after a medical redshirt and some struggles to get on the field at Boise State. Finley hit the ground running at his new school, winning the starting job and gotten better in each year, initially completing 60-percent of his passes for 3,000-yards before jumping up to 65-percent and 3,500-yards. He’s protected the ball well outside a bad 2016 speedbump where he turned it over six times in three games played over 15 days. He bounced back from that to set a new school record in consecutive passes without a turnover (139) previously set by Philip Rivers and Russell Wilson. The 194-yards he put up on the ground last year weren’t flashy, but they were enough to keep the play alive and pick up a few big third downs, so props.
So Finley makes plenty of sense for New Orleans or any other QB-needy team in 2019, especially in the middle of the draft. I won’t be shocked in the least if he has another strong year and goes on to light up the Reese’s Senior Bowl in Mobile before solidifying himself as a first round pick. Remember, this time last year the future 2018 first overall selection - Baker Mayfield, who I’ve been telling you all would be good since last September - was in a very similar situation.
So there we have it. I’ve gotten all this 2019 Draft talk off my chest, and you won’t hear it from me again for like five or six months. Saints rookie minicamps are next weekend!