When the Saints were on the clock with the 51st pick in the 1981 NFL draft, they had yet to have a winning season and had not drafted a single player that even came close to making the Hall of Fame in their first 14 years of existence. The selection of Rickey Jackson with that 51st pick changed that. In our most recent poll, 21% of you voted for Jackson as the Saints best draft pick, second behind Marques Colston.
Who was the Saints best draft pick and why?— Canal St. Chronicles (@SaintsCSC) April 19, 2023
Drafted by cowboy hat wearing head coach Bum Phillips, Jackson sharpened his talents at the University of Pittsburgh by practicing against future Hall of Fame offensive linemen Russ Grimm and Jimbo Covert as well as College Football Hall of Famer Mark May. The Saints had the #1 overall pick in 1981, a draft that included eight future Hall of Famers, but didn’t get theirs until their 3rd pick in the draft. The Saints selected running back George Rogers with their top pick, one selection ahead of Lawrence Taylor and also ahead of players like Ronnie Lott and Mike Singletary. Rogers would have a good career for the Saints but never rose to the level of a Hall of Famer. Luckily enough, the Saints managed to draft their franchise cornerstone in the second round after trading with San Diego to get back into the round.
Jackson started fast with an 8-sack rookie season, and following a strike shortened season in 1982, Jackson reeled off five straight seasons of 9+ sacks and only had fewer than 7 sacks in one of his next 11 seasons. He was known for his combination of strength and speed, Jackson was known for not to wearing knee or thigh pads in order to increase his speed.
Starting in 1986 with the acquisition of linebackers Sam Mills, Vaughn Johnson, and Pat Swilling, and the hiring of head coach Jim Mora, Jackson became a member of the vaunted Dome Patrol, the greatest linebacker corps in NFL history. This group never had a losing season in the six years they were together and led the Saints to their first four playoff appearances in team history. A lack of offense and any other solid pieces on defense meant Jackson finished his career with the Saints 0-4 in the playoffs but compared to the previous 20 years of Saints football before the Dome Patrol was formed, this success was huge.
Jackson would leave the Saints in 1994 to join Steve Young and the San Francisco 49ers, a team that would go on to win the Super Bowl that season. Jackson would retire following the 1995 season, a year in which, at 37 years old, he still managed to get 9.5 sacks.
Jackson would retire with six Saints team records, including most sacks and most games played, and as the second all-time leader in NFL history in fumble recoveries and third all-time in NFL history in sacks. Jackson would finally be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on February 6, 2010, the day before the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV. His bust now sits in Canton appropriately right next to Willie Roaf, the Saints second ever Hall of Famer.
With all that said, it’s hard not to see how Jackson wasn’t voted as the Saints best all-time draft pick. Recency bias certainly plays a part, but the fact that Jackson was a second-round pick in a draft littered with Hall of Famers makes it understandable why Marques Colston would be seen as a better draft pick. Jackson was a better player than Colston, as it is unfortunately unlikely Colston winds up in the Hall of Fame with Jackson but getting your franchises all-time leading receiver with the 252nd overall pick out of a small school like Hofstra is certainly hard to argue with when it comes to value from a draft pick.
Regardless, Jackson was certainly the draft pick that set the Saints on course for success, as quite literally 100% of their winning seasons and playoff berths came after Jackson was drafted, proving once and for all that the lowly Saints were now a team to be trifled with.
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