Rick Sarro Thursday, May 18, 2017 Comments Off on DEFCON 1

With a single-mindedness and an unwavering mission, Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis attacked the NFL Draft with the sole purpose of upgrading a defense that in no uncertain terms has kept the New Orleans Saints out of the play-offs the last three years.

You know the story by now. The Saints’ anemic defense could no longer be ignored come draft day, and the head coach and general manager would not be swayed, distracted or denied this time around.

You should know the other side of the story as well.

Payton’s offense, led by future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees, has been the NFL’s leading passing attack for three years running. That’s all well and good, but despite Brees’ being the first quarterback to amass three straight years of 4,000 or more passing yards, all that production has resulted in three consecutive 7-9 losing seasons and the team being shut out of the play-offs.

The Saints’ draft needs were simple: defense, defense and more defense.  Specifically, they needed a cornerback, safety, pass rusher, linebacker … OK, just about every position on that side of the ball.

The pre-draft analysis was nearly the same from Payton and Loomis the last five or so years. Defensive talent was tops on the shopping list, just as it was this go-around. Payton listed cornerback and pass rusher as his two biggest needs.

But even with that said, you always get a little anxious that Payton will get sidetracked and decide to tinker with his offensive stockpile and grab a receiver, running back or tight end he thinks will offer him another of the offensive personnel packages he’s so famous for.

I think the pre-draft Adrian Peterson deal may just have gotten that itch scratched. Just days before the draft, the Saints signed the free agent, FHOF (future Hall of Fame) running back to a two-year deal worth $7 million. The deal calls for $3.5 million guaranteed, and incentives that could reach $8.25 million.

More on A.P. later.

The Saints’ draft board clearly had cornerback at the top of the list, and Ohio State’s Marshon Lattimore was considered the best of the lot. LSU’s Jamal Adams was rated the best defensive back at safety, and he was already snatched by the New York Jets with their sixth pick.

The plan was falling in place, as teams picking 1 through 10 were dazzled by all those offensive stars like Trubisky, Fournette, Davis, Williams, McCaffery, Ross and Mahomes. (These seven offensive players were taken within the first 10 picks.) The Saints may have gotten lucky with Lattimore still available at No. 11 and the Saints didn’t waver even though Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson was still in the green room.

Who Dat nation breathed a huge sigh of relief from Big Lake to the west, to the bayous of Acadiana, onward to the French Quarter and Algiers and the entire Gulf Coast. The Black & Gold faithful are sick and tired of a defense that’s been a laughing stock, embarrassment and punching bag far too long.

Over the past three years, the Saints’ defense has allowed the most passing yards, touchdown passes and total points scored in the history of the NFL. And that includes winless teams, like the 0-14 Tampa Bay Bucs in 1976 and the 0-16 Detroit Lions of 2008.

Let’s not put the halo on the young Lattimore. He won’t be a Brees-like savior. Defense doesn’t work that way, and there are still too many questions and holes. But he’s a good start.

While the Saints have been unable to draft LSU players, they’ve more than made up for it with Ohio State talent. Lattimore is the third Buckeye drafted by New Orleans in the past two years, joining receiver Michael Thomas and safety Vonn Bell. New Orleans may soon become the Columbus of the South, if this keeps up.

Payton and Loomis were in a DEFCON 1 mindset when it came close to their 32nd pick of the first round. That was the draft selection they acquired from New England with the Brandin Cooks trade.

The Saints had Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster on the phone, preparing him to become a Saint. But first-year San Francisco 49ers GM John Lynch, the former All Pro safety from the Bucs and Broncos, had other ideas about the 31st pick. Lynch got Foster on another cell phone and welcomed him to the 49ers while Payton was still on the other line.

That happens in this crazy thing called the draft. Sometimes your guy is there and other times he’s not.

Foster, a one-time favorite of Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide defense, fell from a Top 10 pick to late first round after getting a positive result on a drug test at the NFL combine and being asked to leave Indianapolis after a verbal altercation with a hospital staffer.

Payton’s back-up plan at No. 32 was Ryan Ramczyk, a big, beefy offensive tackle from Wisconsin. This was a logical decision, with veteran Zach Strief heading into his 12th season.

The round-up of defensive players continued in the second round with the selection of Utah safety Marcus Williams. The Saints had three third-round picks, which included linebackers Alex Anzalone from Florida and defensive end Trey Hendrickson out of Florida Atlantic. The Saints’ final selection was another defensive end, Al-Quadin Muhammad from Miami in the sixth round.

You didn’t expect Payton not to find an offensive toy to throw into his sand box did you?

He traded up in the third round (67th pick overall) to land Tennessee running back Alvin Kamara, who is a 214-pound jitterbug who scored 23 touchdowns on just 284 touches in limited action for the Vols. For a pass-happy offense, Payton is stockpiling running backs with a different set of skills.

Veteran Mark Ingram is coming off his first-ever 1,000-yard season, and is getting better with each passing season. Travaris Cadet keeps making the roster because of his versatility. Speedy Marcus Murphy is used as a third down back and returner.

Kamara is fast, shifty and able to break tackles. Payton says his abilities will allow him to play some as slot receiver and return punts, too. That sounds awfully similar to Daren Sproles, whom Payton still regrets trading a few years ago.

This brings me back to the curious signing of Peterson. What most people know and remember of Peterson was his one off-the-field mishap. But it was a doozy: a 2014 indictment on charges of reckless and negligent injury to his young son. Peterson claimed he was simply using old school discipline while taking a wooden stick to his boy’s backside. He agreed to a plea bargain, but the high profile case and emotion-filled charges led the NFL to suspend Peterson for most of the 2014 season.

With a chip on his muscular shoulders, A.P. came back in 2015 to lead the league in rushing with 1,485 yards on 348 carries for a 6-yard per rush average, playing in all 16 Games. During week two of last season, Peterson suffered his second knee injury. This time, it was a torn meniscus in his right knee. He missed most of the last year, returning to action late in the season with minimal action.

After making him the highest paid running back ($96 million over 7 years) in 2011, Minnesota decided in February not to exercise a contractual option and let Peterson go.

If you’re not familiar with his Hall of Fame resume, please take notes. The former first-round draft pick from Oklahoma is a seven-time Pro Bowler who led the league in rushing three times (2008, 2012 and 2015); NFL MVP award winner in 2012; NFL Offensive Player of the Year winner in the same year; Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2007; tops in the NFL in rushing touchdowns in 2009 and as recently as 2015. And he owns the league’s single-game record for rushing at 296 yards.

His 11,747 career yards and 97 touchdowns were amassed over an amazing eight-plus seasons. His rep as an athletic freak was bolstered after he took a mere eight months of rehab for a torn ACL and MCL between the 2011 and 2012 seasons. Coming off what could have been a career-ending knee injury, Peterson ran for an astounding 2,097 yards, the second highest total in a single season in NFL history — earning that MVP honor and the award for Comeback Player of the Year.

Let those stats and accomplishments sink in while noting just where Peterson is on the scale of the greatest running backs of all time.

I know, at 32, Peterson is two years past where most running backs, even the elite ones, begin a downward trend. I would argue he’s a young 32-year-old, having missed a full season in 2014 and nearly the full slate of games in 2016.

At first glance, I winced when news broke that the Saints signed Peterson. New Orleans had been the only team to show interest and offer him a deal up to this point. I found no harm in maybe a one-year contract with little-to-no guaranteed money. But in hindsight, the two-year pact at $7 million is a worthy risk for a talent of Peterson’s stature.

The question is, can he come back again from a second knee injury the way he did in 2012?

Peterson won’t get anywhere near 300 carries in a Payton-Brees offense, and that will make him that much more dangerous out of the backfield and in the passing game. Even though the Vikings didn’t feature him much on routes, Peterson does have 241 career catches for 1,945 yards.

Payton has always said he wanted more balance between the pass and running game in his offense, but it was mostly lip service. Maybe he saw what Zeke Elliott did for Dallas’ offense last season, and he noted the fact that Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffery were two running backs that went among the Top 10 picks this year.

I like the idea of signing Peterson to a short two years at bargain money. As a power runner, his legs have some wear and tear along with the knee injuries. But he’s proven his DNA is different, and maybe, just maybe, his 32 is the new 26. I’m also banking on Peterson playing with another Texas size chip on his shoulder this fall.

I always enjoy the NFL Draft and find it intriguing on many levels: the subterfuge and smoke screens used by teams; needs versus wants; subplots, story lines, leaks, character issues and the occasional unflattering Twitter videos; a Top 10 player dropping to late first round; and, of course, the quest to find a star quarterback.

This draft brought a few firsts to my mind. Three teams, two of them play-off squads from last season, traded up to draft quarterbacks who are far from iron locks and instant starters. Chicago took a huge gamble on Mitchell Trubisky at No. 2 overall with only 13 collegiate starts at North Carolina.

Kansas City shocked many by moving up to grab baby face Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes with the 10th pick of the first round. The history of Big 12 quarterbacks making a mark in the NFL is dismal. And Houston, fresh off the Brock Osweiller debacle, traded up to the 12th spot to secure Deshaun Watson. He’s a proven leader and winner, but does he possess NFL-quality arm strength?

Another first for me was seeing Utah offensive lineman Garett Bolles, the first-round pick of Denver, carrying his infant son out onto the stage to swap hugs with Commissioner Roger Goodell. It was a pretty cool scene — watching this giant of a man kiss and hug on his baby boy no bigger than his forearm.

When did players not in the draft green room, and instead at home with friends and family, begin cutting sponsorship deals for draft day? Missouri linebacker Charles Harris went all out with his Jacks Links beef jerky T shirt with the company’s giant Sasquatch character standing right behind him in full hairy garb! The mysterious Big Foot got more ESPN air time than in his TV commercials.

Alabama’s Reuben Foster was another SEC linebacker with a draft day corporate deal with a logo T-shirt and room signage — company mascot not included.

Look, I don’t blame these players one bit. They just spent their entire collegiate careers watching their respective universities make millions off their sweat and blood. I say, get paid as quickly as you can however you can. It’s call branding, and it’s never too early to start.

And finally, the NFC South got what I think will be four of the draft’s most productive and NFL-ready players. Unfortunately, none will wear the Fluer de Lis, and the Saints will see them twice a year.

Stanford’s all-purpose tailback McCaffrey will churn out significant yards for Carolina. Alabama tight end O.J. Howard — I really wanted the Saints to trade up to No. 19 to get him, despite their defensive needs — will be a beast for the Buccaneers next season, as will LSU linebacker Kendall Beckwith, taken by Tampa Bay in the third round. And LSU linebacker Duke Riley will join his former Tiger teammate Deion Jones with the Atlanta Falcons.

The NFL Draft’s three-day marathon is in the books. We’ll soon see whether all the hype and player analysis will result in success at the next level.

For the Saints on red alert, the draft was a successful mission targeted at a defense undermanned far too long.

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