By Rick Sarro
The 2017 NFL draft class for the New Orleans Saints was the very best collection of collegiate picks in the franchise’s 51 year history. Bar none.
There you have it — my bold column statement right from the start. No need to say much more if you’ve been paying attention to the Saints season so far. Thanks for reading. See you in a couple of weeks.
Well, Lagniappe editors and the publisher do expect a few more paragraphs from me, so I guess I will elaborate somewhat and make my case. I usually begin with a few soft opening sentences to pull you into my story line, and build from there with facts, figures, insightful commentary and unassailable opinions. Then I finish the column up by reaching back to the beginning, connecting the dots, if you will, for the big proclamation and a thought-provoking ending.
That’s my hope and goal anyway.
In this case, there was no need to beat around the bush or wax on about this or that. The talent on the football field, and the execution from these Saints rookies, have unequivocally made the difference between a possible fourth straight 7-9 season and this 11-5 NFC South Division-winning year and the team’s first play-off appearance since 2013, when they hosted division rival Carolina in the Wildcard round in the SuperDome.
“The significance of the draft class can’t be overstated.” That’s what coach Sean Payton said of his group of rookie stars back in early November. A month later, and he’s preparing for a play-off run that’s been a long time coming. Payton may have even more gushing things to say now.
I know what quarterback Drew Brees means to this team, and the fact that the Saints will ultimately go as far as Brees can take them. His Hall-of-Fame career, with more than 70,000 passing yards and an uncanny pinpoint accuracy that leads the NFL’s all time completion percentage rate with 71 percent, is undeniably exemplary.
Let’s go even further down the list of veteran star performers, like defensive player Cam Jordan’s 10-plus sacks a year. Running back Mark Ingram has amassed two straight 1,000-yard seasons, along with nearly a grand in 2014, and 179 receptions over the past four years.
This trio has been a common denominator since after the Super Bowl title year in 2010, and they have played at a high level. Maybe even Pro Bowl status. But the Saints could do no better than three consecutive 7-9 records since 2014.
Clearly they could not do it on their own and overcome one of the worst defenses the league has seen in the past three years.
The Saints’ fortunes didn’t turn around until this 2017 draft class joined the ranks — plugged gaping holes and literally transformed this franchise into an NFC power and Super Bowl contender over the course of 15 weeks.
It didn’t start off so hot, though.
Two straight losses to Minnesota (29-19) and New England (36-20) had the Saints at 0-2, with a defense struggling to break away from the shackles of the past three years (over 1,000 yards of offense allowed against the Vikings and Patriots) and a running game with no traction to start the year.
Then came a 34-13 road win at Carolina, a difficult trip to London and a 20-0 shutout of Miami. The two games I feel set the tone were the 52-38 shootout win over Detroit and that 26-17 road upset of Aaron Rogers and Green Bay.
Before you could say Who Dat? the Saints had won eight straight in various forms and with various results. There were hard-fought wins, like the 8-pointer against the Bears. There was a shocking blowout at Buffalo and a thrilling comeback win over Washington that saw Brees throw two late-game touchdown passes.
You don’t have to spend days in a film room breaking down game tape or dissecting every play to discover the magic potion that healed the Saints’ ills.
The magic lay in a defense that went from dead last in the NFL in total yards and passing defense to being ranked middle of the pack. There was a huge jump under defensive coordinator Dennis Allen.
The Saints have always been able to churn out offensive yards, but mostly from the arm of Brees. The change over those 10 mid-season games was 1,570 rushing yards, a 157-yard-per-game average and a league-leading 7-plus yards per carry.
All of sudden, as if pins were finally pulled from a voodoo doll somewhere in the bowels of the French Quarter, the Saints had themselves a defense with a backbone, a running game with power and speed and a reinvigorated Brees, who didn’t feel he had to win every game by throwing 50-plus passes.
At the heart of this newfound success and identity were those four top draft picks: four rookies who flipped this team from a mediocre, sub-.500 also-ran to a dangerous three-headed monster — a team that Las Vegas wise guys might tab as the NFC play-off favorite due to the consistency and experience of one Drew Brees.
If it wasn’t so rare a feat, the Saints could very well have the offensive and defensive rookie of the year winners with cornerback Marshon Lattimore and running back/receiver Alvin Kamara. (The last time a team had the two rookie of the year award winners on the same roster was 1967, when the Detroit Lions’ defensive back Lem Barney and running back Mel Farr were so honored.)
When Lattimore was selected in the first round with the 11th overall pick, he called it “a dream come true.” Well, it was also a dream realized for the Saints, as they finally found themselves a true shut-out Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback.
Lattimore, a one-year starter for Urban Meyer at Ohio State, almost didn’t make it to New Orleans. Payton recently recounted draft-day war room worries that Chicago and Kansas City had eyes on Lattimore earlier in the first round. But luckily for New Orleans, those two teams felt they had greater needs at quarterback, for they opted for Mitchell Trubisky (Bears) and Patrick Mahomes (Kansas City).
Lattimore, who joined a growing fraternity of former Ohio State stars on the Saints roster — including star receiver Michael Thomas, safety Vonn Bell and veteran receiver Ted Ginn Jr., — made his mark with five interceptions, one pick 6, 17 passes defended and shut-down coverage of the opposition’s best receivers: notably Julio Jones (Falcons), Mike Evans (Bucs), Jordy Nelson (Packers) and Robert Woods (Rams).
Those passes tipped away at the last second, or his physical man coverage that had receivers dropping balls, may not have sparkled on the stat sheet. But they were critical in forcing teams into long yardage situations or ending drives completely.
The Saints’ safeties now know they don’t always have to shade to Lattimore’s side on defense because they are confident he has his man covered and in good position. That means those other defensive backs can help elsewhere, make plays and force turnovers.
Payton went to Knoxville last spring not to work out Kamara or put a stop watch on him on sprints. He already knew his skill set and run times. Payton wanted to question Tennessee’s back-up running back on his knowledge of offensive sets, schemes and overall football IQ.
With one of the NFL’s most extensive and creative offensive minds, Payton is not easily swayed or impressed. But Kamara apparently did impress him. Payton knew he had to have him in his offense. But the question was who else was interested in him and in what round to pull the trigger.
Kamara, a one-time redshirt freshman at Alabama before transferring to a junior college, was coming off a senior year at Tennessee with 1,188 all-purpose yards and 13 touchdowns. He drew attention from several teams, including the New York Jets, who Payton said were close to taking Kamara in the second round but pulled away.
Payton’s luck and good draft day fortune continued, and he was able to secure Kamara with the 67th overall pick in the third round. Looking back, it was the steal of the entire draft, as Kamara totaled more than 700 yards rushing, 800-plus yards receiving, 80 receptions and 14 touchdowns. He has teamed with Ingram to become the NFL’s first running back tandem to amass more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage each. Ingram ended the regular season with 1,540 all-purpose yards, while Kamara topped out with 1,554 yards from scrimmage.
Kamara has collected a highlight reel full of marvelous plays, like leaping over would be tacklers, bouncing off thunderous hits by linebackers for 20-yard gains or touchdowns, 74- and 54-yard breakaway touchdown runs, a juggling catch for a touchdown and then, his 106-yard kickoff return against Tampa Bay, which puts the gregarious rookie in the team’s record book for the longest play in Saints history.
Not a week went by this season without a Kamara display of speed, power, balance, agility and sheer will that had everyone around the league shaking their heads in amazement. The chemistry and friendship he and Ingram share has been an added plus to an improved Saints locker room. That improvement can’t be overstated and must be attributed to the team’s success.
Ingram and Kamara’s dual interviews and post-game fun are huge must-see hits on You Tube and social media, with Ingram’s wide smile and Kamara’s flashing gold grill and his ability to stay humble in the presence of his Heisman-winning running mate.
For me, Kamara has had the biggest impact on Payton’s offense over the past 10 years other than the impacts of Brees, Jimmy Graham and Marcus Colston. It’s worthy of high praise.
Saints fans and some media types questioned Payton and GM Mickey Loomis’ decision to trade receiver Brandin Cooks to New England for a late first round pick. I applauded the move, and figured the team needed help elsewhere from the draft. And with that 32nd pick came right tackle Ryan Ramczyk out of Wisconsin.
He was only a one-year starter with the Badgers, but was the team’s highest-rated right tackle. And Wisconsin has a history of producing top offensive linemen.
It didn’t take Ramczyk long to get playing time. When 34-year-old veteran tackle Zach Strief went down with an injury, the Cooks trade to the Patriots and the subsequent draft selection of Ramczyk proved to be a prescient move by Payton and Loomis — one of their best in recent years.
The rookie Ramczyk has been a durable mainstay on an offensive line that’s been shuffling players all year due to various injuries. Think of the quality of depth if Strief decides to return next season.
In the past, every time the Saints brass viewed game tape, they winced at the defensive secondary. Now there are no more over-the-hill free agent veterans (Brandon Browner, Jairus Byrd) or sub-par cover guys (Patrick Robinson, Keenan Lewis). It’s time now for a young safety with the moxie and talent to start in year one.
Enter Marcus Williams, the second-round pick from Utah. He’s a ball-hawking All Pac 12 first team selection, along with being on the Pac 12 All Conference’s Academic list. He had the smarts and football knowledge to quickly grasp the pro schemes and was a starter from day one in camp. Williams, with three interceptions already, has been the secondary’s leader, especially with veteran Kenny Vaccaro out for the rest of the season with injury.
All four of the Saints’ top draft picks are starters making huge impacts at their respective positions, with Lattimore and Kamara vying for top rookie honors and headed to the Pro Bowl. When was the last time this happened for the Saints (never) or even in the NFL?
To go deeper on this historic Saints draft class, Florida linebacker Alex Anzalone, a third round pick at 76th overall, was an early season starter through the first two games before his season ended with an injury. And another third rounder, defensive end Trey Hendrickson, was a key contributor in the defensive line rotation until he suffered an ankle injury against Atlanta. He’s expected to return for the play-offs, and will be counted on heavily now that veteran end Alex Okafor is on injured reserve with his Achilles injury.
So, in total, five of the Saints’ seven draft picks this year are or were starters, with one being a key back-up.
You can’t ask or expect more from a draft. And what better time to evaluate, review and judge rookie picks than at the end of the season to determine who was a spot-on selection and who over- or under-achieved?
I’ve been supportive and then again critical of Loomis and Payton’s draft classes over the past decade. I’ve probably found their free agent signings and contract extension decisions more questionable than their draft picks. This is part of the pro game; draft picks and player evaluations aren’t an exact science. In many cases, it’s between a calculated gamble and hedging your bets from a risk/reward point of view.
In 2017, the Saints hit the lottery and Powerball with this draft class.
If you go back and look at the Saints’ past draft picks by year, there were a few that stood out. 2016 was better with the advantage of hindsight and time. Top pick Sheldon Rankins is finally healthy and a starter at defensive tackle. Second round pick Michael Thomas is the team’s top receiver, who set a franchise single-season record with 100 receptions this year, and now an NFL record for the most catches for his first two seasons with 195. Safety Vonn Bell is the third draft pick from 2016 who’s a quality starter.
2011 was top-heavy from the first round, producing defensive end Cam Jordan and running back Mark Ingram.
A draft year that just might rival 2017 was 2006, which included top pick Reggie Bush, Roman Harper (starting safety), Jahri Evans (starting offensive guard), linebacker Rob Ninkovich (later traded to New England, where he won multiple Super Bowls), starting offensive tackle Zach Strief and Marcus Coltston, the team’s all-time leading receiver.
Another top draft class came in 1981, when the Saints picked Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers number 1, then selected future NFL Hall of Famer Rickey Jackson, starting defensive linemen Frank Warren and Jim Wilks, along with starting tight end Hoby Brenner.
Most of the other 45 draft classes in the team’s history were very forgettable, including 1979, when New Orleans made Texas punter Russell Erxleben the number 11 player selected in the first round. That’s still the single worst first-round draft pick in the long 81-year history of the NFL draft.
Rack, stack and compare Saints draft years, and without a doubt in my mind, 2017 will go down as the team’s best collection of talent that had the biggest impact on the starting roster. This group of rookies took a team and head coach that were on a downward spiral and turned them into a legitimate Super Bowl contender in one short and amazing year.
Best in class. Best in team history. Record-setting draft.
You take your pick. They all work for me.
Get Rick Sarro’s perspectives on sports on Sound Off 60, which airs Monday through Sunday nights at 9 pm on Suddenlink Channel 60 and Saturday and Sunday mornings at 9 am as well.