How on earth do the New Orleans Saints top last year’s draft?
They don’t. Can’t even come close.
That’s not a knock against these 2018 draft picks by any means. There’s no way this franchise — or for that matter, any other team — can hope to select five collegiate players in the roll-the-dice-and-keep-your-fingers-crossed scenario that is the NFL Draft and expect to come away with five starters that very same year.
That’s what the Saints did in 2017.
You know the names by now: Kamara, Lattimore, Ramczyk, Williams and Anzalone.
Kamara and Lattimore were both All Pros and earned Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year honors respectively.
Head coach Sean Payton and GM Mickey Loomis outdid themselves and clearly made up for some draft missteps of previous years.
Now it’s back to this annual round-up of prospects being a crap shoot and by no means an exact science for player analysis.
Not even the most diehard of Saints fans could expect the Who Dat war room to produce draft picks who will have the same impact as that magical class of ‘17. What Payton and Loomis did, though, was stick to their list of needs and grab the best possible talent at those positions they had on their board.
There were no huge headline-making selections or big splashes. It was just another day at the office during the hectic three-day draft.
The Saints did make an early ripple and turn some heads early in the first round when they traded up to the 14th pick from No. 27 in a deal with Green Bay. The media buzz was that a move up like that meant only one thing: the Saints were finally, seriously, going to select a quarterback who might be, could be, maybe, the heir apparent to future Hall of Famer Drew Brees.
The highest rated quarterback still available at the 14th pick was former Heisman Trophy winner Louisville QB Lamar Jackson.
I stared down the TV moaning under my breath that it could not happen. No way Loomis and Payton would be hoodwinked into thinking that Jackson was worthy of that high of a draft position and the right quarterback at this time to be Brees’ understudy.
To my delight the Saints stuck to the game plan and the shopping list and selected what they needed most — a pass-rushing defensive end to compliment All Pro sack master Cam Jordan.
Marcus Davenport from Texas-San Antonio wasn’t the name that came to mind first, but he was highly rated by all NFL metrics. He has the size at 6 feet, 6 inches, 264 pounds. Payton says his size, speed and power are the “prototype” for the position. He’s described as a “raw, developmental talent” — Payton agreed somewhat with that opinion — which has some wondering about the price the Saints paid to get him.
The trade up to No. 14 cost the Saints their No. 1 pick in 2019 and a fifth round pick this year to the Packers.
That’s an all an investment in Davenport, who earned Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year with 8.5 sacks and 17 tackles for losses. He has 4.5 speed in the 40-yard dash.
UT-San Antonio. Conference USA. Not your football powerhouse names by any stretch. But the bet is Davenport’s physical assets and talent will stand up just fine in the next level up. “He is very explosive. Tremendous make-up and very smart. He is coming from a smaller school, but they did play some bigger competition, and what you saw from him was his every down effort. We see him at right defensive end and as a pure edge rusher,” Payton explained.
This is the sixth time since 2006 that the Saints have moved up with trades at some point in the draft. Loomis and Payton have proven they aren’t shy about targeting a player and then doing what’s necessary to get him.
This year, it was Davenport. Last year it was Alvin Kamara in the third round, and look how that turned out. “These were the same questions last year, when we moved our second-round pick for Alvin Kamara, and it appears to be a lot, and yet, shoot, what’s our country’s national debt … you follow me? How many billions of dollars? Hopefully, we are looking at a late-round pick next year,” Payton said.
A late first-round selection means the Saints had a very good season and Payton feels he can live with giving up next year’s top draft pick for an impact player like Davenport at the position that is so critical against opposing offenses.
Davenport’s college coach was New Orleans recruiting legend Frank Wilson, a top assistant coach with the LSU Tigers for many years before getting the head coach’s job at UT-San Antonio: a program that started football just eight short years ago.
Wilson knows football talent and talks highly of Davenport’s evolution from a 190-pound receiver when he first arrived at UTSA; then, with a few extra pounds, moving to outside linebacker; and once he got up to 250 pounds, moving to defensive end. “He brings tenacity, athleticism, toughness and a perfect fit for the Saints,” says Wilson.
This first-round move and deal with the Packers to get Davenport at No. 14 carries more risk and a much higher expectation on investment return than, say, the Kamara trade-up. In essence, the Saints have invested two first-round picks in Davenport.
A second consecutive Defensive Rookie of the Year award would be a nice payoff.
Loomis and Payton continued down that list of needs as the draft progressed. In the third round, they added 6-foot, 2-inch, 210-pound Tre’Quan Smith, a wide receiver out of Central Florida. He totaled 59 catches for 1,171 yards for unbeaten UCF.
In the weeks leading up to the draft, Payton said he needed receiver depth and more pass catchers. The Saints signed free agent Cameron Meredith from Chicago; resigned free agent Brandon Coleman; let Willie Snead go to Baltimore. Smith will have ample snaps to compete for playing time.
Offensive line depth was satisfied somewhat with the fourth round selection of Florida State tackle Rick Leonard, who, Payton said, “just improved game after game last year.” The Saints’ final draft pick was offensive guard Will Clapp from LSU, the first Tiger drafted by New Orleans since Elton’s Al Woods in 2010.
Payton brushed aside questions about not drafting LSU players, saying he doesn’t think about that. He added it all comes down to need, analysis and who is available when in the draft. Once Payton found out Clapp lives right there in Metairie, he joked “well, he can save on rent.”
In the later fifth and sixth rounds, the focus was on depth in the defensive secondary, as the team selected Wisconsin safety Natrell Jamerson (fifth round) and Boston College cornerback Kamrin Moore. Also in the sixth round, the Saints added La. Tech running back Boston Scott to the mix.
In a long NFL season filled with injuries and roster moves, teams must have players with the versatility to play several positions. The Saints have proven that’s the case in the defensive secondary and offensive line with the many injuries they’ve dealt with in those two areas in the last several years. Special teams is another unit in which you have to have flexible players to move in and out.
In his post-draft state of the team comments, Payton said you may have a 53-man game day roster, but it’s really only about 46 once you factor in injuries and who can play where. He emphasized that versatility and the ability to move players into different spots is a weekly chore.
It could be the difference between a win and a loss.
Payton made a point in explaining that Jamerson and Moore can be moved around in the secondary in different “nickel and dime” schemes. He also noted that Smith and Scott will be expected to play some special teams. As for Clapp, his skill set for playing both guard and center is important.
In the end, it’s not a draft class of big-name SEC players or Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks. And I am fine with that.
I trust Loomis, Payton and the personnel guys did their homework and added players with the talent, skill sets and character the Saints need now to win and remain among the five best teams in the NFL.
This draft won’t go down in Saints’ lore like the 2017 bunch, who were simply a once-in-a-generation class of stars.
Rick Sarro’s perspectives and commentary can be heard on Soundoff 60 nightly, Monday through Sunday evenings, at 9 pm; broadcast on Suddenlink channel 4.