Recent draft failures come back to haunt the New Orleans Saints

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New Orleans had one of the greatest drafts in team history back in 2017.

First-round pick Marshon Lattimore, the No. 11 overall pick out of Ohio State, is a four-time Pro Bowler. The team’s other first-round pick, offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk of Wisconsin, has made the First-team All-Pro once and the second-team twice. Utah safety Marcus Williams, the Saints’ second-round pick, just signed a five-year, $70 million contract (albeit with a different team, Baltimore).

And running back Alvin Kamara, a third-round pick out of Tennessee, remains one of the most feared players in the league after making Second-team All-Pro twice and the Pro Bowl five times.

Don’t forget about pass rusher Trey Hendrickson. One of three third-round picks by New Orleans that year, Hendrickson signed a four-year, $60 million deal with Cincinnati before last season and was a big reason why the Bengals wound up in the Super Bowl after finishing with a career-high 14 sacks. The team’s third third-rounder, Florida linebacker Alex Anzalone, is now with Detroit and finished fourth on the Lions last season in tackles.

The Saints even hit on its sixth-round pick, pass rusher Al-Quadin Muhammad, who’s now with Indianapolis. Muhammad finally had a breakout year last season, starting all 17 games for the Colts and picking up a career-high 6 sacks.

But the draft hasn’t been very kind to New Orleans since then.

Of the 16 players drafted by the Saints between 2018 to 2020, only half of those players are still on the team. Five of those players are out of the league and three are on another team.

On the bright side, seven of the eight players still on the team are starters, although none have made a Pro Bowl.

That’s not good enough to maintain long-term success.

The 2020 draft was particularly brutal, as pointed out by Saints News Network’s Bob Rose. New Orleans only had four picks that year, including one in the first round and two in the third round: Michigan interior lineman Cesar Ruiz (first round), Wisconsin linebacker Zack Baun (third round) and Dayton tight end Adam Trautman (third round).

From Rose: “None of them have panned out as planned. Perhaps they can be given a pass for their first year because of the circumstances of Covid. However, not one of them progressed in their second year.”

As Rose said, New Orleans has many needs to address in the draft, and that trio’s disappointing start to their careers “has created even more roster questions because of their lack of development.”

On the surface, last year’s rookie class looks much better, with five players on the 53-man roster and a sixth signed to a reserve/future contract.

A closer look, though, reveals potential problems with that draft class:

  • Pass rusher Payton Turner, the team’s first-round pick out of Houston, barely played last season due to injury, racking up 12 tackles, 3 tackles for loss and 1 sack in just five games.
  • Former Ohio State linebacker Pete Werner, New Orleans’ second-round pick, spent most of the season buried on the depth chart, racking up 394 snaps on defense, but he was solid against the run and is expected to have a bigger role next season.
  • Cornerback Paulson Adebo, the team’s third-round pick out of Stanford, had the best season of the Saints’ rookies, finishing fifth on the team with 850 defensive snaps, second among New Orleans’ cornerbacks. He also picked off 3 passes and had 8 passes defended.
  • Former Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book raised a few eyebrows when the Saints drafted him in the fourth round. While he did manage to start a game, Book’s hold on a roster spot is tenuous at best.
  • Sixth-round pick Landon Young of Kentucky only received 67 snaps on offense and could be cut next season.
  • South Alabama receiver Kawaan Baker received 27 snaps on special teams and recently signed a futures/reserve contract with the team.

Of those six players, Adebo is the only one who appears to be a part of the team’s long-term future, although Werner and Turner could join him this season.

The team’s overall lack of success since that famous 2017 class makes the upcoming draft even more crucial.

New Orleans has six picks in the draft but none in the second or sixth rounds and two in the third.

Here’s a look at how the Saints can make the most of their picks:

Round 1: The best remaining offensive tackle

As of writing this, the Saints have a glaring hole at left tackle. It’s possible – if not probable – that one of the top OTs will still be available with pick No. 18 overall. It appears that Mississippi State’s Charles Cross is the popular pick, but other tackles who could be available include Northern Iowa’s Trevor Penning, Tulsa’s Tyler Smith and Central Michigan’s Bernhard Raimann.

Could the Saints instead take a quarterback here? It’s possible; however, the overall lack of top talent at the position means the team would be over-drafting a player at the most crucial position on the field. And with two veteran QBs already on the roster, New Orleans might wait a year to draft their next franchise signal-caller.

Round 3: More weapons on offense

For now, Jameis Winston is the starter at quarterback, with Taysom Hill as the backup. Whether it’s Winston, Hill or a rookie, the Saints need more weapons on offense.

That might sound odd for a team that has one of the best RBs (Kamara) and WRs (Michael Thomas) in the league. But Kamara missed four games last season after seeing his number of carries increase to a career-high 240. And Thomas’ sometimes difficult history with the team is well-documented, especially after the 29-year-old missed all of last season and most of the 2020 season with lingering ankle injuries.

The problem, though, is that all of the best receivers should be gone by the third round.

That doesn’t mean the team can’t find a solid WR in the third round or later; it just makes it less likely that New Orleans finds a receiver who will have a major impact in Year 1.

But that’s not the case when it comes to tight ends.

According to the latest Fanspeak-Jake Rigdon big board, 16 tight ends are ranked among the top 263 prospects – and the third- through fifth-rounds is the sweet spot for that position. There are four TEs ranked in the third-round range, two in the fourth and four more in the fifth, according to the Rigdon big board.

Some names to watch in the third round include Ohio State’s Jeremy Ruckert, Coastal Carolina’s Isaiah Likely and fast-rising Virginia TE Jelani Woods.

Either way, drafting a TE on Day 2 of the draft might signal the end of Trautman’s time in New Orleans.

Round 3: Find a pro-ready player, regardless of position

A draft that nets a team two full-time rookie starters is typically deemed a success. Three rookie starters? That’s icing on the cake.

But that becomes harder to do in the later rounds of the draft. Even third-rounders often struggle to make an impact during their rookie years.

However, some positions are tailor-made for the third round, including linebacker – and plenty should be available late in the third round. Wisconsin’s Leo Chenal, Wyoming’s Chad Muma and Penn State’s Jesse Luketa would all provide an immediate upgrade at the position and should contribute immediately, if not start.

What’s left: QB, DL and WR

It’s possible the Saints could draft a receiver in Round 1, especially after sending a contingent that included their wide receiver coach to Ohio State’s recently completed Pro Day.

But receiver is one of those positions where you can find gems at almost any round. Former seventh-rounder Marquez Colston is the most notable example, but Marquez Callaway is a more recent one after the former Tennessee receiver went undrafted in 2020, then became a full-time starter last season.

With that in mind, speedy Rutgers receiver Bo Melton is a player to watch. He ran a 4.34-second 40 at the Combine and would likely see immediate playing time on special teams as both a returner and as a gunner.

New Orleans also needs a defensive tackle – another position that can be filled in the later rounds. Idaho’s Noah Elliss, brother of 2018 seventh-round LB Kaden Ellis, should be a consideration in the fifth round, but he might not be available in the seventh. Former Stanford captain and three-year starter Thomas Booker, on the other hand, has developable traits and should be there in the final round of the draft.

That leaves the QB position – and it doesn’t look pretty once the top ones are gone between Rounds 1 and 2. One player to watch is Nevada’s Carson Strong, who might have been a much higher pick had it not been for his injury history. Strong, at 6-foot-3, 226-pounds, has decent size and has an “elite combination of velocity and touch,” according to NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein. His medical history, though, “is a significant red flag.” Therefore, the Saints could draft Strong, then sit him his rookie year to learn the pro game and try to get as healthy as possible for Year 2.

So why take a chance on a player with those kinds of injury concerns? Because without them, there’s not a huge gap talent-wise between Carson and some of the other top QB prospects.

Strong will likely go in Round 4 or later.

Will New Orleans take a QB or WR in Round 1? Or will the team take the best OT? Find out in Fanspeak’s latest Saints mock draft.

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