This week, with the NFL Draft starting tonight, I thought it would be fun to ask three of my friends who used to run teams’ drafts to tell me how they’d approach the draft for one specific team. I asked them to look at the Saints, who are in an interesting position with plenty of needs and decent draft capital. After we led off the week with former Jets Director of College Scouting Jeff Bauer Tuesday, we continued with former Giants and Bears executive Greg Gabriel Wednesday. We wrap the week with former Titans executive Blake Beddingfield.
The Saints are straddling the fence between rebuilding and going for it. The question is, does their lack of a top-level QB in today’s game dictate that they go into 2022 with guns blazing, or do they play more conservatively?
Clearly, in a division with the ageless Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers but a new head coach, as well as the rebuilding Falcons and Panthers, New Orleans’ braintrust has decided the time is (still) now. That means GM Mickey Loomis and Assistant GM Jeff Ireland will be looking to build with new talent and hope their selectees are all fast learners.
Key losses include left tackle Terron Armstead (Dolphins) and safeties Marcus Williams (Ravens) and Malcolm Jenkins (retirement). To compensate, the club signed safeties Marcus Maye from the Jets and Daniel Sorensen from the Chiefs, along with backup QB Andy Dalton from the Bears. The Saints also get WO Michael Thomas and QB Jameis Winston (whom they re-signed) back from injury. The returns of Thomas and Winston are almost like adding free agents given the amount of time each missed in ’21. The club also returns 80% of its offensive line.
The Saints have spent a lot of draft capital on their offensive and defensive line since 2017, acquiring three first-round and one second-round offensive lineman as well as two first-round defensive ends to go with perennial pro bowler Cameron Jordan.
The Saints picks tonight include two picks in the first round (16 and 19), a second-rounder (49), a third (98), a fourth (120), a fifth (161) and a sixth (194). These selections give the team the ability to acquire quality players at need positions with four picks in the top 100.
Now, let’s talk about team needs. The Saints have a big hole at left tackle, but also need a wide receiver to compliment Thomas and protect the team in case of another injury by the once ultra-productive veteran. Other positions of need are quarterback, tight end and defensive tackle.
In the first round I expect the Saints to go after a left tackle and wide receiver if the right players are there at each position. The top three offensive tackles — Alabama’s Evan Neal, Mississippi State’s Charles Cross and NC State’s Ikem Ekwonu — would be ideal, and would each be immediate starters, but would require a trade given that none will still be around at 16. That leaves Northern Iowa’s Trevor Penning. Penning is better-suited long-term on the right side, but that position is already taken by pro bowler Ryan Ramczyk. Penning would be an upgrade over what they currently have on the roster at left tackle, but he is not the same prospect as Neal, Cross and Ekwonu. At the same time, there have been whispers in the past that Ramczyk could slot in on the left side when Armstead’s days in New Orleans came to an end. One way or another, Penning makes a lot of sense at 16.
On the other hand, the Saints could package their third-round selection (No. 98) with their first first-rounder (No. 16) to move up and secure one of the top three left tackles. This still leaves them with the 19th pick, along with their second-rounder. Keep in mind that drafting offensive linemen with premium picks is part of the Saints’ DNA. In the past decade, they’ve taken Stanford OG Andrus Peat (No. 13 in 2015), Michigan OG Cesar Ruiz (No. 24 in 2020) and Ramczyk (No. 32 in 2017) in the first round along with Texas A&M OC Erik McCoy (No. 48 in 2019) in the second round.
The wide receiver position is strong in the first round this year, and multiple players could be options when the Saints are on the clock at 19. Ohio States wideouts Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave would add speed and immediate help to go along with the team’s current receivers, including Marquez Callaway, Tre’Quan Smith and Thomas. Alabama’s Jameson Williams is another speedster and vertical threat option, but will not be able to help the team until midway through his rookie season after tearing his ACL in January. That might remove Williams from consideration; I would think the Saints are looking for an immediate contributor in 2022 and not someone that will be at his best in 2023. Arkansas’ Treylon Burks is another possibility. He’s a big physical, versatile player that gives the Saints a better version of what they had in Ty Montgomery, but he’s not the pure burner the team needs to round out their receiver corps. Southern Cal’s Drake London is another big, athletic receiver that should be playing his best football in the NFL, though 19 figures to be a little early for him.
On the other hand, it all starts under center in today’s game. It’s possible the team rolls the dice at 19, or in the second round, to take a quarterback to sit and learn behind Winston. Ole Miss’ Matt Corral is an athletic QB with a quick release, toughness, leadership, and the ability to be a very productive NFL quarterback. Corral could even compete with Winston this season or eventually take over the position in 2023. Liberty’s Malik Willis, who likely won’t make it to 16, is a boom-or-bust prospect that needs a year in the NFL before he can be pushed into starting role. Similarly, Pitt’s Kenny Pickett is solid but not the kind of prospect that you expect to step in and star from the beginning. Overall, the quarterbacks in this draft are solid players, but this crop lacks elite, franchise signal-callers.
Bottom line, the Saints have many options with their first two selections but also have enough quality players on their current roster to not only enhance the 2022 roster but also prepare for the future at quarterback and left tackle and start to get younger at wide receiver. While the team has needs at tight end and defensive tackle, they’ll have to wait until later to address them. I believe this draft sets the Saints up very well with the ability to acquire need positions but also get the quality starters that they seek.