3 draft needs for the New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints brought back defensive tackle Nick Fairley and signed former Detroit guard Larry Warford in free agency, but otherwise they stuck to a few smaller signings and avoided any costly impact players. Moves to cut Jairus Byrd and trade Brandin Cooks have only created more needs for the team overall. Fortunately, New Orleans holds five picks in the first three rounds, including three of the top 42 spots. With so many legitimate needs still, they also have a good opportunity be able to take the best player available on the board and hit one of five or six needs at the same time, particularly with the deep classes of cornerbacks, safeties, and running backs. Here are three positions of need for the Saints come draft day — but by no means their only needs — and a couple options for each position.
For the last several seasons, linebacker has been one of the defense’s biggest weaknesses. Year after year the Saints bring in veterans through either free agency or trade with relatively little improvement at the position. Notably, New Orleans needs a linebacker who can play all three downs, and has the athleticism to make plays from sideline-to-sideline. Stephone Anthony has been a disappointment thus far, and last month they signed A.J. Klein and Mani Te’o in free agency. While the two newcomers help with depth and Klein could be an upgrade, neither is the previously described player that can completely change a defense.
Early-round target: Reuben Foster, LB, Alabama
It would take New Orleans’ No. 11 overall pick to get Foster — if he’s not gone by then — but he would help shore up their linebacker deficiencies from Day 1. He’s an elite, complete linebacker who has been receiving Patrick Willis comparisons during the draft evaluation process. He has graded very well in all three phases of defense, including the top overall and run-defense grades in the nation last season among off-ball linebackers. Foster has both the speed and change-of-direction ability needed in coverage, and is at his best when he is in man-coverage against tight ends.
Mid- or late-round target: Jordan Evans, LB, Oklahoma
Evans is one of the most athletic linebackers in this year’s draft class and would fit as the weakside linebacker in the Saints’ defense. He works well in space and has no issues with changing directions quickly, which contribute to his strengths in coverage. In 2016, he allowed a passer rating of just into his coverage, including four interceptions, five pass breakups, and just one touchdown. However, Evans is not very physical against the run and was far less productive in run defense. He has both the physical tools and instincts to be a starting linebacker, but if he isn’t more willing to take on blocks and be more physical, then his role may be much more limited.
Delvin Breaux looks to bounce back in 2017 after an injury-riddled 2016 season. Assuming he can return to his impressive 2015 form, New Orleans will be set at one corner spot. Sterling Moore is penciled in on the other side of the field, and while he’s not great, he fared well enough last year to be re-signed. Beyond those two starters are just a handful of inexperienced players with little playing time, poor showings when on the field, or both. At the very least, New Orleans needs more depth at the position, and ideally a solid starter to move Moore to a more appropriate No. 3 cornerback role.
Early-round target: Tre’Davious White, CB, LSU
The Saints could use more defensive playmakers, and the addition of White would accomplish exactly that. He has enough speed and agility to stay with good route-runners, and can also hold his own against big receivers despite his 5-foot-11 frame. He shows instincts and awareness to make plays on the ball, and his 12 pass breakups were third-most in the nation in 2016. White’s ability to also play in the slot could give the Saints another nickel option besides having safety Kenny Vaccaro into the slot if they don’t find a third safety that they trust more than a third cornerback.
Mid- or late-round target: Shaquill Griffin, CB, UCF
This cornerback class is so deep that even if the Saints don’t go for one in first round, there will be an opportunity on at least each of their first five picks to find a contributor. There’s even a good case for them to double-dip at corner even if they take one with an early pick, with the only argument against it being that they have too many needs elsewhere. Griffin fits as an outside corner who can play either side, but also has some experience at safety, which once again, could give New Orleans some versatility. Last year he allowed under 40 percent of passes thrown into his coverage to be completed. Griffin has room to improve his consistency week-to-week, but the has great size, athleticism, and put enough good play on tape to warrant a mid-round selection.
Need: Offensive playmaker
New Orleans made an excellent selection in wide receiver Michael Thomas last year, but with the trade of Brandin Cooks and lack of quality running backs behind Mark Ingram, they desperately need another player capable of making plays for Drew Brees. That could mean another receiver, another running back, or a player that has potential to make an impact at both positions. With head coach Sean Payton’s past experience in getting the most out of Darren Sproles, we’re going to focus on two players that could fit in a similar role.
Early-round target: Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
There’s not much disagreement about the caliber of player McCaffrey is, but there are varying views on if he can handle a full workload as a running back, including from Payton himself, who recently made mention of McCaffrey possibly needing a “pitch count.” However, he’s shown year over year at Stanford that he’s capable of 30-plus touches on a regular basis. If anything, his massive college workload is more of a concern than his size. McCaffrey would give the Saints a solid option at running back to split carries with Ingram, and potentially take over down the road. He would also give Brees another weapon to use out of the backfield and slot as a receiver to create personnel mismatches to exploit. McCaffrey forced an absurd 150 missed tackles over the past two seasons.
Mid- or late-round target: Curtis Samuel, RB/WR, Ohio State
Samuel participated at the combine with the wide receiver group, but he has significant experience at both positions. He’s an excellent athlete and his 4.31 40-time at the combined would have been the fastest among the running back group. He’s capable of reading blocks in multiple run concepts and for now may be slightly more polished as a running back than a receiver. While he has room for improvement as a route runner, he’s still more than capable of getting open on his own without having to be schemed screens or other quick passes. He also shows wide receiver traits of high-pointing passes when necessary and produced running various routes out of the slot. His versatility could create similar the mismatches to the ones Sproles made a career on while with New Orleans, and he likely will be a Day 2 draft pick.