Our first offseason column for the Brief will take a look at some potential player moves for the Saints.
New Orleans’ coaching staff was selected to coach the NFC Pro Bowl squad, which means this week they’re in Orlando preparing for the All-Star exhibition on Sunday. Some of the players at the Pro Bowl are free agents this offseason, and whether the Saints will be coaching them or coaching against them, it’s an opportunity for the team to not only observe them up close, but perhaps get a chance to make some connections with them in anticipation of free agency (of course, not in any way that would violate the league’s tampering rules).
In addition, it’s Senior Bowl week in Mobile, Alabama; it’s a chance for a variety of viable NFL prospects at all positions to compete head-to-head and perhaps for a standout player or two to unveil himself. All of the league’s teams have scouts in attendance all week, as many evaluators consider the practices more important than the game itself.
No team ever stays put in the offseason, and even if they don’t make any big signings, the Saints will certainly bring in a few free agents, and of course they’ll have their draft picks. Based on who’ll be potentially available in free agency and what positions I think the Saints might target in the draft, I’ve done a brief look at some players the team will get an up-close look at this week.
FREE AGENTS AT THE PRO BOWL
The Saints’ coaching staff will be dealing with these three players who aren’t under contract until 2018:
DeMarcus Lawrence, Defensive End, Dallas. Lawrence established himself as a dominant pass rusher this year, and the Saints, while they have Cameron Jordan, could certainly use another one of those. (Who couldn’t?) The price tag on Lawrence would be high, though, and it’s far too likely Dallas uses their franchise tag on him or otherwise comes to a contract agreement. The franchise tag for defensive ends last year was almost $17 million; it’s currently projected to be about $17.5 million this offseason, and if Lawrence makes it to free agency, it might take a contract in the $20 million annual range to sign him.
Jarvis Landry, Wide Receiver, Miami. The Saints won’t be coaching Landry, but they’ll get to see him at practice, and Miami doesn’t seem likely to re-sign him. The Saints could arguably use someone like Landry as a slot receiver, but I think the fit is overrated and I don’t like it at the potential cost of $10-12 million per season. Landry was used as a high-volume, low-yardage target in the Dolphins offense, a player with more fantasy value than real value. He’s just not dynamic enough to really add something necessary to the offense. The Saints offense has enough options that can provide what Landry does, and better: Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas both had higher catch rates and averaged more yards per catch than Landry this season.
Jimmy Graham, Tight End, Seattle. Graham pulled out of the Pro Bowl, but the Saints’ coaching staff certainly doesn’t lack for familiarity with him. Graham’s time in Seattle has been mixed, with his usage contributing to a depression in his productivity, and a patella injury two years ago that could have potentially sapped his game-changing athleticism. He seems to have bounced back nicely, though, with 10 touchdowns this year. Graham will be 32, and he may not be the player he was during his outrageous New Orleans years, but if he still has enough left in the tank, I don’t doubt that Sean Payton would be the right coach to once again maximize his talents.
One interesting name who didn’t make the Pro Bowl but was a first-team All-Pro selection this year is Carolina guard Andrew Norwell. It’s rare that an All-Pro is allowed to leave in free agency, but the Panthers tend to be frugal and potentially could slide former starter Amini Silatolu or last year’s second-round pick Taylor Moton into the position. That said, the Saints are quite set with their offensive line for at least a year and maybe two. It’s not clear yet whether the Saints will pick up Andrus Peat’s 2019 option, and Max Unger’s contract also expires after 2019, but the other three starters are under contract until at least 2020. Whatever their long-term plans are, it wouldn’t made sense to spend big on a free-agent guard this year.
SENIOR BOWL PROSPECTS
Let’s look at some of the players the Saints might consider who are in Mobile this week for the Senior Bowl. I’ve broken these up into two groups; players the Saints would likely have to use the 27th overall selection on (or even trade up for), and players who should be available on day two and later. (The Saints don’t have a second-round pick, so they won’t pick after the first round until #91 overall.)
First Round Picks
Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma. Mayfield has been a popular projection to the Saints as their potential quarterback of the future, as, like Drew Brees, Mayfield is possessed of less-than-ideal height but has the arm strength, ability to manipulate defenses with his eyes, and competitive fire necessary for a quarterback to succeed at the next level. The Saints’ offense, built both to Brees’ strengths and around his limitations, is already set up for a quarterback like Mayfield to succeed; however, his stock has been rising and it’s looking less likely he’ll be available by the time the Saints pick.
James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State. Washington is another player who might go off the board before the Saints select, but there’s enough debate over who the best wide receiver in the draft is, and whether Washington is physically gifted enough to be the top receiver prospect, that he might slip to the Saints. Washington was Oklahoma State’s leading receiver three years in a row, and many expected him to declare for the draft last year. He’s not possessed of eye-popping physical attributes, and only stands six feet tall, but he’s a real technician at the position, possessed of sure hands and an advanced understanding of the little details. The most frequent pro comparison I’ve heard for him is Golden Tate, who’s not a #1 receiver but has been quite productive as Detroit’s slot receiver, breaking 1,000 yards three of four seasons since he left Seattle for the Lions. With Michael Thomas as the clear #1 option and so many other weapons for teams to account for, the Saints’ offense might be a place Washington fits as a player that allows him advantageous matchups and greater productivity than he would see elsewhere.
Marcus Davenport, DE, UTSA. Davenport is a physical specimen who routinely dominated Conference USA competition at Texas-San Antonio. The 6’6″, 259-lb edge rusher might be a first-round pick on physical talent alone; however, the technical refinement of his game has a long way to go, as Senior Bowl practices have demonstrated. Davenport looks great in the drills, but when the pads go on and the players have gone against each other in full-contact reps, he’s routinely seen the worst of it. If he tests out well, a team might take a chance on him based on raw ability, but he needs to be coached in the finer points, such as hand usage and finishing the play, to be worth it. The Saints could be a team that could do that, given their success so far in coaching up recent young picks on the defensive line.
Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, DE, Oklahoma. This is another reasonably deep class of edge rushers, and if even if Davenport rises out of the realm of possibility at the Saints’ selection, several other players could be available, such as Boston College’s Harold Landry, Ohio State’s Sam Hubbard, or Washington’s Hercules Mata’afa. Okoronkwo is one of those players; at 243 pounds, he’s a little light to play the edge in the 4-3 the Saints run, but, like Hau’oli Kikaha, he might fit as a guy who alternates between linebacker and defensive end, or as someone the Saints use when they run concepts closer to a 3-4. Okoronkwo has a ton of physical talent but has shown some struggles in finishing; still, if he tests out to be the athletic specimen he appears to be on film, that talent could be coached up into a valuable pass rusher.
Day 2 and Later
Michael Gallup, WR, Colorado State. Befitting a prospect out of a school outside the Power 5, I’ve seen evaluations all across the board on Gallup, from a high second-round pick to somewhere in the fifth round. Given his pedigree, it makes sense; Gallup was a late bloomer who played two years at community college before transferring to Colorado State. He immediately stepped into the role of go-to receiver for the Rams and put up two highly productive seasons there. Of course, with a player like Gallup, part of the question is whether or not he merely dominated inferior competition at a smaller school, or if he has what it takes to succeed at the next level. The Senior Bowl is a good first step for a player like Gallup, because it pits him against other players projected to be draft prospects. The entire draft process is important to get a better picture of Gallup: We have the Senior Bowl to tell us how he stacks up against similar competition, the Scouting Combine to measure whether or not he has NFL athleticism, and film study to determine other important factors to playing wide receiver: Whether he’s capable of running a wide route tree or from a variety of positions on the field, whether he has refined his technique or is just beating lower-level players on superior talent, how sure his hands are, etc. If he checks out across the board, he may rise past the Saints’ third-round selection, but if he’s still there, he could give the team a reliable complementary option to Michael Thomas.
Chad Thomas, DE, Miami-FL. I have to admit I don’t know much about Thomas yet, and his college production is nothing to write home about, but he’s reportedly looked good in the Senior Bowl practices so far, and if he tests out well, he may be the kind of untapped talent that becomes a better pro than he was a college player. Assuming he does indeed grade out well by the Saints’ evaluation methods, he could be the kind of player who would fit in as another developmental pass-rushing end, someone to provide insurance if Alex Okafor doesn’t re-sign or something goes wrong with Trey Hendrickson’s development.
Shaquem Griffin, LB, Central Florida. He’s the identical twin of Shaquill Griffin, a former UCF cornerback selected by Seattle in the third round and possessed of superlative athleticism. Griffin is a unique prospect who would almost certainly go higher except for the fact that he only has one hand, owing to amniotic band syndrome. This seemingly puts Griffin at a disadvantage on tackling and interceptions; however, he has three interceptions in his career, and notched 100 total solo tackles and 18.5 sacks in his two years starting at linebacker. Griffin is an instinctive and explosive playmaker, and while teams may shy away from him for the missing hand, I think whoever does take him will be impressed with the kind of player they get. (Just before this went to press, the Senior Bowl announced that Griffin won the Overall Practice Player of the Week award, generally considered a bright sign for a prospect’s… well, prospects.)
D.J. Chark, WR, LSU. Chark is likely a day-3 draft pick, another one of LSU’s receivers whose production didn’t match his talent; of course, LSU’s struggles on offense and at quarterback have been well-documented, given how often the team changes coordinators and signal-callers. Chark still led the team in receiving, however, and provided a big-play element with his ability to track the ball downfield (21.9 yards per catch last season). Chark also had two punt returns for touchdowns last year and could provide more dynamic play in that area for the Saints. His highlights are deeply impressive, but he’s got to develop more consistency and focus if he wants to have a productive NFL career. He could be the kind of young receiver the Saints could try developing for a year or two to see if they can get the most out of his talent.
Both the Senior Bowl and Pro Bowl take place this weekend; next time, we’ll see if we’ve learned anything new from those games, as well as begin to take a look at various other positions on the Saints roster and how the team might handle them in the offseason.