Last week, we reviewed the Saints’ free-agent signings and how they might plug various holes currently on the roster. Several important positions were left unaddressed, though, and Sean Payton admitted as much in a recent press conference.
I don’t believe in using the draft to fill short-term needs: You ought to be looking for the best players possible to be the foundation of your team, and you shouldn’t expect much from draft prospects in their rookie years. The Saints got extraordinarily lucky landing the all-time great draft class they did in 2017. That said, Saints pick late enough in the draft that the tiebreaker between prospects may, in fact, be need, or more specifically, how likely the player is to receive playing time more immediately.
Here are the three positions Payton mentioned where the team could still look at moves to add talent, particularly in the draft:
The Saints still haven’t tendered an offer to either Willie Snead or Brandon Coleman, both restricted free agents. That means, beyond starters Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn, the depth chart consists of Tommylee Lewis, more of a return man and gadget player, and Austin Carr, a productive college player the Saints claimed at the 53-man cutdown from the Patriots, but who saw no offensive action last year (and was only active for one game). If the Saints aren’t planning to bring back Snead or Coleman, they’ll need to add talent somewhere.
They made a move in this direction on Friday, signing Bears restricted free agent Cameron Meredith to a two-year, $9.6 million offer sheet. Meredith had a productive 2016, leading the Bears in receiving with 888 yards on only 97 targets, despite being saddled with the less-than-impressive quarterback play of Jay Cutler, Brian Hoyer, and Matt Barkley. Meredith was expected to take an even bigger leap forward in 2017, but tore his ACL in the preseason. While this certainly set back his development, he’s still only 25, so the chances of him recovering are good, and he could be very productive with quality quarterback play.
The Bears have until Wednesday to match the offer sheet, and it’s not clear what they’ll do. They already handed out a big free-agent contract to Allen Robinson, signed speedster Taylor Gabriel to a four-year deal to man the slot, and still have former first-round pick Kevin White to man the other outside receiver position. If the Bears decide they already have enough at the receiver position, Meredith could provide a significant boost to the Saints’ receiving crew, and could wind up being a bargain.
If the Bears match Meredith– and perhaps even if they don’t– it seems likely the Saints could target wide receiver with their first-round pick. While no receivers really stand out as slam-dunk locks for high draft picks, a number of them could be worthwhile selections at #27, depending on what the Saints are looking for. SMU’s big-bodied and agile Courtland Sutton will likely be gone by that pick, but the Saints may have their selection of other top receiver prospects: Alabama route-running technician Calvin Ridley; Oklahoma State’s James Washington, terrific at tracking the ball in the air and winning contested catches; or D.J. Moore, a one-man passing offense for Maryland last year who is young, extremely athletic, and highly productive after the catch.
Given a choice, I prefer the latter two, with a slight lean to Moore. Ridley’s athletic testing greatly concerns me; I worry he will pan out to be a poor man’s Amari Cooper, who was productive early on due to his own route-running abilities, but who failed to take the leap forward in 2017 you want to see from top receiver prospects, perhaps due to his lack of top-level athleticism. Ridley’s athleticism is significantly worse, he wasn’t as productive as Cooper in college, and he’s also an old receiver prospect, which historically does not bode well for success. (Cooper has been in the league for three years, and he is only six months older than Ridley.) The bust factor on Ridley is simply too high for my tastes.
While the Saints patched up this position a bit by signing the ageless Ben Watson, they could still use a top-level talent at the position. (And I think they know it, having attempted to sign Jimmy Graham in free agency but being unwilling to meet his price.) Unfortunately for the Saints, none of the tight ends really seem to merit a first-round pick. South Dakota State’s Dallas Goedert is considered a potential athletic mismatch in the Graham mold, but it’s hard to tell for sure given the low level of competition he faced and the fact that he didn’t do any of the athletic drills this draft season. Too much risk for a first-round pick. Penn State’s Mike Gesicki is an athletic marvel who was moderately productive, but not enough so to warrant a first-round pick, especially given the other players who should still be available. Both of these players are likely to go in the second round, where the Saints don’t have a selection.
It’s more likely the Saints try to address the position in the third or fourth round in the draft, or perhaps even later. (They currently have two fifth- and two sixth-round picks, owing to the midseason trades of Stephone Anthony and Adrian Peterson, respectively.) Some potential names are South Carolina’s Hayden Hurst, though many believe he’ll be gone before then, or Oklahoma’s Mark Andrews, who was very productive and considered a potential first-round pick until athletic testing revealed a more limited ceiling than expected. Do-it-all Jaylen Samuels, who played more of an H-back role at North Carolina State, lining up both at tight end and in the backfield, could be a fit with the kind of versatility Sean Payton often covets in players.
The Saints missed out on the top defensive linemen in free agency, eventually settling on bringing back Alex Okafor. While Okafor and second-year player Trey Hendrickson should constitute a capable rotation opposite Cameron Jordan– especially if Okafor recovers from his Achilles injury and Hendrickson takes the expected step forward in his second year– there’s no guarantee either one will provide the level of performance the Saints want at the position.
There’s an outside chance the Saints could use their first-round pick on an edge rusher, although only two players on my board are slam-dunk first-round talents– Bradley Chubb and Harold Landry– and they’ll almost definitely be gone by the time the Saints pick. Chubb is widely considered a lock top-ten selection, perhaps even the first non-quarterback off the board. Landry is projected a bit lower, generally anywhere from 15-25, but I think he has tremendous talent and production and is mostly lower because he played through injury last year. (He might even be worth trading up for, if he slips far enough and the cost isn’t prohibitive.)
Beyond that, though, there are a number of athletic prospects with questions around them, some of whom might be worth the Saints’ selection at 27. UTSA’s Marcus Davenport is considered a raw athlete with tremendous potential, though I think he’s a little overrated in that regard. There’s a handful of other names who could be considered there, among them Georgia’s Lorenzo Carter, Florida State’s Josh Sweat, Ohio State’s Sam Hubbard, and Oklahoma’s Ogbonnia Okoronkwo. Of these options, I like Carter and Sweat the best.
More likely, the Saints may try to find value in the third round at the position, as they did with Hendrickson last year. In this draft, there may be a wide range of evaluations on players, so it’s possible one of the players in the above group falls. (Sweat seems most likely, as I haven’t heard much buzz from teams about him, which surprises me given the talent he shows on film.) Among those names are Ohio State’s Tyquan Lewis and Jayln Holmes, USC’s Rasheem Green and Uchenna Nwosu, Missouri’s Marcell Frazier, and Washington State’s Hercules Mata’afa. I’m partial to athleticism in my pass rushers, so Lewis is my favorite from this group. (Plus, the Saints have had quite a bit of success drafting from Ohio State in recent years.)
A name to be on the watch for on day three is Tulane’s Ade Aruna. Like his teammate Tanzel Smart, a defensive tackle drafted last year, he may be underrated because of his school, but has shown the talent and athleticism both on film and in testing to be a productive player at his position. Keeping him in New Orleans might be a good way for the Saints to bolster their pass rush cheaply.
Next week: Will the Saints look for their quarterback of the future in this draft?