Reviewing the Saints 2018 Draft

As tantalizingly close as I came to some correct predictions, I want to get something out of the way first, regarding draft philosophy, and why I was disappointed in the Saints’ approach this year. My fundamental philosophy regarding the draft is twofold:
  • The purpose of the draft is to build the foundation of your team, not merely to plug immediate holes;
  • Even first-round picks bust a significant amount of the time (around 50 percent), so a strategy geared toward picking more often, rather than targeting a small number of players, tends to be more successful.
After last year’s great draft, where the Saints had six top-100 picks and hit four immediate starters and future stars, and two other players with strong potential to be the same, I was hoping the Saints would take a similar approach and look toward building a strong foundation for the long term. Instead, they did the exact opposite. The Saints traded their pick at #27 and next year’s first-round pick to Green Bay to move up to #14 and select UTSA defensive end Marcus Davenport. Now, no one will remember this if Marcus Davenport ends up being great. The problem is, he has to be to justify this move. Rather than continue to build the foundation of the team, the Saints decided to act like they were one player away from winning a championship, and mortgaged the future substantially to find that player. Again, if Davenport ends up being a stud pass-rusher, and they win a Super Bowl, no one will have cared about the risk. But I remember when Johnathan Sullivan and Sedrick Ellis were supposed to be sure things. It’s an extremely risky move, especially considering how rare it is for a pass rusher to come in as a rookie and immediately make a substantial impact. Since the NFL started tracking sacks in 1982, 32 rookies have notched ten sacks or more in their rookie season. This includes a mix of Hall of Famers and future Hall of Famers (Dwight Freeney, Julius Peppers, and Terrell Suggs are some examples of the latter), and athletic freaks whose careers were derailed for one reason or another (Jevon Kearse’s due to injury, Aldon Smith’s due to alcohol). Davenport will have to pay similar dividends right away for the Saints to get value out of this trade. Fortunately, Aldon Smith actually makes an interesting comparison point here. Davenport has a similar physical build and similar athletic testing– Davenport is a little more explosive, while Smith has longer arms. But I read an interesting analysis online (I can’t remember where to credit the person, unfortunately) that Aldon Smith found great success in San Francisco’s 3-4 by working alongside Justin Smith, whose size and athleticism tied up enough blockers for Aldon Smith to work around the edge quickly. The Saints, of course, have one of the league’s premier large defensive ends in Cameron Jordan, the best 290-pound edge rusher not named “completely healthy J.J. Watt,” and the Saints could use more 3-4 looks on passing downs and have Davenport play a similar role next to Jordan, at least until he develops a more complete skill set. (I can see a 3-4 front– probably more accurately described as a Wade Phillips-style 5-2– with Sheldon Rankins at the other end, David Onyemata as the nose tackle– a more explosive and better pass-rusher than Tyeler Davison– and Alex Okafor or Trey Hendrickson as the other edge player.) Fortunately, Davenport doesn’t seem to come with any of the character or off-field questions Aldon Smith did; he simply has to live up to his potential on the field. It’s a risky move– particularly from my perspective, given how I ranked the pass rushers in this draft– but if it works, a devastating pass rush would fill the last serious need the Saints have to build a championship roster. Pass rusher is the second most important position on a team after quarterback, at least– this isn’t a case where the Saints, who have traded up far too often in the Mickey Loomis era, did so for a position of lower priority like running back. Personally, I would’ve rather stayed put and taken Boston College defensive end Harold Landry, who fell all the way to #41, where Tennessee traded up to select him. Apparently Landry had medical concerns after playing 2017 through injury; on talent and production, though, he could’ve easily gone as high as #14, if not higher. (It does feel a little bittersweet that in my mock draft I suggested both that the Saints might take an edge rusher or that they might trade up to #14 and select a quarterback… only for them to trade up to #14 and select an edge rusher, and one I have concerns about after seeing him struggle during Senior Bowl practices, although he did much better in the game itself.) With that analysis out of the way, let’s look at the Saints’ other selections. Round 3, Pick 91: Tre’Quan Smith, WR, UCF I mocked a receiver to the Saints here, although I expected to see Penn State’s DaeSean Hamilton. I had them graded almost exactly the same on my final board, though (Hamilton at #84; Smith at #85). Testing indicates Smith is less explosive out of his breaks than Hamilton, although he’s more explosive off the line, and taller and with significantly longer arms and bigger hands. Smith was used largely as a deep threat at UCF, averaging nearly 20 yards a catch; while his top line speed isn’t mind-boggling (4.49 40 time), it’s fast enough, when combined with his explosiveness and length, to make him a viable deep threat in the NFL, productive and reliable. He’s an intriguing addition to what’s suddenly become a crowded wide receiver room. He’s also notable as a solid blocker; given that players like Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem were able to carve out decent roles for the Saints from only being able to run deep and block, Smith seems like a player who could be a better version of those two, a more well-rounded and productive receiver. He’ll stretch the field along with Ted Ginn, and if Ginn ever loses his speed or moves on, Smith should take on a larger role. Round 4, Pick 127: Rick Leonard, OT, Florida State ThIs one was a real head-scratcher for me, especially with several prospects I thought were great value still on the board, such as Josh Sweat and Shaquem Griffin. Leonard is a former defensive lineman who moved to right tackle in 2016, starting the full 2017 season. Leonard struggled in his actual game film, but the Saints obviously see some kind of upside on talent, believing they can coach him up. They’ll have to; Leonard was seen by most evaluators as an undraftable talent, although Leonard’s agent claims other teams were inquiring about selecting him in the fifth round. Leonard came in to Florida State only weighing 255 pounds, so he has not only grown quite a bit since then, but it’s likely he still has some growing to do. The upside here is a long-term third tackle a la Zach Strief, and a potential starting right tackle if Terron Armstead never gets healthy and the team decides to move on, slotting Ryan Ramczyk at left tackle. We’ll see. Round 5, Pick 164: Natrell Jamerson, S, Wisconsin I didn’t know much about Jamerson before the draft, but my research indicates that he’s a versatile defensive back who played multiple positions at Wisconsin and contributed on special teams. The Saints’ defensive back roster is deep, so it’s not likely he’ll make much of an impact as a rookie, but he could be a special teams standout while eventually turning into a sort of third safety or nickel back, perhaps in the Rafael Bush role, or in what the team hoped for Vonn Bell if he doesn’t work out. Upon review, he seems like a solid selection. Round 6, Pick 189: Kamrin Moore, CB, Boston College Another player I didn’t know much about, whose projection seems to be as a nickel or dime back, adding more depth to a cornerback unit that has some uncertainty after Marshon Lattimore, Ken Crawley, and Patrick Robinson. Moore should also be a special teams player right away. Round 6, Pick 201: Boston Scott, RB, Louisiana Tech Scott is a smaller, quicker running back whose physical profile and speed immediately invites comparisons to Darren Sproles. It’s not clear where he’ll start out right away, as Alvin Kamara seems to be firmly entrenched as the satellite back the Saints are looking for, but I imagine he’ll both be a special teams contributor and work his way into the passing game; the Saints have so frequently used three running backs in the past that I’m sure there will be a role for him– and I have confidence in Scott given the Saints’ success at finding diamonds in the rough at running back in the Sean Payton era. Round 7, Pick 245: Will Clapp, C, LSU The Saints will need to find a center once Max Unger starts to hit his decline, and if Clapp’s injuries are a thing of the past, he can potentially develop into that long-term replacement. Even if that upside is down the road and not to be reached, Clapp still has potential to be a guy who can back up multiple positions on the offensive line and perhaps even fill in as a starter for a couple of years while the Saints look for a better long-term option. (Think of Brian de la Puente.) Next time: I don’t know, honestly, with May being a slow month for football news, but we may begin to take some looks at various positional units on the team and training camp battles, or we may take reader requests and questions.