Last time, we looked at some Saints draft options on offense, based on roster needs, picks available, and what I think the braintrust might think about the team’s current construction. Let’s do the same for the other side of the ball– where the Saints have been much-improved the last two years, and with the right additions and growth could push into an elite unit.
Now, in theory, the Saints are loaded at defensive tackle, with Sheldon Rankins, Malcom Brown, and David Onyemata comprising a formidable top three (and good depth like Taylor Stallworth, and possibly Mario Edwards Jr. depending on where he lines up). But a little closer look reveals some troubles. Rankins is still coming off his Achilles tear in the playoff game against the Eagles and likely won’t be at full strength to start the season– and may need until 2020 to get his old form back. Onyemata was arrested in January on charges of marijuana possession and may be suspended to start the year. The depth starts looking a lot thinner once one considers those factors. The Saints might try to flesh out the position with a pick this year.
The best players at the position won’t be anywhere near available when the Saints pick. Quinnen Williams and Ed Oliver are both expected to be top-10 picks at the minimum.
One of Clemson’s duo of Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence could slide to 62. They play different positions– Lawrence is a 340+-pound nose tackle; Wilkins is more of an attacker at 315 pounds– and so whether the Saints take one depends on what needs they decide they have at the position. One interesting name is Notre Dame’s Jerry Tillery (pictured in the header): He might not be available at 62 anymore as buzz builds around him, but he’s a highly athletic pocket-pusher who, while being slightly (but only slightly) undersized for a defensive tackle, has the kind of physical gifts of burst, length, and strength that made him a standout interior pass rusher, leading Notre Dame in sacks last season. If teams continue to overlook him, he might be the kind of player the Saints move up for. (They did host him on a pre-draft visit.) Tillery’s athleticism would make a great substitute for Rankins or Onyemata if they miss time, and if Rankins never gets his old form back, Tillery could be the long-term replacement.
The draft is pretty deep at defensive end, too, although it’s deep with first-round talent– the wave of players ranked highly will probably have been picked clean by the time the Saints select. (You might see six or seven edge rushers in the first round.) That’s not too big a deal, though, considering the Saints’ heavy investment in Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport as the starters. Trey Hendrickson is currently slotted as the third end (again, depending on where they play Mario Edwards). They may want to still add a rotational guy; don’t be surprised if they take another look at a free agent like Ezekiel Ansah if they can’t fill out the rotation in the draft.
It’s unlikely the Saints will look for a starter here; they seem pretty set with Demario Davis as the every-down backer and A.J. Klein and Alex Anzalone playing alongside him. Still, with a fifth-, two sixth-, and two seventh-round picks, the Saints might take a chance on someone who could be a valuable special teamer and potentially a starter one day. Washington’s Ben Burr-Kirven is an intriguing name; he’s undersized for a linebacker, but he was a tackling machine at Washington. Boards are split on him, but if teams continue to pass on him because of his size, the Saints could get a real steal on day three.
While a lot of mocks like to give the Saints a cornerback here, it’s tougher for me to see. They’re returning their top six cornerbacks from last year, from star of the unit Marshon Lattimore to special-teams ace Justin Hardee. Given that the rotation is pretty well set with Lattimore and Eli Apple starting outside, Patrick Robinson at the slot corner, P.J. Williams next man up (or if Robinson hasn’t properly recovered from his broken ankle), and Ken Crawley the emergency fifth man, there just doesn’t seem to be much room on the roster for another addition. (Something further suggested by the fact that the Saints cut last year’s picks Natrell Jamerson and Kamrin Moore at the 53-man deadline, and they were both claimed by other teams.) If the Saints love someone in the second round who can challenge Apple or Robinson for a starting job, that might change matters, but I don’t know who that would be, as there aren’t any real standouts in this cornerback class besides LSU’s Greedy Williams and Washington’s Byron Murphy– who should both be gone before the end of day 1, never mind when the Saints finally select.
A more likely addition in my view is a third safety. The Kurt Coleman signing didn’t work out as he had lost a step; he continued to lose snaps to Vonn Bell over the course of the season, until he hardly saw the field in the playoffs. He was an early cut this offseason. Chris Banjo is currently the third safety, but he’s by and large a special teamer. The Saints don’t have a pressing need for a third safety because they usually go with three or four cornerbacks in a nickel or dime package, but some added versatility to the secondary could help them mix up coverage packages and plug weaknesses. There is a decent range of safeties with grades in the late-first-to-second range– Nasir Adderley (Delaware), Juan Thornhill (Virginia), and Deionte Thompson (Alabama) all immediately come to mind– and if the Saints like one of them as a fit, he could be the pick at 62.
Next time: Well, the draft is this week! So I’ll be reporting back after the Saints have finished selecting, with what we know about those players and what the picks tell us about the Saints’ roster thoughts.