Draft review: Meet the Saints’ two newest impact players

For years, Saints GM Mickey Loomis has always managed to find room to sign free agents despite the team’s apparent lack of salary cap space. It’s been a popular joke to suggest he does it with the help of some Creole voodoo.

Well, whatever it is, Loomis seemed to take that same voodoo and apply it to the Saints’ draft this weekend.

Despite starting with a dearth of picks (the #62 in the second round being the team’s only selection in the first four rounds), Loomis and Sean Payton managed to not only get a possible day-one starter at the team’s biggest position of need, but acquired a second prospect many observers considered worthy of a top-50 selection.

The biggest hole the Saints had was along the interior offensive line, with the surprise retirement of Max Unger. While the team signed Nick Easton in free agency shortly thereafter, he missed all of last season with a broken ankle and was still something of a young up-and-coming player even before that. He should be a good player– and the Saints have been very good at identifying offensive linemen in the Payton-Loomis era– but there’s still enough uncertainty there, both in 2019 and the long term, for the Saints to want to find an immediate starter there.

The two highest regarded interior offensive linemen of the draft were Chris Lindstrom from Boston College and Garrett Bradbury from North Carolina State. Neither was expected to make it to New Orleans’ pick at 62, but they went even higher than expected– Lindstrom at 14 to Atlanta and Bradbury at 18 to Minnesota. This left Texas A&M’s Erik McCoy as the highest-rated remaining interior lineman, although he was being pushed for that slot by a late riser, Mississippi State’s Elgton Jenkins. When the Green Bay Packers took Jenkins with their pick at #44, the Saints had to make a move to get the last option for a potential day-one starter at center or guard.

So they pulled off a bit of a complex trade with Miami, who had their own reasons for wanting to move down. As has become common for the Saints, they gave up some future assets to do so. To move up from 62 to 48, they also included their original 6th-round selection (#202 overall– they kept the one they got from the Jets in the Teddy Bridgewater trade) and their 2020 2nd-round pick, also receiving Miami’s 4th-round selection in return. With that selection, the Saints took McCoy, who will challenge Easton for the starting job at center in 2019. The McCoy selection clears up some of the uncertainty on the interior line in 2019. Andrus Peat will be a free agent, and with his name regularly floating in trade rumors, he may not be back. If Easton recovers and plays well, he and McCoy can fill the interior spots vacated by Unger and Peat. If he doesn’t, McCoy takes over at center and the team either re-signs Peat or looks elsewhere. Either way, I love the pick for need, and it’s a strong pick on talent as well. McCoy allowed only one sack in 1,528 pass blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus; The Draft Network rated him as their #1 interior offensive line prospect this season. McCoy will have to improve his run blocking, but his excellence in pass protection makes him a particular fit for the Saints and how important interior protection is to their scheme. (I even suggested him as a potential pick for the Saints in round 2.)

And while I’m never a big fan of trading future assets to move up and target a player, the Saints made the most of their moves. After acquiring the #116 pick from Miami in the fourth round as part of the McCoy deal, the Saints packaged it and their own fifth-round pick to make a deal with the Jets, moving up to #105 to select defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson from Florida.

I’d mentioned safety as a possibility for the Saints, but in my list of possibilities I’d completely forgotten about Gardner-Johnson, in part because he’s more of a safety/cornerback hybrid than a pure safety, in part because I expected him to be long gone by now, as many draft analysts rated him a top-50 prospect. (For example, CBS’ board has him at #40 overall. DraftTek has him rated as the #20 overall prospect in the class.)

Gardner-Johnson is an intriguing prospect both short- and long-term for the Saints. He’s a hybrid player who had loads of success as a slot cornerback, but can also play a more traditional safety role or even a “robber” role where he can line up all over the field or be unleashed to make plays. He was a big-time playmaker at Florida with a nose for the ball, returning three of his nine interceptions for touchdowns. He’ll be a great fit because he’s the kind of talented, instinctive playmaker every secondary could use, the kind of player whose talents often go overlooked at draft time because they don’t measure up to some physical prototype in one way or another. Gardner-Johnson isn’t a mind-blowing athlete, but he isn’t deficient in any area and doesn’t have any fatal flaws.

He’s a good long-term fit, too. At slot corner, Patrick Robinson is going to be 32 years old this season and it’s unclear if he’ll be back to form after his ankle injury, and P.J. Williams is on a one-year deal. At safety, Vonn Bell is entering the final year of his contract, though he took a significant step forward last season. It’s possible that the Saints decide to move on at one position or the other after 2019 and install Gardner-Johnson as the full-time starter. (I’d bet it’s more likely they keep Bell over the other two, if that’s the case.)

I hated him last year when he was all over the field making plays as Florida defeated LSU, but now that he’s a Saint, I love him and I’m looking forward to seeing him force some turnovers, an area the Saints defense could always use help with.

(Side note, he changed his name to Gardner-Johnson to honor his stepfather Brian Johnson. While I admire the gesture, as a bit of a film fan I can’t help but wish he’d kept the name Chauncey Gardner.)

While I’ve often been skeptical about how the Saints use the draft– too often trading up, seeming to have odd evaluations of players– their selections have largely gotten better since 2016, and I think this year they had the right approach for their relative lack of picks, not overpaying for anyone while landing an immediate starter at the team’s biggest position of need as well as a great playmaker to shore up a unit that could take a major step forward with his addition.

Next time: The Saints only had three other picks, in the sixth and seventh rounds; we’ll look at those, as well as the highlights from their undrafted free agent class.