With the 2015 NFL Draft mere days away, the chances are quickly closing for predictions, mock drafts and experts to tell us what they think will happen. The 3-day event has grown in size and importance to football fans given that it remains not just the biggest, but the most important way to build a contender. Consider this past Super Bowl’s two teams. Of their 53-men rosters, 30 of the Patriots and 28 of the Seahawks including Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Rob Gronkowski, Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman were drafted by their respective teams. Yes, free agency can add key pieces – players like Cliff Avril or LeGarrette Blount – but the plan remains the same: to build a contender, you must build through the Draft.
With that said, the Saints have 9 picks this year – including 2 in the 1st round, 2 in the 3rd round and 2 in the 5th round. They have spent this entire offseason reshaping the roster in order to improve on a really poor 2014 season. They’ve parted with former key pieces like Jimmy Graham and Curtis Lofton and overhauled their coaching staff. These 9 picks will give them the opportunity to move as they seem fit; something they love to do. I’d honestly be surprised if they managed to hang onto all 9 and draft players that’ll show up next month at Airline Drive. For the sake of this, let’s focus instead on those 2 big picks, #13 overall and #31 overall. What are the factors at play around those two picks that’ll help the Saints take the players they want?
1. Who takes Marcus Mariota?
Barring a major event like an arrest, FSU’s Jameis Winston will go #1 overall to Tampa Bay. It’s why they tanked the last game of the year against the Saints. The more intriguing question comes right after. With the retirement of former first-rounder Jake Locker, the Tennessee Titans’ QB depth chart reads Zach Mettenberger, Charlie Whitehurst and Alex Tanney. Though they claim to like Mettenberger, it’s going to be really tough to pass on a QB with a 66.8 passing completion %, who amassed over 10,000 passing yards and threw for 105 TDs versus only 14 INT in 3 years at one of top programs in college football. All of which helped lead the Ducks to major bowl game victories like the Fiesta and the Rose. The knock on Mariota is two words: “system quarterback.” How much of his success was his own talents versus his playing in a high-powered offensive system? No one doubts his intangibles, but the NFL has not been kind to prospects who emerge out of fast-flying offenses. Defenses in the NFL move way quicker than they do in college.
Even if Tennessee were to pass on Mariota, however, there are other teams who could potentially consider him. Washington just picked up Robert Griffin III’s option but he’s not had a stellar time in DC and could be gone next year. The Jets have had a poor time going back and forth between Geno Smith and Michael Vick, who’s on his last legs. And if there was a way to jettison Jay Cutler into the center of the sun, there’s many a Chicago fan who’d consider it. Does it mean any of them would trade up for Mariota? No. But if he fell to them, it’d be an interesting dilemma they would have to ponder. Regardless of who takes him, the Saints have to hope he goes in the top 12 picks for someone else to fall to #13.
2. What’s your Wide Receiver flavor?
Alabama’s Amari Cooper, West Virginia’s Kevin White and Louisville’s DeVante Parker. They’re the top three WRs in a Draft that is deep with them. The expectation is that two of them, if not all three will go within the top 15 picks, with teams like Jacksonville, Oakland, Chicago, Minnesota, Cleveland and the Saints all in need of a #1 target for their QB. Obviously, they can’t all take one and, with other talents available, some teams may opt to pass on one and take a player like Arizona State’s Jaelen Strong , Ohio State’s Devin Smith or Central Florida’s Breshad Perriman at either late 1st or early 2nd round. Cooper was a Heisman finalist last year while White dazzled at the Combine and Parker has amazing wingspan and measurables. Fact is that they’re all great prospects and with the increased demand on tall, physical receivers in the NFL, they’ll be coveted by many teams.
Now here’s the question for the Saints: would they bypass a talented defender if one of the three fell to them? Trading Kenny Still to Miami has really exposed the issues at WR. Marques Colston is approaching the end of a terrific career, but had his worst season in 2014. Brandin Cooks looks like a great option, but more of a speedy #2 receiver. Nick Toon hasn’t really delivered in 4 seasons with the team. The rest are undrafted free agents we’re all hoping can follow in the steps of Lance Moore and be productive cogs in the offensive machine. If the Saints find themselves with Amari Cooper at #13, can they afford to pass on him? Or would they rather opt to find a WR at #31 or #44 given the depth? Drew Brees makes guys look good, but you gotta give him someone to throw the ball to — specially with Graham and Still both elsewhere next season.
3. How fast do the pass rushers and defensive linemen go?
By far, the biggest need for the Saints lies at the defensive front seven. The need to improve the defense is paramount this offseason. The Saints ranked 25th in the league last season in sacks with just 34. Half of them came from two men, Junior Galette (10) and Cameron Jordan (7.5). Even if Galette hadn’t had the offseason issues he did have, there would still be a need to add more depth and talent at both defensive end and outside linebacker. And, let’s face it, there’s debate as to whether or not Galette would even be with the team had his big contract not kicked in this season. Meanwhile, the rushing defense was even worse, ranking 29th out of 32 and surrendering an average of 442 yards per game and an average of 4.8 yards per carry thanks to injuries to Brodrick Bunkley and Akiem Hicks.
The good news is that there’s plenty of talent along the front seven for the Saints to lust after. Let’s set aside USC’s lineman Leonard Williams and Florida’s linebacker Dante Fowler Jr as both are likely top 5 picks that the Saints can’t get. That still leaves Kentucky’s Bud Dupree, Clemson’s Vic Beasley and Washington’s Danny Shelton as possible prospects available at #13. Even if the talent isn’t available there or the choice is made to take a WR, the chance to add Washington’s Shaq Thompson or Virginia’s Eli Harold or Florida State’s Eddie Goldman at #31 is still present later on. The simple fact is that if the Saints use 4 of their first 5 picks on defense, it is warranted. The #31-ranked defense last year cannot make a return in 2015 if there’s to be any hope for a playoff spot.
4. Who takes a chance on Randy Gregory or Shane Ray?
Up until a few days ago, this questions was just for Gregory. Then Missouri’s Shane Ray went and got caught speeding and in possession of marijuana yesterday. For a guy who was projected just a few months’ back as a top 15 pick, the timing is about the worst possible. Now a previous failed drug test is giving teams second doubts about someone who in three years at Missouri racked 120 tackles (82 of them solo) and 19 sacks (14.5 of them last season). Could he fall out of the first round altogether now? I hope not as this would mean other prospects’ names would move up and deprive the Saints of more options.
Meanwhile Randy Gregory managed to fail a marijuana test during the Combine – when everyone knows they’re getting tested. That was soon followed by the revelations of his long love affair with weed and subsequent suspensions. This dropped the Nebraska standout out of many first round mocks, but he’s been rising back as the day approaches. 120 tackles, 17.5 sacks and 2 INTs in two-years will do that. Now, there’s as much a chance someone takes him before #13 and many have the Saints taking him. Given the clear out this offseason of personalities from the roster, I cannot see the Saints taking a chance on either Ray or Gregory. The hope here is someone looks at the tape again and falls in love fast with one or both of them and opts to forget their off-the-field troubles. It wouldn’t be the first time talent has trumped stupidity.
5. Could two Running Backs go in the first round?
In the past few years, the running back position has been greatly devalued come Draft time due to their short career span and the move towards a stable of talented runners as opposed to relying on one, key stud. Last RB to go in the top 10? Trent Richardson in 2012 and we’ve all seen how that went for both the Browns (who drafted him) and the Colts (who traded a first rounder for him). Instead, it’s been the 2nd round where RBs begin to come off the board. To be fair, there’s been great value there, with players like Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill proving their worth right out of the gate in the last few years.
But this year there’s Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon out there. Both shined in college last year. Gordon led the nation in rushing last season, flirted with serious records and helped lead the Badgers to the Big Ten Title Game while also becoming a Heisman finalist. Gurley was suspended for 4 games, tore his ACL and still nearly racked 1,000 yards rushing and was averaging 6 yards per carry. Would a team like Minnesota opt for one of them to be the heir to Adrian Peterson? Or San Francisco to replace Frank Gore? Or what of Baltimore and Dallas, who lost their big RBs last season? It’s possible both Gurley and Gordon could go earlier than any RB has gone in years – which is what Saints fans have to be hoping for here.
6. When does the Cornerback run start?
In years past, there’s always been one or two big cornerback prospects that entice teams at the top of the Draft. Justin Gilbert, Patrick Peterson, Morris Claiborne and Joe Haden are a few recent examples. This year, though, the highest rated CB prospect is Michigan State’s Trae Waynes and, depending on which mock draft you read, the highest he could go is something like 12th and he’s more likely being placed somewhere in the mid-first round to early 20s. And look, he could still go high. But just because the top prospect isn’t rated as high as previous years’, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad CB draft. On the contrary, this appears to be a good and deep CB draft class.
Just look at some of the other prospects besides Waynes: LSU’s Jalen Collins, FSU’s PJ Williams and Ronald Darby, Washington’s Marcus Peters, Wake Forest’s Kevin Johnson and Miami’s Quinten Rollins are but a few of the names that should come off and fast between the later part of Round 1 and the end of Round 2. The nature of the Draft is that when one deep position starts to go, others quickly run to grab one lest they be left out in the cold. And with the NFL’s push for big, physical WRs, the response is to go look for big, physical CBs to battle them. Could the Saints opt for one at #31 perhaps? Even though Brandon Browner was signed for big money and former first rounder Kyle Wilson was brought on as well, there’s an opportunity for a young, talented CB to come in and assist Browner and Keenan Lewis. Or maybe the coaching staff decides to finally try out Stanley Jean-Baptiste this season….
7. So what do I want to see happen for the Saints?
OK, so I obviously didn’t opt to write a mock draft since I didn’t want to spend the time and there’s way more informed football writers and minds out there. Besides, the moment the first trade happens, every mock draft in the world becomes as useful as a bikini in winter. But I got an opinion and, like my asshole, I have to make sure it’s noticed. And you didn’t think I’d end this without at least some crazy prediction sure to go wrong, right?
My preference is for the Saints to somehow end up with either Bud Dupree or Vic Beasley at #13. It’s amazing what having a quality pass rush does to your defense – not just up front, but for your DBs as well. In football, it’s all about having a QB, protecting the QB or stopping the QB. This is why QBs, offensive tackles and pass rushers make the most money. At #31, I hope we land either a WR like Jaelen Strong or an inside linebacker like Erick Kendricks or Denzel Perryman, with the expectation that, whatever position doesn’t get filled there gets taken at #44 in the 2nd round – Stephone Anthony or Bernardrick McKinney if we need an ILB or Devin Smith or Sammie Coates if we pass on a WR in the 1st round altogether. If you were to ask me to narrow it down, I’d want Beasley at #13, Strong at #31 and Anthony at #44.
Now could any of that happen? I think Saints fans have to hope that Marcus Mariota goes within the top 7 picks, that all of the 3 WRs go within those first 12 picks, that Todd Gurley and Trae Waynes somehow sneak in the top 12 and that someone – say Atlanta – chooses to forget Randy Gregory’s troubles and falls in love with his talents. If all that happens, then maybe the Saints will get to choose from a good position and take someone who can assist them in getting back to being a competitive team in 2015.
The caveat is this: the Saints weren’t one player away from contending last season. And though they’ve made strides to get that fixed in free agency, there’s still a need for more talent and depth on all sides of the ball. Injuries are a fact of NFL life and we shouldn’t expect every player to go unscathed. That means resources must be poured into securing depth at both offensive and defensive lines, at ensuring there’s ample weapons for Drew Brees and that Rob Ryan isn’t having to stitch together a defense from castoffs and hand-me-downs. A good draft can be the key to propelling the Saints back to another Super Bowl. Just ask the Pats or the Seahawks.