Column: Defense heavy draft aimed at keeping Saints on course

It was an interesting NFL draft haul for the Saints, and off-brand to fan expectations – which, I suppose, is rather on-brand when it comes to the past few years of New Orleans drafts.

It was a defense-heavy draft, and it’s rather difficult to argue with the team’s track record in terms of scouting and drafting that side of the ball since Jeff Ireland joined the team’s front office. Of course, it is worth noting that the team did have a high-profile departure this offseason – Terry Fontenot left his post as the team’s vice president of pro personnel to become general manager of the Atlanta Falcons (BOOOOO!) so time will tell if or how his loss will be felt.

The team drafted prospects it was linked to prior to draft day, but those selections each came a bit ahead of where analysts had mocked them – Payton Turner, for example, was a popular slot for the team in round two, whereas the Saints took him in round one.

I don’t put much stock into that, though – not once you get out of the first 20 picks or so. I put even less stock into pre-draft projections this season (and last), because the process is, well, jacked up for lack of a better term. That’s due to COVID of course, and I suspect teams are putting additional stock into players they have some extra intel on (Pete Werner … an Ohio State product, to the Saints? You don’t say!).

Ryan Arena

Turner’s profile sounds a lot like Marcus Davenport, for better and for worse. Very big, very long, very projectable and potentially a force against both the run and the pass. Turner’s red flags are injury-related, and also that he wasn’t measuring himself against, say, SEC competition every week while at the University of Houston. But at pick 28, a potential difference-maker at defensive end is difficult to find fault with, and several teams took their own shots at finding one at the end of the first round.

End wasn’t a target most fans had zeroed in on – not with cornerback in some flux – but after losing Trey Hendrickson, it makes sense. Cameron Jordan is the heart and soul of the defense, but he’s at the age where a decline could factor in. Davenport is a difference-maker when healthy, but he hasn’t been healthy enough so far. The Saints need help in the secondary, but I can promise you, if their ability to pressure the passer is compromised, the house of cards falls apart much faster.

With Werner, it sounds as if the Saints are getting a very athletic, coachable player who people think will have a role in the league for a long time. What that role will be is effectively where the debate comes in. He’s a strong blitzer and stout against the run. He ran a strong time at his pro day and whether he will be a two or three down linebacker is the major question here (and perhaps the great determining factor as to whether he ends up being worth a second round selection). Can he cover? Can he make the big stop in the open field? We’ll find out soon enough.

Paulson Adebo, ultimately, could be the pick that makes or breaks this group as a class. The Saints dealt two picks to jump up to get him. He has a high-upside skill set, with the ideal combination of speed, size and length to translate his game to the pros. If the team needs him to be a difference-maker on day one, it could be an issue, though, as rookie cornerbacks typically take time to adjust to the pros. The team had to come out of the draft with a legit prospect at corner, and they did their job.

The Ian Book pick was not my favorite. As a rule, I don’t love drafting quarterbacks in rounds 3 and 4, as the vast, vast majority tend to not work out historically. There’s been a little give to that rule in recent years – Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson and Kirk Cousins are a few who have returned infinite value on those selections – so maybe the game is changing a bit there. Book’s arm strength for the pros has been questioned, though, as has his upside beyond being a quality backup.

My feeling on that pick is the team needed to come out of the draft with someone who *could* make the team as a backup quarterback, though, because of the team’s unique situation with Taysom Hill. The Saints have carried a trio of quarterbacks over the past several seasons, and that’s no accident – the third option allows Sean Payton to deploy Hill as a short-yardage battering ram, utilize him as a blocker and receiver and let him play special teams, since an injury won’t leave the QB room completely depleted. The Saints did not have another selection until the sixth round, so even though that was where Book was “projected,” the team may have felt it needed to act. All accounts of Book are that he’s a high-quality person, so commitment won’t be an issue, at the very least.

The team’s final two picks, of course, are long shots to make a huge difference as are all very late round picks, but the ones you do hit can go a long way in the salary cap era. Landon Young is an offensive tackle in the SEC, and there’s never anything wrong with taking a shot on one of those. As for Kawaan Baker of South Alabama, he’s a sleeper – he played with 12 different quarterbacks during his four years at the school, and Payton has had a pretty good track record at hand-picking less heralded slot receiver types, like Lance Moore, Willie Snead and you could even toss Marques Colston into that mix as a “big slot.”

POOKA TO THE BENGALS: Non-Saints note, but congratulations to Pooka Williams for signing with the Cincinnati Bengals. The single-most dominant prep athlete I’ve had the pleasure of covering. I think he’s found a great situation where his skills can potentially excel – the Bengals are going to spread the field with some great talent at wide receiver and I think the competition for roster spots behind Joe Mixon is going to be wide open. I know who I’d bet on.

 

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