While the sports world has almost universally grinded to a halt, last week’s NFL Draft provided fans a welcome oasis – and in droves, they tuned in.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, sports fans hunger for an event to sink their teeth into, even if not live competition, reflected in television ratings. The draft pulled in record viewership in 2020, and certainly fans of the New Orleans Saints were in that number.
They would not see the Saints select many players as it turned out. The team’s four player class was the team’s smallest haul since the 2009 draft, which also saw four selections (the record, of course, was the 1999 class which saw just one player drafted by the Saints, running back Ricky Williams). But the team certainly made its presence felt, as three of those picks were preceded by trades.
The Saints selected Michigan center Cesar Ruiz in round one, which further added to pre-draft speculation that highly paid right guard Larry Warford could be parting ways with the team soon. The pick came as something of a surprise for many fans – Ruiz was rarely projected as the Saints pick, though there were instances. He marks the fourth member of the team’s offensive line that has had a round one or two pick invested in them, with Andrus Peat and Ryan Ramcyzk fellow first round picks and Erik McCoy the team’s second rounder a year ago.
While the team stood pat with its first pick to fortify its interior line, the next three saw the team trade up for their targeted players. Two of those came in round three, with the team taking Wisconsin linebacker Zack Baun and then Dayton tight end Adam Trautman. Both players were widely considered values where they were picked. Baun was among the draft’s most productive statistical players, finishing his senior season with 76 tackles, 19.5 of those for loss, and 12.5 sacks.
One night earlier, Saints coach Sean Payton called linebacker a need for the team and one he hoped to be able to address in the draft. Following the selection, Payton said Baun would play both inside and outside linebacker positions.
Trautman, meanwhile, generated much discussion among fans due to the price it took to get him: the remainder of the team’s draft picks, one in each of the four remaining rounds. The 6’5, 255 lb. tight end was considered a strong prospect athletically after posting exceptional numbers in the NFL combine’s agility drills (6.78 in the 3-cone, 4.27 in the shuttle).
The team was thought to be done before trading a sixth round pick in next year’s draft to move back into round seven, selecting quarterback Tommy Stevens of Mississippi State. Stevens was recorded at 4.49 in the 40-yard dash and was utilized in a variety of roles at Penn State, where he began his college career, including as a pass receiver and featured as a rushing specialist while subbing in at quarterback. That may sound familiar to Saints fans: the team may well fancy Stevens as another Taysom Hill-type player.
Former Destrehan wide receiver and LSU star Justin Jefferson was selected by the Minnesota Vikings at the 22nd pick in the draft last Thursday, while former DHS teammate and Arkansas state wideout Kirk Merritt was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Miami Dolphins following the draft’s conclusion.
Jefferson was considered one of the elite prospects in what was considered a loaded wide receiver draft: the number of players drafted at the position over the first two rounds set a new record. He was the fifth wideout off the board, after dominating his junior season to the tune of 1,540 yards and 18 touchdowns for the national champion LSU Tigers.
He’ll find plenty of opportunity in Minnesota, where he’ll play alongside one of the NFL’s most productive passers in Kirk Cousins. The Vikings traded Stefon Diggs, one of the team’s pass catching stars and perennial receiving leaders, to the Buffalo Bills earlier this offseason. Jefferson cemented his draft stock after running a 4.43 in the 40 yard dash at the NFL combine and testing very well athletically overall. He’ll likely project to start alongside returning receiving leader Adam Thielen.
Merritt, meanwhile, did not hear his name called at the draft, but reportedly fielded interest from more than 10 teams before signing with Miami, which selected Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa with the fifth selection overall in the draft.
Merritt may have an uphill climb to make the roster as undrafted players historically do, but has a chance to make his mark if he does on a Miami team searching for pass catchers and that focused on fortifying its lines in this year’s draft. Merritt’s pro day numbers put him in rare air athletically, as the marks would have put him first, second or third in each of the six categories measuring speed, agility, strength and burst.