Chris Gioe’s second article as Nick’s super-sub. Enjoy! -B.E.S.T.
EDITED by Nick Guarisco
As we enter the month of April, the media’s focus of the NFL will rapidly shift from free agency to the NFL draft. Along with draft hype comes the inevitable mock drafts by various experts. As Nick previously alluded to, mock drafts are not at all an exact science, and the acquisitions and losses by teams in free agency drastically shape the landscape of team needs come draft day. With the acquisitions of CB Keenan Lewis, OLB Victor Butler, TE Ben Watson, DE Kenyon Coleman, and QB Luke McCown, the Saints addressed most areas of need.
There is speculation that they are still actively trying to pursue a corner, as evidenced by visits of Nnamdi Asomugha (signed with 49ers) and Tracy Porter (signed with Oakland); therefore, it is safe to say defense is still a primary concern for the team.
With the departure of LT Jermon Bushrod to the Bears, the Saints are certainly in the market for a new starting left tackle as well. At the moment, it is the most gaping hole for the Saints to fill. Presently, Charles Brown is slotted to get the nod at the position. He was drafted highly, being raw and full of potential out of USC, but he has been plagued by injuries and poor play throughout his short career. He has struggled in the four starts he’s received at right tackle, so there’s doubt he can switch to left tackle with ease. With an obvious need for defensive playmakers and the clear uncertainty of the left tackle spot, the question becomes: what shall the Saints do with the 15th pick?
Left tackle is the most important hole to fill, but the only three prospects that would be worthy of a selection at 15 are Luke Joeckel (Texas A&M), Eric Fisher (Central Michigan), and Lane Johnson (Oklahoma). Nearly every report has indicated that none of these players will be available at pick 15, and the availability of players like Chris Faulk (LSU), Kyle Long (Oregon), the speedy Terron Armstead (Arkansas Pine Bluff), and others in the rounds 3 to 5 make the most sense. This year’s offensive line class is deep. They also fit Payton and Loomis’s style of finding great talent at the later stages – Jahri Evans, Bushrod, Carl Nicks, etc… It’s worth noting, however, that former offensive line coach Aaron Kromer (now the OC of the Bears) is gone; this may make finding and developing these gems even more difficult.
Since it is unlikely that a tackle will be available at 15, a defensive impact player will be the focus of the first round.
The Saints still need upgrades at OLB, NT, ILB, FS, SS and CB. The recent addition of speed-rush specialist Victor Butler was a great pickup for the Saints defense, but neither Butler, Junior Galette, or Martez Wilson have ever had a full-time starting role at the position, so drafting an OLB in the first round isn’t out of the question.
It is unlikely that Brodrick Bunkley will see a full-time starting role at NT if the Saints can improve by finding a player in the draft. Bunkley did perform well at 4-3 nose tackle during his time in Denver as a great run stopper. However, he is unproven in the 3-4 front. The restructuring of his contract suggests he will stick around for a bit longer, but it is clear that he is not the answer, certainly not for every play at the very least. He has only received about half the snaps per game in the last few years.
Both strong and free safety are areas of weakness. Roman Harper was completely out of place in Steve Spagnuolo’s system and proved that coverage was not his specialty (that’s an understatement). With only one year remaining on his contract, and $7 million saved by cutting him next season, Harper must prove that he is the player the front office thought they were (over)paying for in 2011, when he lead the team in sacks. Hopefully, Rob Ryan’s scheme will lead to more success for Harper. Malcom Jenkins has shown flashes of great potential, but his transition from cornerback out of college to free safety in the NFL has been nowhere near seamless. He often has trouble tackling and plays flat footed at times, seeming to lack the natural ball-hawking instincts of a player like Darren Sharper. In fact, Rafael Bush and Isa Abdul-Quddus both outperformed Harper and Jenkins during the late stretch of the season when given opportunity.
The acquisition of Keenan Lewis is a great compliment to Jabari Greer, who, in my opinion, is a top 20 cover corner in the league. With Patrick Robinson more suited to play outside, the Saints may put Greer, a more physical, but smaller corner in the nickel. The Saints’ corners are better than people realize, but poor safety play really hurt them last season. The Saints are still looking for a #4 CB though. Moving FS Malcolm Jenkins back to corner is a possibility if the Saints draft a safety early (or trust Quddus).
Dominant OLB speed rushers Jarvis Jones and Barkevious Mingo have been popular candidates. Despite Jones’s slow ’40 time, he is still projected in the top 10. Mingo’s draft status has sky-rocketed in the last few weeks. Though he was forced to play DE in college, he is projected to be a 3-4 OLB in the NFL.
Nose tackle is also very important to the 3-4 scheme. For a while there was speculation that the highest rated NT, Star Lotulelei of Utah, could possibly fall to us because of health concerns, but a recent clean bill of health will likely preclude that. Sheldon Richardson of Missouri has been mentioned, but he is a risk at 15 given the fact that he has never played in the 3-4 system, and changing positions of dominant tackles in the 4-3 to the 3-4 can create problems based on size and style (see Glenn Dorsey).
OLBs Dion Jordan of Oregon and Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah of BYU, who is the essentially the Jimmy Graham of defense, were once popular projected targets for the Saints, but their combine performances have likely vaulted them out of contention for the Saints’ draft pick. Both players have been projected as high as top 5 picks. It’s likely that all of these players will go before the Saints pick at 15.
The best chance for the Saints to grab one of these players will depend on the number of quarterbacks selected before us. The recent trades of Matt Flynn to the Raiders and Carson Palmer to the Cardinals have presumably taken two teams out of the running that previously seemed poised to take a gamble on West Virginia’s Geno Smith. It is possible, but unlikely, that the remaining teams in quarterback hunt, Jacksonville, Philadelphia, Buffalo, and the Jets would go for someone like Ryan Nassib of Syracuse or Matt Barkley of USC so early in the draft. Jacksonville likely won’t take Smith at 2. Philadelphia still has Mike Vick under contract, as well as Nick Foles, so it remains to be seen what Chip Kelly will do with the situation. I don’t think they will risk taking Smith so early, despite the similarities of Chip Kelly’s college system to that of Smith’s. Buffalo may certainly take the plunge with Smith given the opportunity, even though they recently signed Kevin Kolb. I think that they would be the only team that could possibly select a 2nd quarterback in the top 10 if the Eagles decided to take a chance on Smith. Nick seems to think that the Raiders are still interested in Geno Smith despite signing Flynn, but he projects the Bills to take Smith. He’s also noted a bunch of rumors circulating that mention the Bills taking BPA with the 8th overall selection, and then trading back into the first round to take Ryan Nassib. The Jets will not go for another USC quarterback and will address other areas of concern first, even though Rex Ryan said he wants to be more focused on the offense. The bottom line is, if only one quarterback goes before us, there is a high likelihood that all of the players mentioned above are gone.
With all of the uncertainty that looms over which players will be available at the 15th spot, deciding who would be worth a selection is intriguing. Enter Tavon Austin out of West Virginia. Austin is a dynamic player who is becoming the most discussed WR in the draft, even more so than Tennessee’s Cordarrelle Patterson and Cal’s Keenan Allen (who many experts actually have graded higher). WR depth is an issue of concern for the Saints, but with the glaring needs of a defense that is fresh off of allowing the most yards in NFL history, many people would have extreme issues with the Saints going offense in the first round for any position other than left tackle.
I am not suggesting that the Saints select Austin, but rather, if all of the above mentioned players have not fallen to us, Austin could be a vital piece for the Saints to trade back into the first round and pick up an ever important second round pick. With such a deep defensive draft class this would be extremely beneficial to the Saints.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: I couldn’t agree more ^).
Due to the loss of Danny Amendola to the Patriots, and Brandon Gibson to the Dolphins, I feel the Rams absolutely must take a Wide Receiver in this draft. They have the 16th and 22nd picks of the draft. Many mocks have the Rams selecting Austin at 16. They have a need for Safety, but if Austin is still available, I do not think they will pass him up. Additionally, Percy Harvin’s departure from Minnesota has placed the Vikings in a position of need for a player like Austin, who possesses a similar skill set to Harvin. The Vikings currently hold the 23 and 25 picks in the first round, the 52 overall pick in the second, and the 83 overall pick in the third. Their need for one more receiver to aid a struggling Christian Ponder is very important, and the fact that the Rams select in front of the Vikings twice makes Minnesota a very good trade candidate.
Draft picks are based on a value system that assigns a numerical value to each pick. I have included the chart for reference. It is not law that teams follow, but it is a very useful tool:
The first pick is worth 3000, and it goes down from there. The Saints 15th pick has a value of 1050 points, the Vikings 23rd spot has 760, and the 25th spot is worth 720. When a team trades picks, the GMs attempt to match the values as closely as possible. The team that is trading up will sometimes give a slight premium to the other because finding an exact value match is difficult. If the Vikings were to give us their 23rd pick in exchange for their 52nd overall 2nd round draft pick, it would create a differential of 1050 to 1140, which is feasible. It could potentially be considered a little too pricey, but there are ways to more closely match the values. For instance, it may be possible if the Saints also exchange their 75th pick for the Vikings 83rd pick. The value would come out to 1265 for the Saints to 1315 to the Vikings.
(Here is a very simple tool to use that can allow you to plug in the numbers and have them crunched for you: http://www.calculatorsoup.com/calculators/games/draft-pick-value.php )
While it would be a slight premium, it would be very doable because the Vikings would get to jump the Rams, who are in desperate need of a WR like Austin, or even in his absence, take their pick of Cordarrelle Patterson or Keenan Allen before St. Louis has two opportunities to mull the decision over. It makes the most sense for the Vikings to do this because they can still settle any additional needs at 25 while shoring up their WR front after Harvin’s departure. This would give a solid slot option to Ponder to complement their valuable offseason addition of wideout Greg Jennings.
If the Saints drop to the 23rd pick, there are still some very solid defensive options, and in terms of value it would be well worth it if one of these “guys” they are potentially targeting is not available at 15. The following is a list of players who may be available at 23 that would fit in well. At the very least one will be available:
Desmond Trufant (CB – WASH) - The younger brother of Marcus Trufant possesses good size and is a physical player. He actively pursues the ball in the air and is good in run support.
Johnathan Hankins (DT – Ohio St.) - Rob Ryan was very high on Hankins during his time at Dallas, and there would be no reason to suspect he still is not eyeing the Buckeye. Hankins is a solid 3-4 NT who commands control in the middle and tracks the ball well. He has potential character concerns and has taken plays off in the past, but if he can get past that he is a definite first round talent.
Alec Ogletree (OLB – UGA) - Ogletree would be my favorite pick at this position. Ogletree played outside linebacker (and inside) in college, but many people have him being slotted to shift to inside in a 3-4 scheme. He is extremely athletic and can develop into a great long-term linebacker. The Saints are very interested in him and even brought him in for a visit last week. He has off the field concerns, as a recent DUI arrest right before the combine indicates, but he would likely start at OLB for the Saints.
Matt Elam (SS – UF) Elam was downright impressive at the combine. His ’40 time of 4.43 was a full tenth of a second faster than LSU’s Eric Reid. He is physical and can cover wider receivers out of the slot, something that Roman Harper cannot do. His size (5-10) is a slight concern, but he is a high intensity player that would be a welcome addition.
The most important aspect of this trade is that not only would it still allow us to pick up an impact player at a position of need in the first, it gives us the opportunity to grab a much needed second round pick that was tragically forfeited as a result of bounty punishments. The Saint’s defense is very raw, and after a performance like last year, quantity is the most important consideration moving forward in this new 3-4 system.
Players that will potentially be available at the 52nd pick (or near the area for any second rounder we may acquire).
Jesse Williams (NT – Bama) - Williams is a mammoth at 6-4, 320 and is excellent at commanding double teams up the middle. What is more impressive is the fact that he had a 4.91 40 time at his pro day. He is very strong and would be a great pickup in the 2nd round, but will probably not drop low enough to be available in the third. His stock is on the rise though. He could be a first rounder.
David Amerson (CB – NC State) - Amerson was initially projected as the #1 cornerback in college football prior to the start of the 2012 season. He struggled a bit his senior year and had bad games against Clemson and Tennessee. However, he is very physical, and while his stock may have dropped I think he has the potential to recover and excel at an elite level. I do not think he will be available by pick 75-83 for the Saints, and he could end up being one of the steals of the draft in the late second round. (Nick believes Amerson would be a free safety possibility for the Saints if drafted).
Eric Reid, FS- LSU: Anyone that watched Reid in college knows that he is fast and very physical. He is a more natural fit at the position than Malcom Jenkins, and if he can keep his aggression in check when it comes to penalties and helmet to helmet contact, he could have real success in the NFL.
Jamie Collins (OLB – SMU) - Collins would be more of a project, and the opinions on him are mixed. He possesses great pass rushing ability off the edge and is useful in dropping back into coverage. However, he has conditioning issues. His projections scatter anywhere from the early second to mid third. Regardless, with unproven players at the OLB position, adding more competition would be very useful.
John Cyprien (FS – FIU) - The underappreciated Cyrpien is actually one of the hardest hitting safeties in all of college football. His talents may translate to more of a strong safety at the NFL level because his range is suspect and he may not be able to play back at free alone, but he is phenomenal inside the box. Most importantly, he does not miss tackles. In the coming days expect to hear a lot more about Cyprien from analysts. Some already have him slotted in the first round, and it is likely that he will be slotted much higher than 52.
While it is still early and mock draft speculation is impossible to be accurate about a week or two before the draft (if at all), in such an uncertain year (in regards to both the draft and the state of our defense), quantity is what’s most important. A 2nd round pick is the only way to ensure this while remaining under the cap, outside of picking up a high quality free agent, which we likely cannot afford at this point.
This draft promises to be both exciting, eventful, but most of all, more unpredictable than any draft year in recent memory. With Sean Payton sitting out for an entire year, the fact that his first move back was to switch to the 3-4 gives us hope that we can expect big things for the defense on draft day and do what it takes to bring a second Lombardi trophy back to the city.
*Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller – Getty Images