The New Orleans Saints were one of the surprise teams of the 2017 NFL season, as most had them finishing outside of the playoffs, and envisioned Sean Payton morphing into a young Jeff Fisher with a third 7-9 season in a row. The Saints defense improved drastically as a result of them employing a defensive coordinator that was not a member of the Ryan family, and the Saints roster was seen in a different light, as a balanced and well-constructed roster.
Because the Saints genuinely believe they have young cornerstones in places such as Marshon Lattimore, Ken Crawley and Ryan Ramczyk in place, they spent the majority of their free agency signing veterans, with an aim to win now. Kurt Coleman came across from the Carolina Panthers, and he will likely replace Kenny Vaccaro’s role in the defense, and will likely do better as Vaccaro became an inconsistent liability. The team also added the best slot corner of 2017 in Patrick Robinson, and his addition will allow Ken Crawley and Marshon Lattimore to stay on the outside, where they are at their best. In addition, the team signed Demario Davis from the New York Jets, and he will likely become the every-down linebacker in Dennis Allen’s defense due to his well-rounded game. In the less notable news, Sean Payton decided to reunite with Benjamin Watson, who can still provide some red-zone value if he even makes the roster.
The Saints do not have many glaring needs because of their solid off-season, which means they can take risks in this draft, and take some players who might be more of a project. Below is a five-man shortlist for the Saints with the 27th overall pick.
Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Boise State
Leighton Vander Esch is the divisive prospect of this draft, with some falling in love with his combine and calling him a top ten talent, while others look to his inconsistent tape and below par coverage skills as an example of him being a likely bust. The athletic ability of Vander Esch is undeniable, and although it is not yet clear if he has the processing skills to be a full-time linebacker, he is a good match with the New Orleans Saints. The Saints already have two linebackers with higher intelligence than athleticism in the form of Manti Te’o and Craig Robertson, so taking a specialist like Vander Esch makes sense. In year one, the Saints would use Vander Esch in the same way Seattle used Bruce Irvin in the legion of boom era, as a strongside extra pass rusher on first down, and he would then have the potential to develop into their best linebacker.
Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
Lamar Jackson is another divisive prospect and the type of prospect who will slip, for a variety of stupid reasons. Lamar Jackson has reportedly rubbed some NFL teams the wrong way by not going to workouts, but in honesty, I think he is just insulted at the idea that some people see him as a wide receiver at the next level, and is totally fed up with the process. The shroud of mist surrounding Jackson means that he could very feasibly fall into the Saints lap at 27, although the chance is small because the draft always appears to be a scramble for quarterbacks. Many think you have to build a college offense around Lamar Jackson, but I completely disagree, as many of the concepts he was running with Bobby Petrino were pro-style concepts. Jackson won’t be the day one starter while Drew Brees is around, but his ability to make passes into tight windows out of power sets, makes him a long-term fit in a Saints team that is always evolving offensively. He and Sean Payton are a match made in heaven, as Jackson’s ability to make plays on the fly is a good contrast with Sean Payton’s horizontal scheme.
Billy Price, OG/OC, Ohio State
The Saints offensive line has been one of the best in the NFL in the last couple of years, but this does not mean that they should stop adding to it when the opportunity arises. Generally, Sean Payton has preferred to use high picks to build his offensive line, rather than free agency, so Billy Price makes a lot of sense for the Saints here. Andrus Peat is a potential free agent after the upcoming season, Max Unger is 31 years old and becoming a free agent in 2020, so adding Price now makes a lot of sense for a team that likes succession planning on the offensive side of the ball. Price is the only universal scheme fit amongst interior offensive linemen, which makes him a good match with the Saints, who run a very diverse run game. This would be considered a luxury pick by some, but that does not mean it would be a bad pick.
Taven Bryan, DT, Florida
For a while now, the Saints have been trying to pair a premier pass rusher with Cameron Jordan, and the results have mostly been mixed. Nick Fairley sadly had to leave because of a heart condition, and Sheldon Rankins has not really flashed the dominance that many believed he would. It is for this reason, that Taven Bryan is a no-brainer selection for the Saints if he is still on the board. Bryan looks undersized, but the tape shows that he is very stout against the run, and his interior dominance is the best I’ve seen from a prospect since Aaron Donald (and Maurice Hurst). Bryan is a high effort player who could answer a lot of questions Dennis Allen has about this defensive line.
Sam Hubbard, DE, Ohio State
The majority of the players on this theoretical shortlist have been high upside picks, so it makes sense to have a high floor prospect on it in the form of Sam Hubbard. The former Ohio State lineman doesn’t have the elite athleticism of other prospects, but he is a solid well-rounded defensive lineman who will set the edge at an elite level, but likely be reliant on sacks being schemed for him. On a defensive line with Cameron Jordan, this is not necessarily a problem, as Jordan is one of the best pass rushers in the League, and plays over 90% of the snaps for the Saints. Hubbard across from Jordan gives the Saints a steady contributor, which I’m sure they would take over the revolving door that has been there for the last three seasons.
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