Saints coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis stockpiled six picks in the first three rounds of the 2017 NFL draft and filled nearly every need they had — even if not quite in the order of their priorities.
While the Saints didn’t address their anemic pass rush until their sixth overall pick late in the third round, they added two potential starting defensive backs with their first three picks in the opening two rounds, which should help a secondary that allowed more yards passing than any other team last season.
New Orleans didn’t entirely neglect its league-leading offense, either, bringing in more protection for 38-year-old quarterback Drew Brees and adding a quick, dynamic ball carrier who could restore to Payton’s offensive scheme the type of threats previously presented by Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles.
“It was one of the more interesting drafts we’ve been in with some of the selections at the top of the draft and kind of how it unfolded,” said Payton, who has coached the Saints since 2006. “There is always a little bit of unpredictability with regards to what certain teams may or may not do.”
The Saints weren’t about to complain. They entered the draft figuring they had virtually no chance at Marshon Lattimore of Ohio State, widely considered the best cornerback in the draft. But after a surprising early run on offensive prospects, Lattimore remained available when New Orleans picked 11th.
Lattimore wasn’t the only player New Orleans was pleasantly surprised to find available. If pre-draft grades the Saints assigned to prospects prove accurate, New Orleans will have gotten excellent value on several picks. Only time will tell, but for now, the Saints have several reasons for optimism that their three-year playoff absence will end sooner than later.
REMAINING NEEDS: Because New Orleans passed on available edge rushers five times before taking Florida Atlantic defensive end Trey Hendrickson 103rd overall, it’s unclear how much help is still needed at that spot.
“It is not that we are not looking” for pass rushers, Loomis said. “It just hasn’t fallen to the point that we feel really good about taking a particular player at a particular spot. You cannot force those things.”
The 6-foot-4, 266-pound Hendrickson didn’t play a major conference schedule, but had excellent numbers with FAU, recording 23 sacks over the past two seasons. And with the additions to the secondary of Lattimore and second rounder Marcus Williams, a ball-hawking safety out of Utah, coverage downfield could improve enough that pass rushers will have more time to get to quarterbacks.
VALUE PICKS: The Saints closed out the first round by taking Wisconsin offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk 32nd overall. Payton said Ramczyk was a player Saints scouts believed was good enough to be taken in the top half of the first round. Furthermore, incumbent right tackle Zach Strief is now entering his 12th season. That is why the Saints felt they couldn’t pass Ramczyk up in favor of a pass rusher. New Orleans also traded up to take Tennessee running back Alvin Kamara early in the third round, securing the player they had graded as a second-rounder.
HOW THEY FIT: Although the Saints didn’t necessarily need a running back with Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson on the roster, Loomis stressed that Kamara is a different type of running back because of his quickness and ability to contribute as a runner or receiver.
“That has been a key element in our offense over the last 11 years and Sean and our offensive coaches have a great ability to take advantage of the type of talent that Alvin and the predecessors here have had,” Loomis said. Like Bush and Sproles, Kamara also returns punts.
Florida linebacker Alex Anzalone, picked 76th overall in the third round, is believed to have the size and speed to play at all three linebacker spots.
THIRD-DAY PICKS: The Saints had only one pick on Saturday, in the sixth round. They used it on another defensive end: Miami’s Al-Quadin Muhammad. Payton often emphasizes character when acquiring players but has been known to suspend that requirement in the draft’s late rounds. While at Miami, the 6-3, 253-pound Muhammad was reportedly suspended from the team for a fight during spring practice and later dismissed as part of a probe into whether he and a teammate received improper benefits from a car rental company. He had seven sacks in two seasons with the Hurricanes.