Less than two weeks away from Draft Day, potentially the last exciting football-related thing to happen when it is supposed to for several months.
Whereas forced mediation in Minnesota is unlikely to solve the pro football's acridic labor relations, the NFL Draft will be a temporary cure for fans of the NFL who have been without consequential football news since the lockout began.
The season won't start without free agency, the players drafted in the draft can't sign without free agency, and the undrafted rookies will go unclaimed until free agency opens. Therefore, this draft's proceeds will be inconsequential until time comes that these players can actually join their teams. It is the labor agreement that sets up the game of drafting college prospects in the first place - without it, the three days of drafting are vapor.
The Saints have a small and front-loaded draft class in 2011, four picks in the top three rounds and then a pair of seventh round picks, including their recently-acquired compensatory selection near the end of the draft.
1. Carolina - Auburn QB Cam Newton
2. Denver - LSU CB Patrick Peterson
3. Buffalo - Texas A&M OLB Von Miller
4. Cincinnati - Missouri QB Blaine Gabbert
5. Arizona - North Carolina DE Robert Quinn
6. Cleveland - Georgia WR A.J. Green
7. San Francisco - Alabama DT Marcel Dareus
8. Tennessee - Alabama WR Julio Jones
9. Dallas - Nebraska CB Prince Amukamara
10. Washington - Cal DE Cameron Jordan
11. Houston - Missouri DE Aldon Smith
12. Minnesota - Wisconsin DE J.J. Watt
13. Detroit - Boston College T Anthony Costanzo
14. St. Louis - Auburn DT Nick Fairley
15. Miami - USC T Tyron Smith
16. Jacksonville - Clemson DE Da'Quan Bowers
17. New England (from OAK) - Temple DT Muhammad Wilkerson
18. San Diego - Purdue DE/OLB Ryan Kerrigan
19. New York Giants - Alabama RB Mark Ingram
20. Tampa Bay - Wisconsin T Gabe Carimi
21. Kansas City - Mississippi State T Derek Sherrod
22. Indianapolis - Colorado T Nate Solder
23. Philadelphia - Georgia DE/LB Justin Houston
24. New Orleans - Massive Baylor DT Phil Taylor, our pick in version 4.0, has late-breaking news of an MRI indicating a bone condition in his foot that will be problematic. The condition, with two bones growing together, and combined with his weight issues, can't be corrected by surgery. We expect this news and its proof - MRI's passed out to each team - to drop Taylor out of the first round.
Let's go back to our usual suspects at the position. Iowa teammates DE Adrian Clayborn and DE Robert Ballard each have their own doubts. Clayborn has a troubling shoulder condition, Erb's Palsy, but one that forced him to overcome it with intense training and work ethic. Is that entirely an undesirable diagnosis? Ballard is a great physical prospect - combining size at just under 6'4 at 283 pounds with a surprising 40 at 4.72 that is backed up by great speed on film. But Ballard is unrefined and oftentimes passive - doesn't have the production you'd expect playing next to a top talent like Clayborn. Ballard's draft stock will hinge on private workouts and interviews and could swing heavily. With a good workout and interview, Ballard could be drafted as high as this spot.
Georgia's Justin Houston is rated by some as the draft's second-best linebacker, but lets be clear - Houston is not flexible, agile or instinctive in short zone coverage. He's a tremendous talent with straight-line pass rush ability, but he doesn't offer a set of skills that would allow him to step into a starting job in the Saints' scheme. How value a commodity he'd be to Gregg Williams will be answered when the Saints' pass on him, though we have him in this simulation leaving the board just before the Saints pick.
With Temple's underclassman DL Muhammad Wilkerson off the board, the top defensive lineman available is Illinois DT Corey Liuget, who was recruited and coached up by Ron Zook, who arrived in New Orleans with Mickey Loomis in 2000. The Saints have never drafted one of Zook's players, but between Liuget, RB Mikel LeShoure, and LB Martez Wilson, we'd bet this year that changes.
Liuget is an active, mobile, tackle with pass rushing ability who may be able to play under or nose tackle. An underclassman, Liuget dropped a lot of weight before his junior and final season at Illinois, a good sign that he knows what needs to be done, but will need to take the next step as a pro. Liuget is a bit of a man-child who will not be as productive in the NFL without refinement. Saints head coach Bill Johnson has likely scouted Liuget carefully. The Saints stand to lose Remi Ayodele and Anthony Hargrove when free agency returns, so defensive tackle could be a pressing need.
Ohio State DE Cameron Heyward, our first projection at the pick, remains a possibility as a versatile end who is also drawing attention from teams running the 3-4. Stout inside the tackle box, Heyward would assist the Saints when they go to three-man fronts, no small benefit in Gregg Williams' mind. Ironhead's son had surgery to reconstruct the ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow on January 12, also known as Tommy John Surgery. Recovery and rehab limited his offseason production and could have been the injury perfect factor to drop a Top 20 talent down to the Saints.
We'll go with Illini DT Corey Liuget here, after a host of defensive lineman left the board before the Saints got on the clock. If the Saints like one defensive end more than others this time around, they might need to trade up to secure him.
v1.0-Ohio State DE Cameron Heyward
v2.0-Purdue DE Ryan Kerrigan
v4.0-Baylor DT Phil Taylor
Second round pick (56th overall): TCU QB Andy Dalton
v1.0-Kentucky WR Randall Cobb
v2.0-Oklahoma S Quinton Carter
v3.0-North Carolina OLB Bruce Carter
v4.0-Clemson S DeAndre McDaniel
We had Dalton here in drafts of version 4.0 before eventually not finding enough courage to call it. Then news broke that Dalton was to interview with the Saints, more than a ripple in the calm pond of NFL news right now. Calling it here: if Andy Dalton is on the board at 56, and we have every to believe he won't be, the Saints will take him. Dalton has too many of the qualities that make the Drew Brees formula work. High intangibles, excellent short-range accuracy, great pocket mobility, obsessive work ethic and high football intelligence. Sure, it could be interpreted as a shot across the bow at the impending contract negotiations with Brees, or to express the Saints' displeasure with Brees' upfront and vocal role on the players' side of the labor dispute. In reality it may not be more than a value-first pick of a solid player in Dalton who has all the makings of a successful west coast quarterback, despite his limitations of arm strength, downfield accuracy and a simplified offensive system in college.
Third round pick (from Washington) (72nd overall): Texas DE/LB Sam Acho
v1.0-Temple S Jaiquawn Jarrett
v2.0-Clemson DT Jarvis Jenkins
v3.0-LSU OL Joe Barksdale
v4.0-Michigan State LB Greg Jones
Acho has everything you want from an intangibles standpoint, including the Academic Heisman trophy, the Campbell Award. A team captain, a high-intensity, high-motor guy and very well-spoken and likable, Acho is a work ethic-built product of the Longhorns, where he was used at defensive end, defensive tackle, and played all four seasons. But as an NFL player, its a tough call where he'll play. He's been training as a linebacker this offseason. At 6'1 1/2 and 262 pounds, he played on the line at Texas but he's not got the bulk to play a tradition 4-3 DE. But since when do the Saints run a traditional defense? Opening the Super Bowl in a 3-4 alignment and playing lots of mixed fronts, Acho would fit in as a standup edge rusher. He isn't an overwhelming athlete and needs work on his hand technique and lower body strength to play on the line. It'll take a project to turn him into an instinctive linebacker in any alignment, so a third round pick makes good value here because of Acho's first-round motor.
Third round pick (88th overall): Clemson S Marcus Gilchrist
v1.0-Mississippi State OLB K.J. Wright
v2.0-TCU WR Jeremy Kerley
v3.0-Cal S Chris Conte
v4.0-Tulsa TE/FB Charles Clay
Versatile defensive back who played safety, cornerback, slot corner and kick returner. An intangibles pick who was a team captain, Gilchrist is played a lot of deep lone center fielder in the Clemson defense. At 5'10, 195, Gilchrist isn't a size-speed phenom, and he isn't a big hitter though he is a reliable tackler. He's smart and athletic though, with experience for four years all over the field including special teams. Gilchrist ran a 4.45 40 and has enough speed to cover the field, moving from free safety to cornerback as a safety. He was a reliable four-year contributor at Clemson and makes up for a lack of size with quickness and smarts. He could immediately compete for a job in the dime defense and on special teams.
Seventh round pick (225th overall): Michigan State TE Charlie Gantt
v1.0-Portland State TE Julius Thomas
v2.0-Penn State RB Evan Royster
v3.0-Miami LB Colin McCarthy
v4.0-Pitt DE Greg Romeus
Gantt, who will live forever in Spartan lore for catching the fake field goal that beat Notre Dame in 2010, was a solid blocker. He earned a draftable grade as a decent short-range receiver and blocker, including a good performance against Wisconsin star JJ Watt this past year. Not much of a pass receiver, Gantt is a willing blocker who has worked his way to here. Lifted 225 pounds 27 times at the combine, tying for his position lead. Gantt has only 30% of his hearing in his right ear because of illness during infancy, but his left ear is fine.
Seventh round pick (compensatory) (242nd overall): Arkansas State OL Derek Newton
v1.0-Portland State TE Julius Thomas
v2.0-Penn State RB Evan Royster
v3.0-Miami LB Colin McCarthy
v4.0- Virginia TE Joe Torchia
Smart-school big-body who took the juco route to Arkansas State, where he won battles with great athleticism and speed. At nearly 6'5, 311 pounds Newton is raw and started at right tackle. Good foot speed and needs a year in a pro environment before we'll really know what he should look like or if he'll need to slide inside to guard.