April 29, 2007

NOPF: 2007 NFL Draft Review

1. (27) Tennessee WR Robert Meachem
3. (66) (from Detroit) Kent State CB Usama Young
3. (88) Akron G Andy Alleman
4. (107) (from Kansas City) Ohio State RB Antonio Pittman
4. (125) (from Philadelphia) Towson OL Jermon Bushrod
5. (145) (from Detroit from Miami) Wingate CB David Jones
7. (220) (from Atlanta) Tennessee LB Marvin Mitchell

By making some key deals right before the draft and some other additions and re-signs beforehand, the Saints were able to approach the draft without any glaring holes in their lineup.

They signed Eric Johnson to start at tight end. Brian Simmons to start at middle linebacker. Jason David to start at cornerback. Kevin Kaesviharn to solidify free safety. They re-signed Hollis Thomas to start at defensive tackle and Antwan Lake to provide depth. David Patten to compete for slot receiver. The re-upped Charles Grant to eliminate defensive end as a long-term concern.

But youth was still needed in several positions, including cornerback, linebacker, defensive tackle, tight end and interior offensive line.

The team nailed their need for cornerbacks, the first time since 1996 that they took two. Both are from small schools and neither have much experience at all against top-flight collegiate competition, much less pro. Still, the coaching staff that the Saints have assembled, rich in collegiate experience and methodology, has shown that it can do nothing if not teach young players. Tom Hayes, former Stanford defensive coordinator, has two intelligent and talented young cornerbacks to grow and shape in third round pick Usama Young and fifth round pick David Jones.

Two interior offensive linemen in Andy Alleman and Jermon Bushrod are very promising athletic specimens, and one of them should be able to start at left guard next year when Jamar Nesbit's contract expires. Both should compete with Nesbit and Johnathan Goodwin this summer.

As for tight end, defensive tackle and middle linebacker? All but ignored.

Seventh round pick Marvin Mitchell needs to reshape his body in the locker room, improve his foot speed and work his tail off to make this roster in training camp as a special teamer. His potential as a middle linebacker is capped by his inexperience and his lack of pursuit speed.

The Saints had the draft's top tight end on the board in the first round, but instead took admittedly higher rated Robert Meachem. There's no question that Meachem was a solid value at the position and inserts youth and competition right at the top of the depth chart.

That leaves the most curious pick of the draft left to discuss, the trade up to draft Ohio State runningback Antonio Pittman.

This move, which can't possibly be justified by "best player available" since they gave up a fifth round pick to move into position, is immediately targeted at Aaron Stecker, who is due $1.25 million this season. The total value of Pittman's three year rookie contract will likely be in the neighborhood of $2.25 million, making him a cheaper option at the #3 runningback spot. Before the draft we thought that Stecker could be floated in trades, as he was used sparsely last year on offense, and $1.25 million is a lot to pay a special teamer.

Given his fourth round status and Stecker's contract, it seems that there won't even be need for a training camp battle. Unless the team makes room for both of them on the 53-man roster, or Pittman gets hurt, Stecker has probably played his last game as a Saint.

We figured the Saints would take someone from Ohio State, considering that the two teams's coaching staffs spent time together earlier in the offseason, but Pittman was surprising. That Loomis and Payton continually passed on quarterbacks, including a slew of them available even in the seventh round, might indicate a certain amount of confidence in Jason Fife. The Saints are still likely to bring in a "camp arm" from the undrafted market.

Another neglected position was defensive tackle, a position where players slipped down the boards early on. With Brian Young and Hollis Thomas the Saints have a pair of aging starters, with Antwan Lake and Rodney Leisle their unremarkable backups. Leisle is a former fifth round pick of the Haslett era.

Potential 2007 starters include Meachem and Alleman, although Meachem's battle against Terrance Copper and Devery Henderson is easier than Alleman's battle against Jamar Nesbit. You never really know but those are also the only two starters for the forseeable future, considering the current depth chart and contract statuses.

Initial Draft Grade: B

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