April 21, 2008

Notes: Draft Week Is Here, What Will Saints Do?

Saints enter 2008 Draft with after typical offseason moves to reduce pressing needs

It certainly could be worse. The Saints could be forced into drafting for need.

But they aren't in that position. The acquisitions of CB Randall Gay and LB Jonathan Vilma and the re-signings of starters LB Scott Shanle and DT Brian Young have eliminated needs that would have been classified as emergency.

Gay is expected to compete with Jason David, Usama Young and Jason Craft for the starter's job. Vilma, if healthy, steps in at middle linebacker. Shanle is a steady if unspectacular starter at weakside linebacker. Young and veteran Hollis Thomas provide veteran guile at defensive tackle.

Sure, the Saints need youth at defensive tackle. Speed at linebacker. Confidence at cornerback. Yet thanks to the Saints' usual prudence in singing middle-range free agents for key positions, there's nothing that screams from the depth chart this weekend.

Its that sort of smart signing that has allowed the Saints to draft value, not need, in drafts of the past.

In 2001, the Saints added free agent WR Albert Connell to replace Willie Jackson, veteran safety Jay Bellamy to replace Darren Perry and re-signed CB Kevin Mathis. We'll go ahead and put ourselves in the time frame of April 2001, when the Saints thought that Connell was legit, before Bellamy was played out of position at free safety and before Mathis' career-altering neck injury eight months later.

Without gaping holes at the skill positions, the Saints were in position to look at the top of their draft board. They didn't need to reach for a defensive back like Minnesota's Willie Middlebrooks, especially when Arizona State's Adam Archuleta, Syracuse's Will Allen and Ohio State's Nate Clements went 1-2-3 before the Saints. Their selection of Mississippi RB Deuce McAllister has turned out better than any of the alternatives, though pre-empting the Colts and taking New Orleans native WR Reggie Wayne from Miami couldn't have turned out bad either.

Different story in 2003, when the Saints moved up for Jonathan Sullivan, knowing that they had a desperate need at the position with Norman Hand's health faltering and Grady Jackson's reliability slipping. The Saints traded their own pick and half their Ricky Williams bounty to get Sullivan. Their reach for a needed position cost the Saints millions and has etched a permanent scar in the psyche of Mickey Loomis.

Loomis regularly brings up Sullivan when discussing - at a very high, non-specific level - his draft strategies publicly. Privately, Sullivan was a fiscal disaster and a black hole in the locker room and an unfortunate embarrassment that Sean Payton had traded away less than six months after his hiring.

In 2004, the Saints stayed put even as Oklahoma DT Tommie Harris, Miami LB DJ Williams, and LSU WR Michael Clayton dropped off the board and they found a top 10-prospect sitting at 18 in Ohio State DE Will Smith.

They had already added DT Brian Young, G Jamar Nesbit, RB Aaron Stecker, WR Germane Crowell, and traded for CB Jason Craft. So they could take Smith without needing to reach for a needed position. Yet, missing out on some of their top targets, especially Williams, wasn't something that sat well.

In 2005, the Saints were less patient. The Saints watched from their spot at 16 as the draft's top offensive tackles slipped. Afraid that Carolina would take Oklahoma T Jammal Brown, the Saints gave up a third round pick to move up three spots.

Trading up doesn't necessarily violate principled rules of drafting value. The Saints might not have found great value with Jammal Brown, but it is hard to argue with the result. Had Brown flopped like Sullivan, the Saints could have been pinned again with the pain of swinging hard and missing big. The Saints have had their most success by waiting patiently.

In 2007, the Saints did just that. Robert Meachem was great value at 27. His knee problems were a concern, but his athletic ability and character were worthy of a middle first round pick. It's obvious that some teams questioned those same knee problems, dating to his high school years, in Meachem's descent through the first round. While his redshirt rookie season is a disappointment, his work ethic was praised throughout by coaches and players alike.

In 2008, the Saints have set themselves up again through free agency to enter the draft with an open mind. They are missing one of their long time draft room minds, Russ Ball, which could result in a change of mentality. Ball was a steadying influence, and while Loomis is one of the coolest characters in the league, he's cracked before in 2003. While he's learned from it, he has moved up again since then in the first round (to get Brown) and again last year in the fourth round - an ill-advised move to get Ohio State RB Antonio Pittman.

We'll see this weekend what Loomis has in store. A trade up is certainly a possibility, especially if one of the top two defensive tackles slip. A rumored leap all the way up to #2 is not likely, but would be confirmation that the post-Ball Saints are unafraid and aggressive.

Meanwhile, the Saints were reportedly sniffing around the Redskins for their vice president of football administration Eric Schaffer, but were denied permission. The initial talk of replacing Ball with internal prospects is apparently only Plan B.

Saints Possibilities On Saturday:

  • Stick at 10: the Saints will be fine at 10 should USC LB Keith Rivers fall. They'll be golden if USC DT Sedrick Ellis is there, but that's unlikely. Should both those Trojans be gone, the Saints could shock us all by taking a runningback like Illinois' Rashard Mendenhall or Oregon's Jonathan Stewart. Virginia OL Branden Albert wouldn't be out of the question either.
  • Move up 2-3 picks: the Saints will be targeting Ellis or Rivers with a move up, with the Patriots for example. They will be trying to leapfrog the Ravens and Bengals for that player. It wouldn't be foolish, but it wouldn't be good value, to move up for a cornerback.
  • Move down: If Rivers and Ellis are gone, the Saints may feel that none of the cornerbacks are worth taking. The problem will be finding a team to move down with. This kind of trade might involve picks and players arriving in New Orleans.
  • Move up 5-9 picks: LSU DT Glenn Dorsey would be the target here, though they may try to get Sedrick Ellis, not wanting him to escape them like DJ Williams did.

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