That means that the Saints, who have only 26 picks in the past five drafts (fewest in the league over that span), will again have a small draft class.
Rarely do events as large as a defensive scheme change occur to change conventional thinking about NFL mock drafts, but that's what we got when Sean Payton returned from suspension and fired Steve Spagnuolo and the 4-3, to be replaced by gregarious ex-Cowboy defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and the 3-4.
Much of the Saints' strategy may hinge, however, on the offensive side of the football and the Jermon Bushrod contract. Without a left tackle and with a shaky situation at right tackle, the Saints may instead choose to benefit from the draft's deep stock of offensive linemen with their first pick, instead of making the obvious choice to build the new defense.
1. Kansas City Chiefs - Texas A&M OT Luke Joeckel* - With no offensive skill position player in the top 10 of this draft, the Chiefs should get the next best thing - a franchise left tackle.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars - Florida State DE Bjoern Werner* - Good enough to make football sense, local enough to make business sense.
3. Oakland Raiders - Utah DT Star Lotulelei - Assuming his scary issues with heart condition discovered at the combine check out without major concerns, Lotulelei is the pick for post-Seymour Raiders. Arguably the draft's top defender, Lotulelei is scrambling for second and third opinions, but a draft drop isn't a certainty.
4. Philadelphia Eagles - Eric Fisher OT Central Michigan* - Skipping the top 3-4 edge rushers, Eagles instead give their jumble of quarterbacks some help with the best pass protector available.
5. Detroit Lions - Alabama CB Dee Milliner* - The draft's top defensive back is a no-brainer for the Lions.
6. Cleveland Browns - BYU DE/LB Ezekiel Ansah - Upside exceeding Giants DE Jason Pierre-Paul but just as terribly raw, Ansah has only played football for two seasons. All that natural talent should give Ansah a big advantage, teaming with Jabbal Sheard to give Browns a great pass rush.
7. Arizona Cardinals - North Carolina G Jonathan Cooper - More mobile and versatile than Alabama G Chance Warmack and thus better suited for Bruce Arians' scheme, Cooper may be the top interior offensive lineman after all.
8. Buffalo Bills - Georgia OLB Jarvis Jones* - Desperate for versatility at linebacker, Jones gives the Bills youth at the position. QB Geno Smith is an option, but we're figuring that the Bills too have quarterbacks rated much lower than available defenders.
9. New York Jets - Oregon DE/OLB Dion Jordan - Jets try, try, try again to find a dynamite pass rusher. 6'6 Jordan ran a 4.6 40 at the combine and is an outstanding edge threat. Again a team passes on Geno Smith, who will now in freefall past the Saints barring a trade.
10. Tennessee Titans - Alabama G Chance Warmack - The best offensive lineman available and Chris Johnson's new best friend, as he'll seal up the offensive line. No player in this draft could help bring back CJ2K more than Warmack.
11. San Diego Chargers - Oklahoma OT Lane Johnson - Chargers get the super athletic Lane Johnson here to protect the team's franchise investment with Phillip Rivers. Johnson ran a shocking 4.72 40 at 303 pounds at the combine. He is a legit left tackle prospect despite being a former quarterback who plays offensive tackle for only the past two seasons.
12. Miami Dolphins - Texas A&M Damontre Moore - Missing out on the top five offensive linemen really stings here, especially if the Dolphins let Jake Long go. Moore is a nice consolation for defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle.
13. Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Florida State CB Xavier Rhodes* - Bucs need to retool in the secondary to keep up with an NFC South loaded at quarterback. Underclassman 6'1 Rhodes is a prototype big press cover corner, perfect for matchups against the big receivers in the NFC South like Julio Jones, Marques Colston and Brandon Lafell.
14. Carolina Panthers - Florida DT Sharrif Floyd* - Quick big man Floyd will help the Panthers' awful run defense, and Floyd is a steal here. Should Lotulelei's heart condition become career limiting, Floyd's stock will rise.
15. New Orleans Saints - If the Saints let LT Jermon Bushrod go this offseason (unlikely), they'll regret it in this scenario, where the top three offensive tackles are gone. New Orleans native Alabama RT DJ Fluker is the next man up, but is a prototype power run right tackle - not a great fit for the Saints.
In the previous two mock drafts, we picked Montgomery and then Jenkins for the Saints, who need to re-tool at linebacker and don't have a true nose tackle on the roster. The 3-4 nose tackle is one of the most challenging positions in all of football, and heading into the new formation without a two-gap run stuffer is impossible.
Is 4-3 DT Brodrick Bunkley up to the challenge at nose tackle, or can the Rob Ryan scheme away from having that two-gap plugger in the middle? The Saints will look to address the difficult no-glamour position in free agency first. Standard operating procedure for Mickey Loomis would be to address nose tackle on the veteran market, as the Saints' GM never enters a draft with gaping holes in a depth chart.
Top front-7 prospects on the board now are both LSU pass rushers Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montogomery, Missouri DT Sheldon Richardson, Alabama DT Jesse Williams, Georgia DT Johnathan Jenkins, and Ohio State DT Johnathan Hankins.
Texas S Kenny Vaccaro is also a legitimate consideration here, especially if the Saints choose to eliminate Roman Harper's contract and save $3.6 million in cap space. If released, Harper would still cost the Saints $2.5 million in cap space, so it makes sense to keep Harper. Vaccaro is an excellent all-around safety with top notch cover skills and tackling power, but front seven issues are more pressing if Harper remains a Saint. Mississippi State CB Johnthan Banks here is a top cornerback prospect and a good value pick, but only if the Saints ignore the needs of the new defensive scheme.
Of the defensive tackles Richardson would be the least scheme fit for the Saints, while Williams, Jenkins and Hankins are wide-body run defenders better suited for a 3-4 scheme. Any would provide competition and youth to the new defensive front, but would have less impact than a potential star at edge pass rusher.
With the best available player strategy, Mingo has to be in consideration. At 6'4, 241, Mingo has a tall, lanky frame, blazing speed and played defensive end at 4-3 pro-style LSU, though he dropped in coverage and was asked to do contain regularly. His outrageous speed was confirmed with a 4.58s 40 at the combine. Quick off the snap, the West Monroe, Louisiana native filled game film with quarterbacks hurried out of the pocket, passing lanes disrupted and runningbacks chased down from behind in the backfield. Just watch the 2011 film of LSU vs Oregon. Mingo starred at the combine as expected, with a great 37" vertical and tied for the top long jump of all defensive linemen at 10'8".
While almost always down in a three or four point stance at LSU, Mingo regularly lined up outside the tight end, and so is used to playing in space. His statistics were limited in 2012 as LSU used him regularly as a down defensive end in three-lineman formations, throwing him into double teams again and again. Mingo also regularly played outside contain or shallow zones. He is more than a run-behind-the-passer edge rusher. He's smart, locates the ball and takes good angles of pursuit.
In his last bowl game, Mingo notched three TFL's, half a sack, a forced fumble, two solo and three assist tackles. The hit he put on Sammy Watkins on Clemson's first drive was classic Mingo - runningback hit in the backfield, fumbles. And yet, Mingo left LSU with unfulfilled potential and a so-so stat line left uncapped by a senior season. Added strength will improve his rich portfolio of pass rush moves, including a good spin move.
Far from set at 3-4 outside linebacker with just Martez Wilson and Junior Gallete, the Saints will need more pass rushers to rotate. Mingo wouldn't be expected to start right away and that's good - he'll take some time to adjust to the game while being used in focused situations by Rob Ryan. But adding LSU DE Barkevious "KeKe" Mingo to the rotation here is not only drafting best available player, but an excellent addition to the Saints' new 3-4 pass rush.
2nd round (14th pick) - forfeited as punishment for the bounty scandal and coverup
3rd round (13th pick) - Missouri Southern DT Brandon Williams - Here's the nose tackle the Saints are looking for. 6'1, 335 Williams is a plodding force in the middle of a 3-4 defense, exactly what is needed to eat up 2-3 interior linemen on each down. A three-time Division II All-American selection, Williams racked up 16.5 TFL, 8.5 sacks, 5 forced fumbles among 68 tackles. Lifted 225 times 38 times at the combine, tied for third among defensive linemen in the past three years. But playing at small schools means he's been able to get by on being a better athlete - defensive line coach Bill Johnson gets an April Christmas present.
4th round (12th pick) - Arkansas-Pine Bluff OL Terron Armstead - We picked Armstead to go to the Saints in the 5th round in version 2.0, before Armstead made a name for himself with a new NFL-record 4.71 40 time at the combine. So it seemed natural to bump him up a round. Armstead is the kind of mid-round athletic type the Saints have traditionally turned into starters, and with the Saints' shaky situations at both offensive tackle positions, investing a mid-round pick is likely to happen. Armstead remains very raw, and the boost from his impressive straight-line run at the Combine may not elevate his stock out of day three.
5th round (11th pick) - Cal CB Marc Anthony - 5'11 cornerback with long legs and lots of experience in the Golden Bears' pro style defense. Three-year starter at cornerback surely showed up on tape when the Saints were scouting DE Cam Jordan before the 2011 draft. Very physical and with good pop in press, but lacks elite quickness and deep speed. Used his experience to get better every year. Very aggressive, sometimes pays for it. Played special teams despite starting on defense and serving as a team captain as a senior. A concussion as a senior doesn't help his stock and a 2011 shoulder injury lingered.
6th round (15th pick) - South Carolina TE Justice Cunningham - With two tight ends on the roster right now after the release of David Thomas, a tight end selection in the draft seems expected. 6'3, 256 pound Cunningham is an excellent blocker, seem often paving the way around the edge for Marcus Lattimore. Not a speedster by any means, he would compliment starter Jimmy Graham as a one-dimensional blocker. A poor 4.94 40 time at the combine confirmed this.