Draft Review of the New Orleans Saints in the Payton-Loomis era, 2006-2014

With the Saints struggling to the finish line in a dismal 2015, and the impending end of the Drew Brees era, I thought about going back and looking at how the team got to this point, what went wrong, and what they could have done differently (and can do differently in the future).

I decided some weeks ago to choose their performance in the draft to examine for this purpose, but only now have had the time to collect the necessary data for this article. Even though Mickey Loomis has been GM of the team since 2002, I decided to start with the arrival of Sean Payton and Drew Brees in 2006, because of Payton’s strong input on the personnel side of the ball. I then decided to review the drafts from that point on through 2014.

The reason I’m not reviewing 2015 is largely because, after the 2014 draft was such an obvious disaster, the team fired longtime Director of College Scouting Rick Reprish, and most of the college scouting department. So far, the improvement has been immediately obvious, with Stephone Anthony and Hau’oli Kikaha already being impact players in the linebacker crew, and Delvin Breaux, Damian Swann, Tyeler Davison, and Bobby Richardson all have contributed to one degree or another, with Breaux and Richardson starting. We haven’t even talked about a number of their other picks yet– Andrus Peat projects to be a long-term starting offensive tackle, and several players who have gone on IR figure to contribute in the future, too. This is easily the best Saints rookie class since the much-ballyhooed class of 2006 (three of which remain on the team today).

In hindsight, comparing the 2015 class to the ones before it makes it pretty clear this move was long overdue. Let’s take a look at the previous classes and see how the team did.

The most useful number I could find for this study was Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value, both because it compares value across positions, and because a “draft value chart” measured by AV already exists. I used the “Career AV” formula for these numbers, which weighs peak seasons more highly, as opposed to being merely additive. (For seasons n ordered by peak, it’s [n1+(.95*n2)+(.9*n3)…])

Next to each player, you’ll see three numbers:

  • Car. AV is “Career AV”, the number the Career AV formula returns for the player’s entire career.
  • NO AV is “New Orleans AV”, the Career AV formula applied only to the seasons the player was with the Saints (and thus calculates the value he returned to the Saints).
  • Ex. AV is “Expected AV”, the projected approximate value for a player based on his draft position. That formula is taken from this chart. (The formula stops at pick 224, with an expected return of 5 AV, so I listed any picks after 224 as “less than 5.”)

There is a difference between “0” and “N/A”; it is possible for a player to play in a game and return 0 AV, but N/A means he never even played for the team.

If you want a handy-dandy spreadsheet to review all the data on your own, I’ve got just the thing for you. The spreadsheet also includes some bonus data:

  • The next five picks off the board after the Saints selection.
  • A “best picks” column where I list the five best players who could have been taken with the pick. This list is based on hindsight, Career AV, and my own subjective analysis, combined with who might reasonably be selected in that position. (I didn’t, say, take the 2000 draft and put “Tom Brady” for “Best pick” after every pick even though it’s the correct answer, because no one was taking him early in the draft, and it would be silly to project in a manner that didn’t add some meaning to the discussion.) You will also notice places where two players drafted closely together have completely different “best player available” lists; I simply thought it would be pointless to repeat the same information twice. (If you see two players drafted about 20 picks apart, it’s likely that the list for the first is entirely comprised of picks between the two.)
  • Because the Bountygate scandal unfairly cost the Saints two second-round picks in 2012 and 2013, I have included slots for them on the spreadsheet, with all the supplementary information on expected AV, next 5 picks, and best 5 picks. I did this just to give an idea of the kind of talent the team potentially missed out on because of this penalty. (I don’t think, given everything we know about Roger Goodell’s adjudication at this point, that “unfairly” is a controversial statement.)
  • Similarly, both because it affected the Bountygate punishment and because it was such an egregious decision, I included slots on the spreadsheet for the two picks the Saints traded to move up and select Mark Ingram– their 2011 second-round pick and 2012 first-round pick. (I’ll have more to say about that decision when we get to 2011.)

Without further ado, let’s start things off on a high note:

2006

Rd Pick Player Pos Car. AV NO AV Ex. AV
1 2 Reggie Bush RB 60 33 64
2 43 Roman Harper SS 43 36 26
4 108 Jahri Evans G 100 100 14
5 135 Rob Ninkovich DE 41 0 11
6 171 Mike Hass WR 0 0 8
6 174 Josh Lay DB N/A N/A 8
7 210 Zach Strief OT 35 35 6
7 252 Marques Colston WR 70 70 <5

This was by far the best draft the Saints had in this era. Four of the eight picks returned excess value to the Saints, Colston and Evans phenomenally so. Reggie Bush didn’t, but he was still a valuable contributor in New Orleans for several seasons. Rob Ninkovich was cut before playing a game for the Saints, but has had a very good career in New England. Sean Payton has referred to him as “the one who got away.”

As a preview of what’s to come, the difference between the 2006 draft and the others in this study is simple: The Saints had more picks here than at any time since (until 2015), and they were able to get multiple valuable contributors in later rounds, instead of zero or one.

The Saints’ frequent trading up, combined with the Bountygate penalties, thinned the team’s number of draft picks, which compounded their errors of talent evaluation. But we’ll cover that soon.

2007

Rd Pick Player Pos Car. AV NO AV Ex. AV
1 27 Robert Meachem WR 26 25 32
3 66 Usama Young S 16 5 20
3 88 Andy Alleman G 5 N/A 17
4 107 Antonio Pittman RB 3 N/A 14
4 125 Jermon Bushrod OT 49 37 12
5 145 David Jones DB 6 N/A 11
7 220 Marvin Mitchell LB 12 5 5

This draft as much as any typifies the Saints’ results over this time period:

  • The top two picks were disappointments for where they were chosen. Robert Meachem was, basically, a tall wide receiver who could run go routes and block. Usama Young was a reserve selected with a pick you hope to use to find a starter, and most of his value came for other teams to boot.
  • The subsequent picks are almost entirely busts. Three of the five remaining picks returned no value for New Orleans, having never played a snap. Antonio Pittman is most noteworthy for losing a training-camp competition to undrafted free agent Pierre Thomas and getting cut before ever playing a down. (The Saints’ success with Thomas, and later Chris Ivory, along with their failure with Pittman, should have been a lesson they heeded several years later. They did not.)
  • One of the picks, however, turned into a very good player who returned value well above his position. In that case, the pick was Jermon Bushrod, an offensive tackle from Towson who eventually played left tackle at a Pro Bowl level for the Saints. Unfortunately, like so many of their late-round gems, the Saints couldn’t afford to keep him when he hit the open market. (Given that he was 29 when he signed his contract with Chicago, though, maybe that one’s for the best.)

The one thing that actually distinguishes this draft from subsequent New Orleans drafts is the fact that they have a full complement of seven picks. Talk about damning with faint praise. (Also, Marvin Mitchell was a perfectly average return for a seventh-round pick, contributing on special teams for a few years. I don’t think “perfectly average return” happens anywhere else in this article.)

2008

Rd Pick Player Pos Car. AV NO AV Ex. AV
1 7 Sedrick Ellis DT 27 27 49
2 40 Tracy Porter CB 23 15 27
5 144 DeMario Pressley DT 1 1 11
5 164 Carl Nicks G 53 49 9
6 178 Taylor Mehlhaff K 0 0 8
7 237 Adrian Arrington WR 1 1 <5

See above, with Sedrick Ellis in the Meachem role, Tracy Porter in the Young role, and Carl Nicks in the Bushrod role.  Notice also that the team only had six picks this year, in part because of a trade up for Ellis.

Ellis was a tremendous disappointment, who played at an average level for the duration of his rookie contract, then retired. Tracy Porter will always have the interception return that clinched the Super Bowl, but he couldn’t stay healthy enough to be a serious contributor.

DeMario Pressley was a total bust. Carl Nicks was a hugely successful pick, who played like the best guard in football for a time, but, again, the team couldn’t afford to re-sign him (in part because they were hardballing Drew Brees and had to use the franchise tag on him instead). Tragically, it was the worst move for both parties, as the Saints struggled to adequately replace Nicks, and Nicks caught MRSA from Tampa Bay’s locker room and had to retire early. (On a side note, how cheaply and poorly run are your team facilities that this sort of thing is happening? The only places I can remember it happening in the NFL are Tampa Bay and Cleveland, which probably says a lot about those franchises that their recent results have also said.)

Adrian Arrington was a guy I thought could turn into something, but he could never stay healthy, either. Taylor Mehlhaff was the latest pick in the Saints’ search for a reliable placekicker. That search is ongoing.

2009

Rd Pick Player Pos Car. AV NO AV Ex. AV
1 14 Malcolm Jenkins CB/S 34 27 40
4 116 Chip Vaughn S 0 N/A 13
4 118 Stanley Arnoux LB 1 1 13
5 164 Thomas Morstead P 16 16 9

With the #14 pick you hope to get a good starting cornerback, not an adequate free safety. Notice also the Saints only had four selections, owing to trades for Jeremy Shockey and Jonathan Vilma.

Aaron Curry fooled everyone into thinking he was a can’t-miss, blue-chip prospect in 2009, and apparently that same Wake Forest tape convinced the Saints that Chip Vaughn and Stanley Arnoux could contribute anything at all in the NFL. (This wasn’t an especially good draft, but they got nothing from picks where they should have gotten, at worst, two or three years of rotational contribution.)

This year’s “one player who exceeded expectations” is a punter. Thomas Morstead is one of the few late-round successes who is still with the team. He’s a Super Bowl hero in his own right, having executed The Greatest Onside Kick in Football History to open the second half.

2010

Rd Pick Player Pos Car. AV NO AV Ex. AV
1 32 Patrick Robinson CB 13 13 30
2 64 Charles Brown OT 14 14 21
3 95 Jimmy Graham TE 40 40 16
4 123 Al Woods DT 6 N/A 13
5 158 Matt Tennant C 3 2 9
7 239 Sean Canfield QB N/A N/A <5

Patrick Robinson was supposed to be the team’s newest shutdown corner (across from Jabari Greer, one of the Saints’ rare diamonds in the rough in free agency). Didn’t happen. Charles Brown was supposed to be the left tackle of the future. By the time he was finally ready to take over, in year four, he lost his job to a rookie part of the way through the season. Once again, the high picks disappoint.

Once again, only one pick exceeded expectations. Once again, that pick is gone from the team. Jimmy Graham doesn’t need any further explanation.

Al Woods was cut in the preseason of his rookie year, an unacceptable waste of a fourth-round pick. Matt Tennant was supposed to be the center of the future; he was yet another misfire by the Saints. Sean Canfield was a late flyer who didn’t pan out.

It’s also worth mentioning that the team found an undrafted free agent running back by the name of Chris Ivory. The Saints like to tout their undrafted finds (which makes sense when you never have many picks– notice they are once again short this year), and Ivory was seen as the bruising complement to Pierre Thomas’ shiftiness and receiving ability. You’ll see why I mentioned Ivory very soon.

2011

Rd Pick Player Pos Car. AV NO AV Ex. AV
1 24 Cameron Jordan DE 32 32 33
1 28 Mark Ingram RB 18 18 31
3 72 Martez Wilson OLB 3 3 19
3 88 Johnny Patrick CB 4 2 17
7 226 Greg Romeus DE 0 0 <5
7 243 Nate Bussey LB 0 0 <5

Here’s the deal: Trading up for Mark Ingram was a major mistake that crippled the franchise’s ability to effectively surround Drew Brees with talent, and it didn’t even make sense at the time. Beyond what we already know about the general fungibility of running back talent, what makes this worse is that this specific team was already putting that idea to good use! The Saints not only had success finding running backs as undrafted free agents, they already had a guy who was good enough for that role in Chris Ivory. They either didn’t believe in him, or didn’t see him as anything but a complementary player. They were wrong there; his time in New York has demonstrated that he can be both a featured back and even a decent receiver (42 receptions on 56 targets in his last two seasons; compare that to his total for three years with the Saints: four targets, three receptions). That said, even after the Jets traded for them, it took them two full years to give him the reins full-time. Draft-position bias is real.

Instead of increasing Ivory’s work and relying on an Ivory-Thomas tandem, the Saints gave up their second-round pick that year and their first-round pick the next year for a physically unimpressive running back who didn’t start producing like a first-round pick until his fourth season. Just an egregious and unacceptable use of resources. (You can see the spreadsheet for a list of players the Saints might have taken if they had just stayed put. You think Sean Payton would rather have Mark Ingram or Randall Cobb right now?)

At least this year, the one player above expectation was a first-round pick, which makes Cameron Jordan one of the few legitimate All-Star talents on the team.

Martez Wilson and Johnny Patrick were total busts, not even contributing rotationally. (Wilson was a bit of an unlucky pick, as Justin Houston was selected just two spots before.) Greg Romeus was a talented pass-rusher who was injury-prone in college and never overcame it. Nate Bussey was supposed to be a special-teams ace but never did anything. One good player, one underwhelming player, and a few whiffs. Seeing a pattern yet?

Notice again the Saints are short on picks, and we already know they don’t have a first-round pick next year either.

2012

Rd Pick Player Pos Car. AV NO AV Ex. AV
3 89 Akiem Hicks DL 15 15 17
4 122 Nick Toon WR 3 3 13
5 162 Corey White CB 10 10 9
6 179 Andrew Tiller G 0 0 8
7 234 Marcel Jones OT 0 0 <5

How I long for a team that didn’t trade up for Mark Ingram, kept this pick, and drafted Alshon Jeffery instead. The Saints were also missing a second-round pick because of Bountygate, which they couldn’t have expected. (You want pipe dreams, how about Russell Wilson as Brees’ eventual replacement?)

Akiem Hicks comes close to returning value, but I still have to consider him a disappointment because the team traded him in midseason, while he was still on his rookie deal. Corey White returned excess value, but not for reasons we had hoped: He simply had to play too much in an undermanned secondary, as he was playing nickel cornerback as a rookie. (Not coincidentally, for the team that set the record for most yards allowed in NFL history. We’ll see if this year’s team breaks it.) He’s gone from the team now, which should tell you something about how they felt about him as an asset.

In the standard “We can’t get anything from our day-three picks” department, Nick Toon played a handful of games but never amounted to anything, and Andrew Tiller and Marcel Jones didn’t even do that.

Only five picks this year. Part of that couldn’t have been anticipated, but part of that was the product of an atrocious decision the year before.

2013

Rd Pick Player Pos Car. AV NO AV Ex. AV
1 15 Kenny Vaccaro S 11 11 30
3 75 Terron Armstead OT 9 9 19
3 82 John Jenkins DT 6 6 18
5 144 Kenny Stills WR 14 14 11
6 183 Rufus Johnson DE 0 0 8

We’re getting to the point where we can’t strictly use AV anymore because careers are short and ongoing, so we’ll have to be subjective. This is also the first year where Zone Reads was acitve, so we’ll be able to look back on what we thought at the time of the selections.

Terron Armstead is this year’s pick who’s returned excessive value, as he slid into the left tackle position late in his rookie season and is now one of the better ones in the league. Kenny Stills also spent a terrific couple of years as Drew Brees’ deep threat, but the team decided to move on from him after that. (Whatever chemistry or personality issues Brees and Stills had, the team’s offseason plan of “jettison receiving talent and let Brees carry the day” is in part the cause of their struggles this season.)

Kenny Vaccaro’s promising rookie year seems to have been derailed a bit; he’s still a solid player, but not the Pro Bowl-caliber safety the team was hoping for. (Perhaps the Saints have had a serious problem in secondary development and didn’t know it.)

The team traded Chris Ivory for a fourth-round pick, and then packaged both fourth-rounders to move up for John Jenkins. I liked the move at the time, but Jenkins has been fairly pedestrian. (And a team with only six picks in the draft shouldn’t be making two-for-ones.)

Rufus Johnson never did anything. The late-rounders never do.

2014

Rd Pick Player Pos Car. AV NO AV Ex. AV
1 20 Brandin Cooks WR 5 5 35
2 58 Stanley Jean-Baptiste CB 0 0 22
4 126 Khairi Fortt LB 0 0 12
5 167 Vinnie Sunseri SS 0 0 9
5 169 Ronald Powell LB 1 1 9
6 202 Tavon Rooks OT 0 0 6

Obviously, the draft that got everyone fired is going to be notorious. (For our purposes, notorious means fun.)  Finally, the swift immediacy of the bad decision-making causes it to be too hard to ignore, as one year later only one player is on the active roster, and the scouting department paid for it with their jobs.

The Saints seemed to think Brandin Cooks was some kind of world-beating #1 wide receiver of the Odell Beckham variety. He is a very fast player who can beat people deep but struggles to get open on shorter routes or against press coverage and doesn’t have much of a catch radius. He has improved as his second season has gone along, but I still don’t think he’ll be consistent enough as a #1 target to be the player the Saints envisioned when they traded up for him.

At least they’re getting something out of him, though.

Stanley Jean-Baptiste was, apparently, the product of decision-making that said, “big cornerbacks are in these days.” His major qualification seems to have been that he stands 6’3″; he played eight snaps his rookie season and was cut before his second season. An abysmal result for a pick this high in a draft this rich in talent. (Of the cornerbacks available, Phillip Gaines was our favorite. On pure value, how much better would this offense be with Allen Robinson, or even Jarvis Landry?)

Jean-Baptiste is the most spectacular failure, but let’s not overlook the other whiffs. Khairi Fortt was placed on IR-designated to return, then released from that list; word was he missed multiple team meetings, suggesting another failure of evaluation by a locker room that prides itself on striving for high character. Ronald Powell seemed to have some talent as a pass rushing linebacker, but the team placed him on IR in 2015, then released him; he’s with Tampa Bay now. Vinnie Sunseri has some hope, at least: he’s on IR but still with the team. When scouting Sunseri, I noted his film showed some heady plays and good instincts for the game. I think he would make a strong special teams player, which is something, at least.

Tavon Rooks is probably my favorite of the draft whiffs. When we scouted the draft that year, we had a Kansas State offensive tackle on our board– but it wasn’t Rooks. It was Cornelius Lucas, the better of the two tackles, and even him we graded as an undrafted free agent! So to see the team actually use a draft pick on a worse player from the same school at the same position, then cut that player (who clearly had no chance of making the 53-man roster) in preseason, then not even keep him on the practice squad in 2015… well, that’s just a cavalcade of bad decisions, made by people who had seemingly set the bar very low for what to expect from draft picks. (If you’re drafting players with the expectation that they have no chance at making the 53-man roster, you’re doing something wrong.)

I mentioned the Saints trading up for Brandin Cooks. Once again, they finish the draft with fewer picks than they started it with. 2006 is the only year in this study where the Saints had more than the seven picks initially allotted them. (The Saints’ inability to make use of compensatory picks could be the subject of its own column.)

Here are some final numbers to put it all in perspective. These are from 2006-2014, except as noted.

Expected Number of Picks (assuming 7 per season): 63
Actual Number of Picks: 53

Total Number of Picks: 53
Picks That Returned Surplus Value*: 11 (22.6%)
Picks That Returned Average Value**: 5 (9.4%)
Picks That Returned Below-Average Value: 37 (69.8%)
Picks That Returned 1 AV or Fewer***: 23 (43.4%)

Total Expected AV, 2006-2012^: 663
Actual AV, 2006-2012: 635

* – surplus value is generally measured by AV, but as we got closer to the present day, I had to be a little more subjective when assessing this measure. I counted Terron Armstead as surplus value for this purpose, for reasons I explained in the 2013 writeup. Cameron Jordan also counts, for reasons that should be obvious. The rest: Harper, Evans, Strief, Colston, Bushrod, Nicks, Morstead, Graham, and Stills.

** – I’m counting Marvin Mitchell, Akiem Hicks, Corey White, Kenny Vaccaro, and Brandin Cooks. I think that’s more than fair.

*** – For the Saints. A pick who does nothing for New Orleans but goes on to produce for other teams still counts against them. No credit for Rob Ninkovich here.

^ – I left out 2013 and 2014 because the players haven’t had long enough careers to build adequate career AV numbers, and I didn’t want to misuse the stats. I also counted picks after 224 as 0, even though they probably should count for something.

The total AV is pretty close to what’s expected, but that’s with many assumptions in the numbers favorable to New Orleans, and that’s also leaving out 2013 and 2014 (the latter of which we know to be an absolute disaster by any metric, including this one). As I mentioned early in the article, the only other reason the numbers are close is because of 2006, the only year the Saints actually got more value than expected from the draft. Take out 2006, the first year of the Loomis-Payton pairing (and the one where Payton may have had the least influence), and the numbers get even worse:

Expected Number of Picks (assuming 7 per season): 56
Actual Number of Picks: 45

Total Number of Picks: 45
Picks That Returned Surplus Value: 7 (15.6%)
Picks That Returned Average Value: 5 (11.1%)
Picks That Returned Below-Average Value: 33 (73.3%)
Picks That Returned 1 AV or Fewer: 20 (44.4%)

Total Expected AV, 2007-2012: 526
Actual AV: 361

And a chart by year, including 2013 and 2014:

Year Expected AV Actual AV
2006 137 274
2007 111 72
2008 104 93
2009 75 44
2010 89 69
2011 100 55
2012 47 28
2013 95 40
2014 93 6

(I’m not sure what the best way to calculate this would be, but if there were a way to pro-rate the 2013 and 2014 expected AV numbers to match the number of seasons played, I suspect we’d still see that those drafts came in below expectation.)

When I look at all this evidence, I come to an inescapable conclusion: Maybe it’s bad luck, maybe it’s bad process, but the Saints have had really, really bad draft results, they’ve had them for a long time, and they’ve had them in consistent fashion. Given the consistency of the evidence, and the immediate improvement in drafting displayed in 2015, I’m inclined to believe it’s bad process that had been going on for a long time without much incentive to change. The management only noticed it when the scouts, faced with one of the most talent-rich drafts in recent memory in 2014, bungled so badly on evaluations that the team has exactly one player remaining on the roster a year later. That immediacy is the only reason change came, but the subpar results have been there for a long time.

Even I was shocked at the 73.3% / 44.4% figures from 2007-12. Nearly three-quarters of their picks were worse than average, and nearly half the picks were basically useless! If you expand “useless” from “1 AV or Fewer” to “3 AV or Fewer”, the number rises to 24– more than half of the selections. (And we already know, for example, that four out of six picks from 2014 are guaranteed to return 1 AV or fewer, and a fifth still might.)

Teams get seven draft picks a year. Finding one above-average player and one warm body with them simply isn’t enough. Yet, for eight of the nine years in this study, that’s basically all the Saints came up with, at best.

The team has a bottom-5 roster outside of Brees largely because of bad drafting. The Saints trade away too many picks and miss on too many of the ones they keep. They rarely have major busts early, but their picks quietly yet consistently disappoint. Picks expected to yield Pro Bowl players return slightly above-average or even average players. Picks expected to yield average starters or above-average rotational players return backups and disappointments. Picks expected to yield back-of-the-roster players are used on guys who wash out within a year.

There’s talk the Saints will trade Sean Payton to a team not facing a substantial rebuild. If they do that, I think the team might have to consider moving on from Mickey Loomis, as well. His one saving grace is that he finally did something about this problem, albeit much too late. As much as I loathed Jeff Ireland during his tenure as GM of Miami, New Orleans’ first draft class with him running the college scouting department already seems like a runaway success compared to previous years. Andrus Peat, Stephone Anthony, and Hau’oli Kikaha alone already figure to be better than any draft class between 2007-14.

More to the point, aside from the injured players, everyone the Saints drafted is actually contributing in the expected manner. The starting linebackers are starting. The developmental players are developing. Even the kick and punt returner drafted in the seventh round is returning kicks and punts. (There are no, “Whoops, this guy was supposed to step in right away, but he can’t play” mistakes of the Stanley Jean-Baptiste variety, and nobody got cut before playing a down.) If the Saints are going to have a future after Drew Brees, it’s going to take more years of solid drafting like this to establish a foundation for this roster.

(And if they want to saddle up for one last ride with Brees, it’s going to take some serious re-working of the salary cap and better decisions in free agency. But that’s the subject of another column.)

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One thought on “Draft Review of the New Orleans Saints in the Payton-Loomis era, 2006-2014

  1. Pingback: Draft Thoughts Part 1 of 3: A Handful of Team Observations | Zone Reads

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