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.

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The Chart of Picks By Team Is Complete

Now, you can view every pick your team made, along with our grade of the player, in one handy spreadsheet.

Don’t lose too much heart if we have a “N/A” grade next to your player. It simply means we didn’t have the chance to evaluate the player properly. Some of those players we’ve heard of; some of them we haven’t. Either way, we didn’t see enough of or hear enough from other experts about them to assign them a grade with any confidence.

Since we try to focus on top prospects first and work our way down, it’s rare we get to watch anyone we grade as “undraftable”, but it does happen. That didn’t happen this year; any “undraftable” drafted players would have been marked as such on the chart.

Some interesting tidbits about the chart and pick value:

  • The biggest gap between our ranking of a player we actually graded and his selection spot was St. Louis’ third-round selection of Sean Mannion, our no. 307 player taken with pick no. 89. (Of course, you could argue that Green Bay’s selection of a fifth-round safety at no. 30 represented worse real value, and you’d probably be right.)
  • The lowest-ranked player on our board who was still drafted was linebacker Edmond Robinson of Newberry, no. 324 out of 329 graded prospects. (He was taken by Minnesota with pick no. 232.) Runner-up: Deon Simon, The Jets’ new defensive tackle from Northwestern State, no. 320 (selected no. 223).
  • The highest-selected player we did not grade was Auburn DT Angelo Blackson, taken no. 100 by Tennessee.
  • Pittsburgh arguably had the deepest draft; all eight of their picks were graded in our top 150 prospects. (They did use their second-rounder on a prospect we had a fourth-round grade on, but every other selection represented equal or greater value than the pick itself.)
  • The only teams besides Pittsburgh whose draft classes consisted entirely of players we graded were Minnesota (ten selections), Miami (seven), Chicago (six), the New York Jets (six), and San Diego (five).
  • Some teams besides Pittsburgh who got consistently good value or got a lot of it late: Tennessee, Atlanta, New Orleans, and Miami.
  • Jacksonville had a curious draft: After getting poor value on their first two selections, they got tremendous value on their third-, fifth-, and sixth-round selections (and broke even on their fourth by our rankings).
  • Teams who had a similarly curious start to the draft, if not quite the finish Jacksonville did, include Baltimore, and the New York Giants. (Of the first three prospects these teams selected, the third was the one we graded highest.)
  • Carolina’s first three picks were all graded between no. 62 and no. 68 on our board.
  • St. Louis didn’t use a single selection on a player whose grade was in a tier equal to or better than where they made the selection. (Todd Gurley, the no. 10 selection, was rated no. 13, but he was in the “Mid 1st” tier, and not the “Top 10” tier, of which multiple players were available at the Rams’ selection.)
  • Of Oakland’s ten picks, five of them were of prospects we didn’t grade, and only one– tight end Clive Walford– was the best player available at his position when the Raiders selected him.
  • Two prospects were drafted at the exact place we had them ranked: Nelson Agholor at no. 20 (Eagles) and Jarvis Harrison at no. 152 (Jets).

Enjoy.

Explaining some changes on our Big Board

This will most likely be the last update on our Big Board before the draft (unless something drastic happens before then– discovering a heretofore unknown prospect, or a major piece of news lowering someone’s stock, for example). As such, I feel fairly comfortable with the final decisions we’ve made. Thus, I’d like to explain the ones that don’t seem to jive with popular opinion, and why we settled on the decisions we did.

We’ll start with what probably stands out the most right now, our edge-rusher rankings…

Dante Fowler at 22, a tier behind Owamagbe Odighizuwa and Preston Smith

This one is simple, though oddly controversial. When evaluating edge players, one of our top priorities is: Can he provide pass rush around the corner? Other skills are secondary to this. (That’s why Vic Beasley is our #1 EDGE and Randy Gregory, despite his rawness and potential to smoke his way out of the league, is our #2. More on this in a second.) While Fowler does many things well, is explosive, versatile, and an effective blitzer, he isn’t really a top-quality pass-rushing prospect. On film, he doesn’t show much ability to get around the corner, with a lack of bend and ability to turn while maintaining speed confirmed by his 7.40 3-cone time. Fowler only had 5.5 sacks in the regular season (before three in his bowl game), and a significant number of those came on blitzes. I think Fowler is a guy whose athleticism doesn’t necessarily translate into production. (While you can say the same thing about Bud Dupree, Dupree’s athleticism is off the charts compared to Fowler’s, and even with a similarly poor 3-cone time, Dupree’s other athletic measurements are still good enough to qualify him as one of Justis Mosqueada’s Force Players.)

And speaking of Force Players, Smith and Odighizuwa both qualify. That shows up on film, too: Odighizuwa has some hip problems, but he does a great job converting strength to power and with his bull rush. Meanwhile, Smith is larger than a traditional edge rusher, but he also projects as someone who can move all across the formation, a la Michael Bennett (the current Seahawk, not the Ohio State prospect), and still be effective.

I don’t think those two are necessarily elite prospects– hence why they’re only #4 and #5 on my edge-rusher board. But their ability to rush the passer makes them worthy first-round picks, certainly compared to an edge player I have significant questions about on that point.

Brett Hundley #15 and Dorial Green-Beckham #16

Here’s something to think about: The number of prospects with the talent to be a top-flight NFL player at his position (or, at least, at the quarterback position, a reliable enough guy to be a long-term starter) are rare. (That’s also why we have Todd Gurley so high despite his ACL tear, though that one seems much less controversial.)

Dorial Green-Beckham hasn’t played football in over a year and has some serious questions surrounding his off-field behavior. Nobody denies this. (The domestic violence is much more troubling than the cannabis, certainly.) At the same time, nobody denies that he has the talent to be the best receiver in the league someday.

I’m not in the position where I can adequately assess how risky Green-Beckham’s off-field problems are going forward. To that end, I can’t gauge how they will affect his status as a prospect beyond some vague sense that I should downgrade him. That said, I also believe if he hadn’t been kicked out of school for the off-field incidents, and if he had played football last season, he’d be the #1 prospect in this draft and would go off the board in the first three selections. This ranking attempts to reflect that level of talent, combined with the questions surrounding any prospect who sat out a year and may have had his development stunted.

Brett Hundley does not have those off-field problems, but he has people asking similar questions about his game. Thing is, many of the criticisms I’ve heard don’t seem to stand up to much scrutiny. I hear Hundley is an inaccurate quarterback who makes predetermined throws, who can’t read defenses, who drops his eyes too readily, who has no pocket presence and takes off running at the first sign of pressure, then I watch plays like the ones I just linked.

http://www.draftbreakdown.com/gif-embed/?clip=255672&gif=EnviousSentimentalAsp

Sure, Hundley needs to do those things more consistently. But if the argument is that he can’t do those things, plays like these dispel that notion.

Hundley certainly needs refinement to be a successful NFL quarterback, but that’s true of every prospect in this draft. Jameis Winston needs to learn to read underneath coverage and to learn what kind of windows he can and cannot make throws into. Marcus Mariota needs to fix his mechanics, develop more consistent accuracy, and learn to adapt his play in the moment (which may not be possible). Hundley can do many things at an extremely high level, he just has to learn to do them more consistently, and un-learn any bad habits he may have picked up at UCLA.

Reports are that the coaching staff didn’t allow him freedom to audible; it’s possible that his penchant for running was developed from having to deal with plays he knew were broken. Watching UCLA’s film, it’s clear Hundley often had to run for the sheer reason that the offensive line could not block for him consistently. It’s also clear that the coaches did not adjust their route combinations as they should have to provide Hundley with more ways to get the ball out quickly.

Take a look at how few other offensive prospects UCLA has for this year’s draft, and how they’re rated. Last year, the only drafted players from UCLA’s offense were Xavier Su’a-Filo and Shaq Evans, neither of whom made any sort of impact this past season (we gave Evans a “7th/PFA” grade last year, but the Jets took him in the fourth round anyway).

It’s possible Hundley’s struggles were due to overcompensating for a lack of surrounding talent and a lack of faith shown by the coaching staff. (If you think that’s a bad sign for Hundley, remember that Jim Mora Jr. got the Atlanta Falcons job and immediately tried to turn Michael Vick into a high-accuracy, short-yardage West Coast pocket passer.) While I don’t believe you can cite statistics readily when discussing college players, I do believe they can tell you more about a prospect than people want to believe, given the right context. Hundley’s numbers over three seasons, 40 starts, in a Power 5 conference, and with not a lot of supporting talent on hand to help him are pretty damn good, even we look at only his passing numbers and ignore his prodigious rushing talent:

Brett Hundley college passing statistics

Hundley went 29-11 in those 40 starts as well; he wasn’t inflating his numbers in garbage time. And not only were those numbers very good, they continued to improve in his time at UCLA. (If the touchdown totals seem low, consider his lack of receiving talent and his 30 rushing touchdowns as mitigating.)

It’s the Cam Newton argument: If one player has the talent to carry your team this far despite a weak supporting cast, he has the talent for the NFL. (Hundley didn’t carry UCLA nearly as far as Newton carried Auburn, but I’m also not arguing he should be taken #1 overall.)

All of our scouts who have watched Hundley in detail agree that he’s being underrated by the consensus at large and is worth a first-round pick on Thursday. We’re not the only ones; Matt Waldman of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio has Hundley ahead of Marcus Mariota as his #2 QB, having done extensive work writing about, discussing, and analyzing Hundley. (I must tip my hat to him for turning me on to that collection of plays I linked earlier.)

We think both Dorial Green-Beckham and Brett Hundley have much more potential as players than most of the draft community seems to think.

Shaq Thompson as a third-rounder

Okay, I couldn’t think of anything else too controversial (many of our other discrepancies are because we rank raw, unproven prospects like Arik Armstead and Breshad Perriman lower than they will likely go). Considering where Thompson started the draft process ranked, this seems like a good choice.

I didn’t really know in my heart where I regarded Thompson until our Twitter mock draft, where, despite having him listed in the early-to-mid second round on the Big Board, neither of us could pull the trigger until midway through the third. He scares me a bit; he’s too small for linebacker and not athletic enough for safety. He has good instincts, but I have serious questions about his capacity to find a fit in an NFL defense. A creative coach might be able to make the most of him, but he doesn’t have the kind of blow-you-away athleticism that he would need to justify regarding him highly.

Zone Reads Twitter Mock

Last night, vix and I mocked the first two rounds of the draft on Twitter, alternating picks. As a bonus for website readers and forum viewers, we did a third round privately.

Here’s the thread with the picks and discussion. Feel free to discuss either here or there.

If you’d like to see the Twitter conversation with the original picks, you can find it here.

The Mountain: Carl Davis

The most consistent thing I hear about Iowa defensive tackle Carl Davis is that his tape is inconsistent. Now, I am not calling these draft experts liars; they have more game tapes to watch and more knowledge of the game than myself. I can only go off of what I see, but what I see tells a different story. Draft Breakdown only has two games for Davis from 2014: Nebraska and Indiana. He completely dominates both of these contests. The other chance I had to watch Davis was through NFL Network’s coverage of the Senior Bowl practices. He was named the Most Outstanding Practice Player of the Week by a panel of NFL scouts: Not among defensive lineman; I mean out of every player at the Senior Bowl.

Let’s look at those two games.

Nebraska

We’ll start with a couple of his poorest plays of this game, because they happen right at the beginning. On the first defensive play for Iowa, Davis faces an immediate double team from the center and guard. The guard is able to continue moving Davis away from the point of attack after the center peels off. Nebraska gets a good seven yards on first down behind this block.

http://www.draftbreakdown.com/gif-embed/?clip=257250&gif=DeliriousUglyHalicore

We see a similar outcome two plays later.

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The remainder of this game is essentially a highlight reel with Davis asserting his dominance.

Using a spin move from the inside is generally a bad idea– where can you go with it? It isn’t a play you want a habit of going to, but having it in your repertoire is a good thing. Davis’ spin move here leads to a turnover (and touchdown).

http://www.draftbreakdown.com/gif-embed/?clip=257250&gif=GoodInfamousAltiplanochinchillamouse

http://www.draftbreakdown.com/gif-embed/?clip=257250&gif=SharpImmaculateFennecfox

On the very next play, he swims right around the same guard.

http://www.draftbreakdown.com/gif-embed/?clip=257250&gif=PoliteInferiorDikdik

I also want to bring some attention to this play to the right:

http://www.draftbreakdown.com/gif-embed/?clip=257250&gif=FilthyJoyfulAntarcticfurseal

and this play to the left:

http://www.draftbreakdown.com/gif-embed/?clip=257250&gif=AnotherAlarmingGrayfox

What do I see on those plays? I see a 320-pound player getting quickly to the outside in both directions.

You hear a lot of talk about ‘stiff hips’ in the draft community. For a guy this big, Davis has remarkable bio-mechanics. Watch how quickly he explodes towards his right on this play and creates a huge lane for his fellow defensive tackle.

http://www.draftbreakdown.com/gif-embed/?clip=257250&gif=OffbeatSoreBuck

I haven’t even mentioned his strength yet. On this play, he shoves the center four yards behind the line of scrimmage. So much for any cutback lanes.

http://www.draftbreakdown.com/gif-embed/?clip=257250&gif=RectangularNaughtyGalapagosdove

He ends that drive in a hurry, and for the cherry on top, he blocks the field goal attempt.

http://www.draftbreakdown.com/gif-embed/?clip=257250&gif=DeadlyAlarmedGilamonster

The last two plays I will show you are among his best in the game. First on a run play, he blows the right guard backwards, and reaches his arm out to bring down the runner for a loss.

http://www.draftbreakdown.com/gif-embed/?clip=257250&gif=GraveLastBlueandgoldmackaw

Now, on this pass play, all I can think is how rare it is for a man the size of Davis to come bearing down on the quarterback with such closing speed.

http://www.draftbreakdown.com/gif-embed/?clip=257250&gif=AncientMagnificentEkaltadeta

The game continues into overtime. By no means was he finished putting his mark on the game. In fact, I left out a number of quality plays from this one. Watch all of it and you’ll see even more dominance.

Indiana

Carl Davis wastes no time making an impact against Indiana. Here we see him lined up shading the center, but at the snap he gets completely across the right guard with one swim move. That’s crazy. That pressure forces a bad pass:

http://www.draftbreakdown.com/gif-embed/?clip=255799&gif=MenacingNimbleBangeltiger

A few plays later he whips around the center with a right swim to get pressure up the middle:

http://www.draftbreakdown.com/gif-embed/?clip=255799&gif=DistinctUnhealthyApe

And then on this play, lined up in a 3-technique, he stunts around towards the right tackle, literally smacks him out of the way, and eats the quarterback for lunch.

http://www.draftbreakdown.com/gif-embed/?clip=255799&gif=FormalFirstAvocet

That is my favorite play from Davis, no contest.

The center must know he is defeated on this play as soon as the ball is snapped, right? Davis is too strong at the point of attack:

http://www.draftbreakdown.com/gif-embed/?clip=255799&gif=IllinformedEthicalFruitbat

Now, this game wasn’t perfect, either. I showed Nebraska successfully double-teaming Davis a few times. In this game, Indiana seals Davis off here from a similar pre-snap alignment by effectively trapping him with the guard:

http://www.draftbreakdown.com/gif-embed/?clip=255799&gif=WelloffDisfiguredDuiker

They botch the play afterwards, of course.

Late in the game, Davis turns his back to the play on 3rd-and-short, and I assign him the blame for these points. A spin move can work occasionally on passing downs. Against the run, there’s no excuse: Do not turn from the play. Davis’ spin move turns his back to the play, and Tevin Coleman runs right past him:

http://www.draftbreakdown.com/gif-embed/?clip=255799&gif=CavernousDeterminedDonkey

The Wrap

Based exclusively on what I’ve seen from Carl Davis, he’s the best defensive tackle in this draft class. I watched the Senior Bowl practices with him and Danny Shelton. While Shelton was no slouch himself, it was clear to me that Davis was the more impressive player that week.

Does this mean Davis is a better prospect? Not necessarily. I continue to read and hear about Davis’ inconsistent tape from the draft community. Having not seen anything from 2014 beyond what I have described, I cannot offer any opinion. What I have seen was a mostly dominant interior force who was consistently effective enough for my needs. At minimum, I know he’s capable of playing at a very high level: You don’t accidentally play as well as he did in these two games. I really want to see more of his 2014 tape before the draft.

The Jets infusion of young receivers

I previously wrote that I wasn’t in love with the Jets offseason, but that it was decent enough.┬áLike any other fan, I’ve been slowly coming around on that. Unlike most other fans, it has been due to watching 2013 film of these prospects.

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Hindsight: NFC West Offseason Grades

Finishing up the NFC West grades, I’ll address the offseason performance of the top teams in the NFL’s most competitive division. Before I start, I’ll take a minute to comment on the year-long suspension of Cardinals ILB Daryl Washington. When on the field, he is one of the best players in the league at his position, so it goes without saying that this is a massive loss for the Cardinals. It irks me quite a bit that this suspension is due to multiple failed drug tests for marijuana, while other players face no suspensions for behaviors such as assault and street racing. However, the NFLPA negotiated the terms of the current CBA, so they really have no one to blame for this but themselves. This is not the fault of the Cardinals, so it will not factor into their grade.

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