The New Orleans Saints continue to rebuild back to their championship ways, which players could they target in the 2017 NFL Draft to aid in that process?
Despite another season full of reports that head coach Sean Payton was on his way out, the New Orleans Saints will once again try and reclaim their winning ways with their Super Bowl winning head coach and quarterback combo. Payton and signal caller Drew Brees have been fantastic together for years.
Brees is inching closer to the end of his career, but the two were able orchestrate the No. 1 passing offense in the league in 2017 (317.1 yards per game), No. 1 offense in overall yards (426 per game), and the No. 2 scoring offense (29.3 per contest). Brees was the biggest reason for that success as the veteran went for 5,208 yards through the air with 37 touchdowns. It’s a remarkable feat for anyone, but even more so for a player who was 37 years old during last season.
The problem for New Orleans, though, happened to be the opposite side of the ball. Defensively they were last in the NFL in passing yards surrendered per game (273.8) and second to last in points (28.4). Armed with those facts, the Saints hope to hit the defensive side of the ball rather hard during the 2017 NFL Draft.
Here are five possible ways they can go in the first round, with a heavy emphasis on improving their defense.
Dec 31, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; LSU Tigers safety Jamal Adams (33) reacts after they they stopped Louisville Cardinals on 4th down during the second half at Camping World Stadium. LSU Tigers defeated the Louisville Cardinals 29-9. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
5. Jamal Adams, S — LSU
As previously mentioned the New Orleans Saints were pretty bad at stopping the pass in 2016. Releasing safety Jarius Byrd isn’t going to help them get better in that area. That’s not to say that moving on from the veteran was the wrong choice—because it wasn’t.
With Byrd patrolling the back end of the defense, New Orleans still struggled mightily. On top of those struggles as a team, he was making way too much money for his production. After letting him go, the Saints can now look for a younger and cheaper alternative. The search for such a player may not even need to be conducted outside the state of Louisiana.
With the 11th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, the Saints could very well have the option to select LSU Tigers safety Jamal Adams. A 6-1, 211-pound underclassmen, Adams has football in his veins. His father, George, was a running back for the New York Giants and the younger Adams has the same mentality of a smash mouth running back. He’s unafraid of contact and is widely considered the best safety in this draft.
He finished his three seasons for the Tigers with 209 tackles and five interceptions. He would be able to play either safety spot for New Orleans and would be an instant upgrade wherever he lined up.
Dec 31, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Reuben Foster (10) during warm-ups before the 2016 CFP Semifinal against the Washington Huskies at the Georgia Dome. Alabama defeated Washington 24-7. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
4. Reuben Foster, LB — Alabama
Sticking with defense and with the SEC, another option for the New Orleans Saints in round one is Alabama Crimson Tide middle linebacker Reuben Foster. The Tide is a program that is well known for two things: One, winning National Championships and two, producing first-round draft picks at an alarming rate.
One of the next in a long line of defensive first round picks, Foster looks the part of an NFL linebacker and draws praise for his ability to make plays all over the field. NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein had this to say of the linebacker:
Foster is a vicious hitter with elite playmaking range and an ability to toggle between 225 and 240 pounds. Athleticism gives him cover ability that former teammate Reggie Ragland never possessed. Has Pro Bowl potential as a 3-4 inside linebacker or a 4-3 weak-side linebacker, but concerns over his medical history could be a consideration, according to some teams.
As Zierlein says, he would fit perfectly in a 3-4 or a 4-3 defense and would give the Saints a lethal combination next to Stephone Anthony. The scary thing there is that Anthony missed a lot of time in 2016 thanks to injuries and Foster also has medical concerns in the past. Still, the Saints may feel his talent is too great not to take the risk on drafting him.
Oct 8, 2016; Eugene, OR, USA; Washington Huskies defensive back Sidney Jones (26) breaks up a pass intended for Oregon Ducks wide receiver Jalen Brown (15) during the third quarter at Autzen Stadium. The Huskies won 70-21. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports
3. Sidney Jones, CB — Washington
We already looked at the potential to draft a safety in New Orleans with LSU’s Jamal Adams. However earning the right to be called the worst passing defense in the NFL isn’t done by simply have bad safeties, it’s a bad secondary altogether. While cornerback P.J. Williams is still young and can improve, it wouldn’t hurt to get someone else with some solid cover skills back there.
One player who could be a target is Washington cornerback Sidney Jones. At 6-0, 181 pounds, Jones has ideal size for an NFL corner and impresses people with his athleticism and speed. Austin Smith of NFL Draft Tek breaks down what makes Jones an NFL caliber safety in his scouting report:
He displays the quick-twitch athleticism when playing off to get across the receiver’s face on slant routes which is extremely difficult to do. He also has the speed to recover if a receiver does fool him with a double-move. He has long arms and ideal height for the position, which makes him more than adequate when making a play on the ball. When in position, he usually get his head around and makes it difficult for the receiver to get his hands on the pass.
In New Orleans Jones would be a day one starter. Jones would be a welcome addition to the NFC South team who has to go against dangerous passing teams like the Atlanta Falcons with Julio Jones, Tampa Bay Bucs with Mike Evans, and Carolina Panthers with Kelvin Benjamin.
Nov 19, 2016; Baton Rouge, LA, USA; LSU Tigers running back Leonard Fournette (7) is tackled by Florida Gators defensive lineman Caleb Brantley (57) during the first half at Tiger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
2. Leonard Fournette, RB — LSU
Finally an offensive option for the New Orleans Saints in the 2017 NFL Draft, and again they can stay in state here with LSU’s running back Leonard Fournette. Sure, the Saints had a running back in Mark Ingram who rushed for over a thousand yards on the season and averaged 5.1 yards per carry so this isn’t necessarily a need. Still, anyone who watched this team at all in 2016 can see that Sean Payton doesn’t fully trust Ingram.
There were times when Ingram sat for insane stretches while New Orleans turned things over to Tim Hightower. The backup runner was a nice story, returning to the league after years of knee issues, but he was no upgrade over Ingram.
Fournette though would be an upgrade. It would also give Payton the excuse to move on from the former first round pick if he really wanted to. Or they could pair the bruising style of Mark Ingram with the even more punishing style of the 240-pound Fournette.
The Tigers running back looked like a man among boys at times for LSU as he rushed for 3,830 yards in his three seasons. He had 40 touchdown runs as well, including a monstrous 22 in his sophomore season. If this amazing running back is on the board when New Orleans is drafting it would have to be tempting. Nothing would stretch out the final years of Brees’ career like a running back who could take over games and alleviate pressure on the future Hall of Fame quarterback.
Oct 8, 2016; College Station, TX, USA; Tennessee Volunteers defensive end Derek Barnett (9) and Texas A&M Aggies offensive lineman Avery Gennesy (65) in action during the game at Kyle Field. The Aggies defeat the Volunteers 45-38 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
1. Derek Barnett, DE — Tennessee
This is the one player who can challenge Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garret for the title of No. 1 pass rusher in the 2017 NFL Draft. Tennessee’s Derek Barnett broke the school’s sack record, which was held by a guy by the name of Reggie White. For those who don’t know who that is, he’s only one of the most legendary pass rushers of all-time. Anyone who can top a record set by White, should be considered an absolute beast.
And beast is probably the best way to describe Barnett. The 6-3, 265-pound defensive end never recorded less than 10 sacks in a season and finished his collegiate career with 33 for the Volunteers. What’s most impressive about Barnett though is when he recorded his sacks.
While many college players were racking up the quarterback takedowns against lesser opponents, Barnett was getting his against the studs of the NCAA. He was considered a slow starter during his career and when Tennessee would play non-conference—and usually lesser talented teams—Barnett would fare well, but didn’t record as many sacks. Those instead came more often when he got matched up against the elite SEC talent.
If those slow starts are a case of Barnett needing to work the kinks out, an NFL offseason program and preseason could help there. If it’s just him getting fired up for better competition, then he may simply get better against NFL talent. Either way if Barnett is available when New Orleans is on the clock, they better turn that card in fast.