NEW ORLEANS (AP) Saints coach Sean Payton has made it abundantly clear he believed New Orleans’ roster needed more than a little tinkering.
Part of his plan to revamp a squad that went 7-9 last season included cutting ties with some big names, from prolific receiving tight end Jimmy Graham to former Pro Bowl offensive lineman Ben Grubbs. From rising young receiver Kenny Still to reliable starting middle linebacker Curtis Lofton to popular veteran running back Pierre Thomas.
It also entailed bringing in a few new players through trades or free agency – and piling up picks for this week’s draft.
The Saints have nine picks in the seven-round draft that begins Thursday night, including five in the first three rounds and two in the first, 13th and 31st overall.
”It is an important draft and obviously significant in that there’s just a lot of flexibility with the amount of selections,” Payton said. ”Every year you feel the urgency to have a good draft and you recognize the importance of it. Certainly when you have more selections, you have a chance to impact your team.”
The most recent time the Saints entered a draft with as many as nine picks was 2002, when Jim Haslett was head coach.
A combination of trades and sanctions stemming from the NFL’s 2012 bounty probe has left the Saints with relatively few draft picks in recent years. This week, if they choose wisely, they could bring in a handful of instant contributors and even a few starters. Or they could package picks in trades to get a few players they covet.
Quarterback Drew Brees, who at 36 won’t want to squander the last years of his stellar career on middling squads, sounds pretty eager to see how Payton’s draft plans play out.
”We’re poised to make a big play in this draft with the number of picks that we have and the amount of talent that’s out there,” Brees said. ”That’s what we’re looking forward to and excited about right now.”
Some things to know about New Orleans’ 2015 draft:
PRESSURE: New Orleans already has a pair of edge pass-rushers – defensive end Cameron Jordan and outside linebacker Junior Galette – who’ve had double-digit sacks in a season. Yet Payton has not been shy about saying he wants more pressure on opposing quarterbacks than in 2014, when New Orleans ranked 23rd in sacks per pass attempt. Jordan’s production fell off last season, when he had 7 1/2 sacks, down from 12 1/2 in 2013, and is going into the final year of his contract. So the Saints could use one of their first-round picks – or both if they choose to trade up – to get one of the premier pass rushers. Candidates include Clemson’s Vic Beasley, Nebraska’s Randy Gregory and Kentucky’s Alvin ”Bud” Dupree.
BLOCKING: With Grubbs gone, the Saints have penciled in third-year pro Tim Lelito as his replacement. Lelito has yet to be a full-time starter, serving as a backup at both guard and center. The Saints may want a top-tier prospect on the offensive line for two reasons. One would be to give Lelito some competition. Another would be to groom an heir apparent to right tackle Zach Strief, who is entering his 10th NFL season.
The Saints met with former LSU left tackle La’el Collins, a projected first-rounder, following pro day workouts in Baton Rouge.
RECEIVING: Graham led the Saints in catches with 85 and TDs with 10 last season, and was third in yards receiving with 889. Stills led the Saints in yards receiving with 931. With both gone, New Orleans could seek another receiving target to complement veteran Marques Colston and 2014 first-rounder Brandin Cooks.
THE MIDDLE: Payton has said the Saints plan to replace Lofton with David Hawthorne. They also got Dannell Ellerbe in the Stills trade and re-signed Ramon Humber. That doesn’t mean the Saints won’t target a top-tier linebacker to bolster depth in the middle of their defense. UCLA’s Erik Kendricks and Mississippi State’s Benardrick McKinney are among possibilities there.
IRELAND’S INFLUENCE: This will be the first draft since the Saints fired former college scouting director Rick Reiprish and replaced him with former Miami Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland, who also worked with Payton in Dallas. When there is change in the scouting department, Payton said, ”There’s just little things I think you gain from it sometimes, and I think Jeff’s helped us and done a real good job in the process.”
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