2014 NFL Draft: New Orleans Saints’ 5 Biggest Needs

Inside linebacker C.J. Mosley

Kevin C. Cox

With limited salary cap space available, the New Orleans Saints are likely to address the rest of their needs in the 2014 NFL Draft. In this piece, I will break down their five biggest needs and how they can address each one on each day of the Draft.

5. Offensive Tackle

By re-signing right tackle Zach Strief, the Saints locked up one of the best pass-blocking right tackles in the NFL for several more seasons. According to Pro Football Focus, Strief finished as best pass blocking right tackle in 2013. At left tackle, the situation is less fluid. Late last season, the Saints made the move to bench Charles Brown and promote rookie Terron Armstead to the starting spot vacated by the move. Armstead entered the draft very raw after playing college football at Arkansas-Pine Bluff, but he possesses top-tier athletic ability for an offensive tackle. He ran the fastest 40 time of any tackle in the history of the NFL Combine when he clocked in at 4.71 last February. Armstead struggled in the first half of his first career start, but after that he performed admirably in the remaining games including both playoff contests. The team lost tackle Charles Brown to the Giants in free agency, and it would be smart to draft a swing tackle as insurance for injury or in case Armstead struggles.

First Day Value: Zack Martin, Notre Dame – Martin’s skill-set might project best as a guard or center in the NFL, but in starting as a left tackle at Notre Dame, he proved capable of playing on the outside. He possesses great lateral agility and balance to excel against the bull and edge rush. His versatility is a great match for the Saints who also have needs at other spots along the offensive line.

Second Day Value: Cyrus Kouandijo, Alabama – Concerns about a past knee injury have caused his stock to drop, but Kouandjio is a first-round talent if you put on any of his game film and most experts believe that his injury history will have no impact on his career. He displays quick feet, long arms and great lateral agility. He has everything you want in a franchise left tackle.

Third Day Value: Ja’Wuan James, Tennessee – Sometimes playing on the same team as a highly touted prospect, like left tackle Antonio Richardson, can hurt your draft stock. James is being projected as a third-day pick, but he has the talent to start away at either tackle spot in the NFL. He possesses the size to play the position at 6-foot-6, 311 pounds, and he displays great lateral agility and balance as a pass and run blocker. However, he does need work on his run blocking at the second level.

4. Center

After three straight seasons grading out in the Top 20 of Pro Football Focus’ center rankings, the Saints showed little interest in re-signing center Brian De La Puente. He eventually signed with the Bears, and in turn he left a hole for the Saints to fill. As of now, the starting center job for the New Orleans Saints belongs to unproven second-year offensive lineman Tim Lelito. The Saints have found success in the past with late round or undrafted free agent centers, so I wouldn’t expect them to address the position until the middle or later rounds.

First Day Value: N/A – After reviewing the top players in the class, it is difficult to make a case that any center in this draft is worthy of first-round consideration.

Second Day Value: Travis Swanson, Arkansas – Swanson possesses uncharacteristically quick feet for someone his size, which gives him the potential to be an impact player at center rather than just an adequate starter. He plays with an aggressive nature which helps him project as a dominant run blocker at the next level who can also get to the outside to make an impact on screens passes. Sometimes he struggles with technique, particularly as a pass blocker, but this is nothing that can’t be corrected with time and practice.

Third Day Value: Tyler Larsen, Utah State – Many so-called draft experts have discounted Larsen because he didn’t start for a major conference school. Larsen did not run the forty-yard-dash at the NFL Combine, and it has led to his draft stock dropping even further. With players like Larsen, you just have to trust what you see on the field. He was one of six finalists for the 2013 Rimington Trophy, which is given annually to the most outstanding center in college football. Also, his combine wasn’t a complete miss, as he posted 36 bench press reps, good for the second-most among all offensive linemen.

3. Wide Receiver

Some might not see wide receiver as a major need, but adding a dynamic threat at receiver will take this offense to an even higher level. The release of Lance Moore puts a greater burden on the receivers currently on the roster. Marques Colston is on the decline in his career and Kenny Stills is still raw talent who was only used as a situational receiver in 2013. Adding a threat at wide receiver will attract defensive coverage away from Jimmy Graham. This is the perfect draft to find one in, with potential difference makers in almost every round.

First Day Value: Marqise Lee, USC – It is fair to blame Lee’s lackluster performance in 2013 on his quarterback play and injuries. While his injury history is a concern, Lee’s 2012 game film ranks up there with the best this class has to offer—including Sammy Watkins. He is a smooth route runner with long strides and "game speed" who displays excellent lateral agility and plus blocking.

Second Day Value: Bruce Ellington, South Carolina – Due to Ellington’s frame, at 5-foot-9 and 197 pounds, teams will downgrade him and he will likely fall into round two or three of this draft. Don’t be fooled so easy, because he is one of the strongest receivers in this draft pound-for-pound. Ellington reminds me a lot of Steve Smith, who was also perceived as too small to play outside. Ellington will make an immediate impact on special teams and is likely to eventually work his way into becoming a starting X or Y receiver.

Third Day Value: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin – If you Google Abbrederis’ game cut up against Ohio State, where he matched up with top cornerback prospect Bradley Roby, you might think you are watching a first-round prospect. He torched him for 204 yards on 10 catches and added a touchdown. As a former quarterback, he understands route running better than most in his class and he has one of the most dynamic double moves in the vertical passing game.

2. Cornerback

In Rob Ryan’s system, cornerbacks are often left on an island to defend without safety help over the top. Last season’s acquisition of Keenan Lewis proved to be one of the best free agent signings in the entire league. The team just signed Champ Bailey to start across from him, but his age and recent injury history makes him a risk. The team released last year’s starter Jabari Greer for salary cap purposes and former first-round pick Patrick Robinson has been a major bust. A press-man cornerback is exactly what the scheme needs and likely what the team will target.

First Day Value: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State – A sound argument can be made that Dennard is the best cornerback in this year’s draft class. An even better argument can be made that he is the best cornerback for Rob Ryan’s scheme. Originally, considered a top 15 overall pick, Dennard’s forty-yard-dash time, 4.51, is likely to drop him to the end of round one. Dennard was tested in single coverage more than any other top cornerback prospect in 2013, and he consistently won his matchup. He possesses excellent technique and football IQ and he is an aggressive tackler.

Second Day Value: Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State – The only reason why Joyner has a chance of being a mid-round pick is because of his NFL Combine. Joyner measured in at just 5-foot-8 and 184 pounds and ran just a 4.55 forty-yard-dash. These numbers don’t tell the full story. He’s an impact player with great feet and quickness plus the ability to win highly contested 50/50 jump balls. Joyner’s best attribute is his ability to digest the offensive play call and react on what he sees to make the play.

Third Day Value: Antone Exum, Virginia Tech – Very few cornerback prospects offer more upside than Antone Exum. Despite being the third-heaviest cornerback at the Combine, weighing in at 213 pounds, Exum ran one of the better 40-yard dashes — clocking in at 4.59. At just a hare under 6-feet, Exum has the size and speed combination to match up with the NFL’s bigger wide receivers. He is a perfect fit in Ryan’s defensive scheme.

1. Inside Linebacker

Last year’s starting inside linebacker duo of Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne was uninspiring to say the least. The Saints’ major weakness on defense was their run defense, and once the back got to the second level of the defense he had major success. Because the Saints run a 3-4 defense, they have several prospects that make sense for them in the draft. Their best option is to find a rangy linebacker who excels in pass coverage to start next to Lofton.

First Day Value: C.J. Mosley, Alabama – Mosley is a smart, athletic, and rangy linebacker who has displayed the ability to cover running backs out of the backfield and also stick his nose in and make tackles in the hole. He has a strong football IQ and has the ability to become a leader on the defense. Mosley is not being looked at as a top 15 overall selection based on his injury history alone.

Second Day Value: Christian Kirksey, Iowa – Kirksey is a player who is going to be underrated based on questions about his size. Like many Big Ten linebacker prospects before him (Sean Lee, Navorro Bowman, Paul Poslusczny), he is likely to get drafted later than he should. On the field, Kirksey is a rangy linebacker who makes plays all over the field. From what I’ve seen, his game compares best to Lee, who has developed into linebacker that excels in pass coverage and run defense. He can play all the different linebacker spots in any scheme and is one of the best overall values available.

Third Day Value: Christian Jones, Florida State – Jones has the athletic ability to make an impact right away next to Lofton at inside linebacker. He has the speed to cover running backs out of the backfield and also to blitz through the A gap. He has also shown the ability to disrupt and shed blocks from bigger guards to make plays in the hole and stop the run. Unfortunately for Jones, his 4.74 forty-yard dash didn’t do his draft stock any favors. However, he has the raw ability to develop into an impact inside linebacker at the next level.