Earlier this week, I broke down the New Orleans Saints’ five biggest needsand how they can address each need on each day of the 2014 NFL Draft. While many of those players would be excellent additions to the roster, other teams are likely to have interest in them and the Saints only have seven selections to choose from this year.
General manager Mickey Loomis’ free agency plan has made it clear that the team is looking to win now. I think this plan will carry over to the draft, where I expect him to target the positions that best fill the Saints’ needs.
I have evaluated a minimum of three games for each prospect mentioned in this piece, which I feel is a good baseline to combine with their production and athletic measurable. I consulted two complete mock drafts from industry experts to assure that each player is not projected to go earlier than where I have him listed.
Round 1, 27th Overall: CB Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech
Even after signing Champ Bailey, the Saints are thin at cornerback. Former first-round pick Patrick Robinson has to this point been a bust, and the team can’t count on him to emerge as their third cornerback. Drafting a cornerback here will allow Rob Ryan to kick Champ Bailey inside when the opposing team uses "11" personnel. He could emerge as the first or second man on the depth chart in the near future, considering Bailey’s age and the lack of talent behind him.
Fuller is a perfect fit for Ryan’s system from a size and speed standpoint. At just under 6-feet tall and 190 pounds, he ran an official 4.49 forty-yard-dash at the NFL Combine. His unofficial forty-yard-dashes were both 4.40, and his game speed is much closer to that range.
He also has the second-longest arm length of any cornerback in this draft class. His long arms give him an unmatched reach and ability to make a play in coverage when trailing the receiver. His long strides also allow him to pickup any ground lost. A perfect example of this is on display in the first play of this breakdown of his game against North Carolina in 2013.
It seems like he loves the challenge of being matched up in single coverage against the opponent’s best receiver. This is a perfect fit for Ryan’s scheme, where press-man coverage is heavily utilized and he tends to leave his cornerbacks on an island. When watching him, it’s hard not to notice his willingness and effort to make plays against the run. He also possesses great hands, and the majority of his interceptions have come in man coverage.
He struggles in zone coverage, and sometimes it seemed as if he lost focus in zone while getting beat on simple routes. Again, this is not a problem that pertains to the Saints because Ryan tends to use primarily man-coverage schemes.
Although he is viewed by the consensus as the third-best cornerback in this draft, Fuller gets my highest grade. He possesses the best combination of coverage skills and the size/speed that translates to the NFL.
Round 2, 58th Overall: WR Bruce Ellington, South Carolina
This draft class is perfect for any team looking to rebuild their wide receiver core, and that’s exactly what the Saints should be looking to do. After releasing Lance Moore, the Saints are left with Marques Colston, Kenny Stills, Joseph Morgan, and Nick Toon. The latter two were either injured or inactive for every game in 2013. It’s time for the team to add another explosive playmaker to Drew Brees’ arsenal.
Ellington’s size is about the only thing holding him back from being drafted several picks earlier. At 5-foot-9, 197 pounds, he doesn’t have the most imposing build, but he plays much bigger than his actual size. As I’ve mentioned before, he reminds me of Steve Smith a lot in that sense.
His speed is obvious and reflected by his official 4.45 forty-yard-dash, but he is also a vertically explosive athlete. He registered a vertical of 39.5 inches at the NFL Combine, which was good for second-best at his position. Like I said, he plays much bigger than his size.
He possesses great speed, quickness, and the football IQ to work in the slot or on the outside. He is great at changing gears after the catch and he runs smooth routes that never look choppy. One of the most underrated aspects of Ellington’s game is his concentration at the catch point and his ability to make the difficult catch in traffic. You don’t always see those attributes in a receiver that is his size. You can see a perfect example of this at 2:41 in this video:
Ellington will make an immediate impact for the Saints on special teams as a returner, and he can also step right in as a dynamic slot receiver in Moore’s place.
Round 3, 91st Overall: LB Christian Kirksey, Iowa
The weak link on the Saints’ much-improved 2013 defense was their run defense. The defense would immediately improve if they can find a linebacker to replace David Hawthorne next to Curtis Lofton. The ideal fit is a rangy linebacker who can make tackles on the backside of plays and excel in coverage.
Christian Kirksey is that guy. At the NFL Combine, he measured in at 6-foot-2 and 233 pounds, which will surely lead some to question if he is too small for the next level. Some might also discount he because he only completed 16 bench press reps, which was second worst of all linebacker prospects who participated. These people are failing to look at his overall skill set, and thus making a major mistake.
He uses his long arms (32 3/8) to control his blocker before shedding him to make a play on the ball â this an ideal trait needed for any linebacker. He is also a great ftackler who rarely allows broken tackles. Where he really stands out is in his football instincts, football IQ, and his prowess in coverage. He was often used to cover the slot. At 1:17 in this video, you will see perfect example of him recognizing the running back leaking out into a pass pattern and following it up with an incredible play he makes on the ball.
For some reason, there seems to be a stigma against Big Ten linebackers in the NFL Draft. Three former Big Ten linebackers, Navorro Bowman (91st overall), Sean Lee (55th overall) and Paul Posluszny (34th overall), were all drafted lower than they should have been. Lee and Bowman are all-pros and two of the best linebackers in the league, while Posluszny has been an above-average middle linebacker every season since entering the league. Kirksey’s skill set reminds me the most of Lee, even if he is not quite as fast.
It won’t take long for Kirksey to beat out Hawthorne and become a starter.
Round 4, 126th Overall: OT Ja’Wuan James, Tennessee
With last season’s opening day starter at left tackle no longer on the roster, the Saints are very thin at offensive tackle. It would make most sense to add a tackle with the versatility to play on both the left and right side. Zach Strief has struggled in the past when pressed to play left tackle, and currently the penciled in starter, Terron Armstead, is only entering his second season out of Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
At 6-foot-6, 311 pounds, James has the ideal size to play the position. What impressed me most from watching him is his incredible quickness and agility for a prospect his size. He has that rare ability to quickly get out of his stance and in position to shut down the edge rusher. After beating his man to the point, he displays great balance and the strength you would expect for someone his size.
They played him at right tackle at Tennessee because Antonio Richardson was entretnched at left tackle, but also because James is an excellent run blocker in space and at the second level. He was often used to pull on run plays. He is the rare prospect who can succeed on both sides, but his combination of quickness and size make him just as well-suited at left tackle. At 1:10, take a look at how quick he gets into his stance and mirrors the opposing edge rusher.
James can immediately serve as the Saints’ swing tackle, and be groomed to eventually take over at either tackle spot.
Round 5, 167th Overall: C Tyler Larsen, Utah State
As I mentioned earlier this week, the Saints have a major hole at the center position. In the Sean Payton era, they have found success using the later rounds and undrafted or unheralded free agents to find a center. These players have filled in admirably, with the most recent example being Brian De La Puente.
169th overall seems late enough for the Saints to find a center, and luckily for them they can still find one here how can start immediately. Larsen is one of the strongest centers in this draft, and he displays a great punch while run blocking. He is consistent and always plays through the whistle. At 0:10, you will see a great example of this attribute on display.
Larsen, one of six finalists for the 2013 Rimington Trophy, is an excellent pick for the Saints here and he has the ability to start right away.
Just because the Saints will have already drafted one wide receiver doesn’t mean they can’t draft another. The 2014 wide receiver draft class is widely regarded as the most talented class in the last decade. Adding another prospect from this class will show that the team is committed to rebuilding the wide receiver core. This is great news for Drew Brees and for the entire offense which stands to be more explosive with additional talent around them.
Street is one of the most underrated prospects I’ve had a chance to study in this entire draft. At almost 6-foot-3, and 197 pounds, he possesses the ideal size to be a go-to X receiver in the NFL. His forty-yard-dash time of 4.55 is deceiving, and this becomes obvious the more you see him play. He is a great vertical route runner and his 37-inch vertical makes him a tough player for cornerbacks to defend downfield. A great example of this is on display at the 1:10 point in this video.
What really stands out to be about Street is his unusual quickness for someone of his size. He displays incredible quickness in and out of his breaks, and this attribute allows him to win on the outside and also in the slot. I can imagine that his skill-set might translate best to the slot at the next level, where his combination of size and quickness makes him a difficult matchup for safeties and linebackers. At the 1:59 point of the video above, you will see his quickness on display.
Street can come in and immediately be a red zone threat for the Saints, with the potential to eventually take over as a starting outside receiver. We know from his past use of Colston and Graham that Sean Payton prefers to use size in the slot. It wouldn’t surprise me if he saw some snaps there early on.
Round 6, 202nd Overall: NT Ryan Carrethers, Arkansas State
Last season, one of the most unheralded contributors on the Saints was nose tackle John Jenkins. Jenkins immediately found a situational role in Ryan’s defensive scheme. He consistently performed his role, occupying blockers and allowing Cam Jordan among others to rush the passer. He even outplayed incumbent starter, Broderick Bunkley. Like many massive nose tackles, stamina is always an issue. Bunkley has the ability to kick out to other defensive line positions, but Jenkins does not. Adding another nose tackle to rotate with Jenkins would present an opportunity to turn the position into a real strength.
Although Carrethers played a small school, his combination of size, strength, and production should not go unnoticed. At 6-foot-1 and 337 pounds, he put up 32 bench press reps, which was good for the second-most out of any defensive linemen at the NFL Combine. He was also a two-time first-team All-Sun Belt selection in 2012 and 2013.
He was the anchor of the Red Wolves defense for the last two seasons, and his size and strength makes him a great fit as a nose tackle in a 3-4. Defense.