It’s a safe bet that the Saints will cut a deal and trade some picks during the 2021 NFL draft. It’s even more likely that they’ll trade up to leapfrog their competition; that’s been New Orleans’ approach for more than a decade, with Sean Payton orchestrating a trade up the board at some point in every draft he’s conducted except for 2006, his very first year on the job; the Saints front office stood pat in 2012 when Payton was suspended.
But maybe now isn’t the time to take such an aggressive approach. The Saints’ depth chart is awful thin at many positions, and taking a conservative backstep here or there, accumulating more picks, would help them reload after losing so many players during free agency. Still, that hasn’t been their M.O., so we’ll start by considering what it might cost to move up from their first pick at No. 28 overall.
Here are six trade proposals, all based on deals teams have cut in recent years — three that could see New Orleans move up, and three showing the possible benefits in moving down.
Option #1: A big move up the board
So let’s say the Saints want to make another big splash. Someone they’ve graded like a top five player in this class, regardless of position, is available just outside the top ten -- something unforeseen happens and there’s someone like Florida’s Kyle Pitts or Penn State’s Micah Parsons or Ohio State’s Justin Fields waiting impatiently in the green room. Throw a dart at the top ten picks of any recent mock draft. For our purposes, it’s someone the Saints see as a can’t-miss prospect with All-Pro potential. Getting there would be costly. They’d have to give up next year’s first round pick to make it happen, hamstringing a future draft class just like they did in 2018 and in 2011, putting themselves behind the eight ball in 2022 (as they were in 2019 and 2012). Maybe it’s worth it. But in this scenario, the Saints would be swapping their 2021 first- and fourth-round picks as well as their 2022 first rounder to vault up to the Eagles‘ pick at No. 12, hopefully hitting a home run. If they miss again, the loss of draft capital and tight salary cap resources could set the franchise back for years. Modeled after: The Saints’ 2018 trade to acquire Marcus Davenport, which cost their first- and fifth-round picks (Nos. 27 and 147) plus a future first rounder to move up to No. 14.
Option #2: A slight jump
This is a more moderate move, and the resources spent to make it happen reflect that. It would happen if a prospect the Saints have graded as maybe a top-15 prospect were available in the early 20’s. Maybe someone like Virginia Tech corner Caleb Farley or Notre Dame stud Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. This maneuver is aimed at preventing a rival playoff team from landing a highly-rated player the Saints want themselves. It’s worth noting that all seven of the squads picking between New Orleans at No. 28 and Chicago at No. 20 are in the AFC, meaning it’s unlikely the prospect the Saints are eyeing might see them often with another team. Still, that shouldn’t be as big of a factor in targeting a big upgrade at a position of need. To do that, let’s say that the Saints cut a deal with the Indianapolis Colts, sending their first rounder along with a compensatory third round pick (No. 98 overall). The Saints pick again at No. 105 not long after, so they’re still in play at the end of the third round, while Indianapolis doesn’t have a third rounder this year at all and could use the extra ammo -- there’s a 73-pick gulf between their second and fourth round selections. Modeled after: The Saints’ 2014 trade to acquire Brandin Cooks, which cost their first- and third-round picks (Nos. 27 and 91) to move up to No. 20.
Option #3: A little leapfrog
So this is a move the Saints could make if they have some inside intel on a rival team picking just ahead of them, knowing that they are targeting the same prospect. The Ravens are slotted in at No. 27 and the Browns pick at No. 26, with the Jaguars at No. 25; each team could use another pass rusher, just like New Orleans, and there could be options available like Miami’s Jaelan Phillips, Georgia’s Azeez Ojulari, and Penn State’s Jayson Oweh. But the Saints might not be eager to bet that their preferred choice slides past those opponents. So a short trade with the Steelers up to No. 24, swapping their first- and fourth-round picks (No. 133 overall), could accomplish that. The tradeoff is that the Saints wouldn’t go on the clock between the last selection of the third round (No. 105) and late in round six (No. 218), so it’s fair to wonder if this view is worth the climb. With Carl Granderson entering his third year in the NFL and Tanoh Kpassagnon signed to help replace Trey Hendrickson, they don’t lack for options behind Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport. They just lack really high-end potential. Modeled after: The Packers’ 2020 trade to acquire Jordan Love, which cost their first- and fourth-round picks (Nos. 30 and 136) to move up to No. 26.
Option #4: A small step back
So that was stressful. After considering what the Saints would have to give up to move up the board, let’s weigh our other options and see what they might receive by backpedaling instead. With so few players under contract for 2021 (second fewest in the league) and 2022 (in the middle of the pack), it’s in their best interest to move down, get more picks, and use those selections to add cheap young talent to help restock the roster. But let’s say that New Orleans isn’t eager to move too far down the board. They want to remain in the first round with a couple of highly-graded prospects still available. Let’s say the Chiefs call and want to give up their fourth rounder (No. 136) to jump ahead of the Bills and Packers for a missing piece, keeping the Saints in a comfortable spot after moving down to No. 31. Kansas City hosts both Buffalo and Green Bay this year and might see them again in the playoffs, so getting an edge makes sense. For the Saints, they’d end up with multiple picks in the third and fourth rounds (Nos. 98 and 105, plus 133 and 136). That’s enticing. Modeled after: The Seahawks’ 2017 trade to move out of No. 31, gaining the 49ers’ second- and fourth-round picks (Nos. 34 and 111).
Option #5: Moving out of the first round
It’s worth noting that the Saints have not traded out of the first round since Sean Payton was hired to coach the team, so this would be quite a pivot for them. But maybe they really want to push the envelope and drop out of round one, adding valuable draft resources in the process. As we’ve established, they’ll need the extra opportunities to reload their roster for the post-Drew Brees era. And adopting a new draft strategy could pay off for them. The Washington Football Team could be a good match. They need more quarterbacks after swapping Alex Smith for Ryan Fitzpatrick with no long-term fix in sight. They probably won’t be able to get a blue-chip quarterback prospect at No. 19 in the first round, but they could pick a good player there and move into the end of round one with the Saints to get a second-tier passer they like while securing the valuable fifth-year option. So we’d have the Saints trading down from No. 28 to No. 51, picking up Washington’s second rounder in 2022, while also swapping New Orleans’ fourth round selection at No. 133 for a better pick at No. 124. In other words, moving down 24 spots at the top while acquiring another second rounder next year and improving a mid-round pick. If Washington regresses in the NFC East next to the big-spending Giants and resurgent Cowboys (built around a healthy Dak Prescott), that future second rounder could become very valuable. Modeled after: The Eagles’ 2018 trade to move out of No. 32, gaining the Ravens’ second- and fourth-round picks (Nos. 52 and 125) as well as a future second rounder, also giving up their fourth rounder at No. 132 (moving up five spots in the draft order).
Option #6: Dropping back for a big haul
But there are going to be detractors who -- rightfully -- say that the reward for moving out of the first round should be the gain of an extra first rounder down the road. However, it’s rare to pull that off. It hasn’t happened since the Saints themselves were on the other end of the equation, putting their 2012 first rounder on the table to move up from No. 56 to the Patriots’ pick at No. 28 for Mark Ingram back in 2011. To be frank, that was a bad trade and New Orleans overpaid to make it happen. The following offseason in 2013, the Patriots moved down from No. 29 to the Vikings’ second round pick (No. 52), picking up current-year selections in rounds three (83), four (102), and seven (229) for their trouble. So what’s worth more to you: the potential in a higher pick next offseason (from Washington, as we explored in the last scenario), or the greater volume of lesser choices this year? Let’s say that the Saints hit Washington with this counter offer. New Orleans would move down from No. 28 to, again, No. 51, but they’d receive additional picks at Nos. 74, 124, and 244. Washington still owns selections in rounds three, five, and seven, so it’s not like their whole draft would be lost (to say nothing of the two first rounders they’d be spending). Maybe that’s agreeable to both parties. If so, here’s what the Saints draft haul would then look like:
Round 2, Picks 51 and 60
Round 3, Picks 74, 98, and 105
Round 4, Picks 124 and 133
Round 6, Pick 218
Round 7, Picks 229, 244, and 255
That’s 11 total draft picks, including five selections between Nos. 51 and 105. There’s plenty of material to work with here to inject young talent (on cheap rookie contracts) throughout the depth chart. You just have to wonder if the Saints would consider it given their established strategies over the last 15 years. But, hey. Here’s hoping. Modeled after: The Patriots’ 2013 trade to move out of No. 29, gaining the Vikings’ second-, third-, fourth-, and seventh-round picks (Nos. 52, 83, 102, and 229).