Recapping the historic 2017 Saints draft class

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John Sigler
·6 min read
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The week of the 2021 NFL draft is here, and our countdown to this year’s event continues by recapping the 2017 Saints draft class. We knew at the time that this would be a pivotal rookie haul, but few observers around the league appreciated just how great the group would be. Let’s recap:

The context

Sep 22, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints linebackers coach Joe Vitt (left) and linebacker Jonathan Vilma (right) currently on injured reserve on the sideline during a game against the Arizona Cardinals at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints defeated the Cardinals 31-7. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The wheels fell off during the 2016 season. That was the end of the line for many of the assistant coaches who had started out with Sean Payton a decade earlier, including Joe Vitt and Bill Johnson. But the defense failed to improve with them on board, so it was time for big changes. Payton scoured the market and brought in new assistants with extensive NFL experience like Mike Nolan and Mike Westhoff, while adding fresh faces from the college ranks like Ryan Nielsen. Jeff Ireland continued to develop his scouting department. This was also the year in which Brandin Cooks forced a trade out of New Orleans, bristling at Michael Thomas outplaying him as a rookie in 2016. The Saints were able to flip Cooks for a first round pick, and they felt serious pressure to nail the selection after failing to do so a few years earlier in a similar situation (Stephone Anthony was sent packing soon after Nolan got a few practices in with him).

The picks

Apr 27, 2017; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Ryan Ramczyk (Wisconsin) poses with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell (right) as he is selected as the number 32 overall pick to the New Orleans Saints in the first round the 2017 NFL Draft at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The grades

ESPN’s Mel Kiper had a lot of thoughts, settling with a solid B grade: “The Saints had an extra first-round pick because they traded Brandin Cooks to the Patriots for the No. 32 pick overall, noted at the top because Cooks has 315 catches in three seasons. With two first-rounders, you really have to be looking for a couple of players with the ability to make an impact relatively soon (especially for a team coming off a third straight 7-9 season), and I think the Saints got that done. Marshon Lattimore comes with what I'd call an orange flag -- not quite red -- because of lingering hamstring issues, but if he's healthy, he's the top cornerback in the draft. This is an exceptional athlete (4.38 40) who can look effortless. Put the Malcolm Butler trade talk to bed. Ryan Ramczyk is a reasonable selection at No. 32 overall, given that left tackle Terron Armstead has dealt with injuries and right tackle Zach Strief is almost 34. Ramczyk has the ability to play right away (better if it's on the right side), but he also carries some risk, as his hip has been a problem. The secondary was a priority, and Marcus Williams isn't a far cry from what Malik Hooker brings -- and much further down the board. A big question mark here was the value given up to draft Alvin Kamara. Even if you question any possibilities beyond 2017 for Mark Ingram or Adrian Peterson, trading a second-rounder to move up and take my No. 88 overall player is iffy. Give them this: The backfield is officially loaded. I like Alex Anzalone, and if he's healthy, he can help, but the injury history is significant with three major injuries at Florida. A potential steal here is Trey Hendrickson, who was a monster in Conference USA. Overall, you have to like the fact that there are two potential immediate starters (if needed, in Ramczyk's case) out of Round 1 and an emphasis on defense. But we can't forget this draft involves the departure of a Pro Bowl player in Cooks and now a second-round pick the Saints don't have in 2018.” Chris Burke at Sports Illustrated was intrigued, rating them with a B-plus: “The secondary should be better, no question (although that’s a refrain that's been sung before about the Saints). Projected top-10 cornerback Marshon Lattimore fell into New Orleans’s lap at No. 11, then Marcus Williams - a prospect just a notch below Malik Hooker as a deep safety - was the call at pick 42. The Saints wound up with six picks in the top 103, with the most interesting perhaps being OT Ryan Ramczyk at No. 32. Ramczyk will battle veteran Zach Strief on the right side, but he’s a long-term answer at tackle one way or another. RB Alvin Kamara (No. 67) made for an interesting trade-up - the Saints spent a seventh-rounder and a 2018 second to go get him. They really need LB Alex Anzalone (No. 76) to stay healthy and edge rusher Trey Hendrickson (No. 103) to create some havoc.”

The results

Sep 13, 2020; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara (41) scores a touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

This draft class can challenge Payton’s first group back in 2006 to be the best of his tenure. Every player the Saints added has started full seasons in the NFL -- even Muhammad, an early washout after they doubled down on edge rushers, has made a nice career for himself in the Colts rotation. Lattimore, Ramczyk, and Kamara seem to earn All-Pro votes annually while Williams is continually underrated. Hendrickson broke out to rank second-best in the league in sacks last season. It was a home run draft by every measure. It’ll be interesting to see how it develops further. Lattimore, Ramczyk, and Williams are entering the final years of their contracts, with Williams receiving the franchise tag to buy more time on extension talks. Kamara is one of the NFL’s highest-paid running backs, and for great reason. Anzalone and Hendrickson have moved on to seek their fortunes on other rosters; even if the first four picks are all who remain in New Orleans, their accomplishments are enough to grade the draft an A-plus.

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