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All of the chips were pushed in on a Super Bowl run in 2018, but a botched call in the NFC championship game’s final minutes helped push the Saints into another early postseason exit. Part of the frustrations were due to an unexciting rookie draft class; Marcus Davenport, the much-lauded target of a draft day trade, had not produced much before a midseason toe injury slowed him down. The only other notable draft pick to even make the team, Tre’Quan Smith, was an inconsistent part of the receiving corps. The Saints needed reinforcements.
And they found some right away in 2019. Let’s keep our 2021 NFL draft countdown running:
Dec 18, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; New Orleans Saints center Max Unger (60) against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Saints defeated the Cardinals 48-41. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
There were several big departures in 2019, but the most difficult was the loss of Max Unger. New Orleans’ Pro Bowl center was feeling a career’s worth of injuries pile up in his later playing days, and chose to retire before his body failed him. That opened up a big hole in the heart of the Saints offense line. And while their defensive lineup was largely unchanged, it could definitely use more youth and athleticism. So how did the Saints work to improve in a draft missing their first round pick (traded to go get Davenport) and a third rounder (swapped for backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater)?
New Orleans Saints top draft pick, center Erik McCoy, sign autographs for fans after practice at their NFL football training facility in Metairie, La., Wednesday, June 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Round 2, Pick 48: C Erik McCoy, Texas A&M
Round 4, Pick 105: DB C.J. Gardner-Johnson, Florida
Round 6, Pick 177: S Saquan Hampton, Rutgers
Round 7, Pick 231: TE Alize Mack, Notre Dame
Round 7, Pick 244: LB Kaden Elliss, Idaho
ESPN’s Mel Kiper was unimpressed, rating New Orleans with a C-plus after they executed more trades: “The Saints just do things a little bit differently than the other 31 teams. That has worked out OK the last few years -- they were this close to a Super Bowl LIII berth last season … We know these moves are done to try to maximize the tail end of 40-year-old Drew Brees' career, of course, but you have to wonder what happens if New Orleans slips. It could be in cap hell without much in future assets. The team is also missing its third-round pick this year because of the trade for Teddy Bridgewater. McCoy is my top-ranked center, and Payton said that's where the Saints plan to play him. Now, where does free-agent signing Nick Easton play? Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (No. 105), who could play some nickelback, might be a Day 3 steal. He was No. 58 overall on my board. Alize Mack (No. 231) is worth a seventh-round flier as an intriguing tight end. Ultimately, this is a team trying to maximize a Super Bowl window not just before the Brees timeline hits a wall, but with possible monster deals for Michael Thomas and Cameron Jordan on the horizon.” Andy Benoit at Sports Illustrated looked on the group more favorably, grading them with a B: “With no first-round pick after last year’s trade up for defensive end Marcus Davenport, the Saints knew that their one and only glaring need—center—could not be addressed until Round 2. Smartly, they traded up again to get it done right, tabbing Erik McCoy, a shrewd technician whom many saw as a plug-and-play prospect. Center is critical in New Orleans’s scheme because Drew Brees needs to get deep in his dropback in order to see downfield, making him extra dependent on having a clean pocket to step up into. The only other pick of note for the Saints was safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, a smooth, good-looking athlete who played the slot last year at Florida but translates as an NFL safety. Stylstically, he is similar to Kenny Vaccaro, whom the Saints let leave last year in free agency. Plus, if Gardner-Johnson shines, the Saints next year may not have to pay for 2016 second-rounder Vonn Bell, who is in the last year of his rookie deal. It was a light draft for this team, but that’s because the Saints, just like last year, had few needs to address and could afford to invest in quality over quantity.”
Oct 4, 2020; Detroit, Michigan, USA; New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton (right) celebrates with safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (22) during the fourth quarter against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
The payoff of 2019’s haul was immediately better received than the year before. McCoy started every game and has continued to do so ever since, holding down the job in the heart of the offensive line. Gardner-Johnson is a force player on defense whose ability to make clean, open-field tackles in run defense while lining up as a slot corner allows the Saints to run a nickel personnel package as their base against diverse opposing offenses. Those two picks alone are worth an A. However, the rest of the draft isn’t much to write home about. Hampton was out of New Orleans a year later, while Mack washed out of the practice squad just a few months into the regular season. Elliss has shown some ability on special teams but missed his rookie year with a knee injury, and is now very much a backup. There’s a case to be made that the Saints should have maximized their late-round picks better, but hitting two home runs early on (on players they traded up to acquire, too) is an achievement itself.