What the Saints still need heading into the 2022 NFL draft

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·12 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

The 2022 NFL draft is just a week away (give or take a day, and depending on which time zone you’re reading this from, sure) and the New Orleans Saints have done a really good job at positioning themselves to land some impact players. Between a blockbuster trade to acquire another first-round pick and some underrated additions in free agency, this is a team that can compete right away.

New Orleans now has a few clear roster needs to address and enough prime draft picks (at Nos. 16, 19, 49, and 98 overall) to check those boxes in a hurry. Later-round picks at Nos. 120, 161, and 194 are also useful for adding more rookie talent, and maybe packaging in trades for some more draft-day maneuvering once the board takes shape.

So with all of that said, here are some of the positions we could see the Saints go after in the upcoming 2022 draft:

Wide receiver

Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

No shock here: wideout is the weakest position on the depth chart, with the Saints effectively putting all of their eggs in one basket and hoping that Michael Thomas won’t miss a beat after returning to good health after two uneven years managing a complicated ankle injury. They haven’t added any new players to the receiving corps who weren’t around last season except for reserve/future signings Jalen McCleskey (who did join the Saints for training camp) and Kirk Merritt (who did not).

Not to knock Marquez Callaway and Deonte Harty, but neither of them should be asked to start and run against opposing teams’ best cornerbacks each week. It’s doing them a disservice and taking them out of their best position to succeed. Adding a draft prospect with real star power to push them each down the depth chart, so that they’re lining up against slot corners and safeties and maybe even linebackers sometimes, should be New Orleans’ top priority.

Beyond the receivers we’ve already named, the Saints are running it back with Tre’Quan Smith, Kevin White, Lil’Jordan Humphrey, Easop Winston Jr., and Kawaan Baker. To be blunt, that just isn’t good enough to compete in the NFL for 17 weeks (and hopefully longer by reaching the playoffs).

So what are the Saints to do? Hopefully they’ll spend one of their first round picks on a receiver. And they’re poised to get a really great prospect: maybe not Ohio State’s Garrett Wilson, who could go top-10, and maybe not Alabama’s Jameson Williams, who won’t be far behind (and would go ahead of Wilson if not for his injury). But Buckeyes great Chris Olave could make it to their pick at No. 16, and other options like Drake London (Southern California), Treylon Burks (Arkansas), Jahan Dotson (Penn State), and George Pickens (Georgia) are also likely first-round picks. New Orleans can play this a couple different ways after buying themselves a second at-bat in that Eagles trade.

Left tackle

AP Photo/John Amis

It’s a long shot to hope for one of the draft’s top four left tackle prospects to fall to New Orleans at No. 16, but you never know. Maybe something weird happens and Charles Cross (Mississippi State) or Trevor Penning (Northern Iowa) make it to their pick, with Evan Neal (Alabama) and Ikem Ekwonu (North Carolina State) locks to go off the board much sooner. If that’s the case, the Saints would have a hard time passing on either player. Those are immediate starters who can plausibly replace Terron Armstead, and hopefully push James Hurst into a training camp competition with Cesar Ruiz at right guard.

But there are too many tackle-needy teams picking ahead of the Saints, and because New Orleans does have Hurst (who led the team in snaps played at left tackle last year), they can afford to wait and get someone who needs more practice before they’re ready to start. This feels like an ideal position to attack in the second round, going after a player like Tulsa’s Tyler Smith if he’s still available. The Saints could wait until round three and go after Rasheed Walker (Penn State) or Braxton Jones (Southern Utah), too. A high-end option would be nice, but it’s not the only viable solution here.

Safety

Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Marcus Maye was a good free agent signing — but he won’t be able to replace both Marcus Williams and Malcolm Jenkins, and he may not be ready for the season-opener between his Achilles injury recovery and a pending suspension following last year’s DUI arrest in Florida. The Saints did re-sign P.J. Williams and bring in Justin Evans to compete with him, but you probably don’t want either of those players starting. Do you take C.J. Gardner-Johnson out of his slot role and put someone else (Bradley Roby?) in his place? Tyrann Mathieu is available but he is not in a hurry to sign with a new team.

However you cut it, there are a lot of moving parts here, and it feels like every possible solution creates a new problem elsewhere. So the Saints should be taking a serious look at the rookie safeties in this year’s draft. Adding one of the best players available in Notre Dame star Kyle Hamilton may not be a pipe dream, surprisingly. New Orleans could also wait and find help in the draft’s second round through a player like Jalen Pitre (Baylor) or Jaquan Brisker (Penn State). Resolving this issue early on in the draft through a cheap contract with a talented player might be the way to go.

Another wide receiver

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Look again at the list of second-string Saints wideouts: Kevin White, Lil’Jordan Humphrey, Easop Winston Jr., and Kawaan Baker each bounced between the waiver wire and the practice squad and the active roster and got into games for New Orleans last year, which goes to show how talent-poor the group was. Semi-pro lacrosse player Chris Hogan got real snaps at times before retiring early in the season. I can’t stress enough how badly the Saints need a talent injection here.

In my perfectly idealized world, the Saints would get Thomas back to good health, sign a competent veteran (or trade a late-round pick for one, like Darius Slayton with the New York Giants), draft a starter in the first round, and then circle back later for another one to push Harty and Callaway. They need to embarrass Jameis Winston with weapons and get this offense back on track, or else their strong defense will be wasted in a horribly ironic twist of the past Saints teams that boasted elite offenses and historically-bad defenses. If Winston can’t win with that kind of supporting cast, you’ll know for sure that it’s time to move on.

Fun as it would be, I can’t see the Saints investing first- and second-picks in receivers in the same draft. But they could start at the end of the third round and target players from there and into the draft’s final day, like John Metchie III (Alabama), Justyn Ross (Clemson), Velus Jones Jr. (Tennessee), and Danny Gray (SMU). Between injuries, athletic limitations, or undeveloped skills sets, they should still be available once the Saints are on the clock again. And as we’ve outlined, New Orleans is not good enough at receiver even after a first-round investment to pass on more help later in the draft.

It’s not looking good for the Saints’ chances of getting a helpful free agent at the position (Jarvis Landry is visiting them while still in talks with the Browns, and Emmanuel Sanders is seriously considering retirement). So a five-deep list of gameday actives including Michael Thomas, a first rounder like Chris Olave, Marquez Callaway, Deonte Harty, and a fourth-round pickup in, say, Velus Jones Jr. would be hard to turn down.

Running back

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Alvin Kamara is one of the NFL’s best players, so it’s going to be crushing when his suspension gets handed down following an arrest in Las Vegas from earlier this year. The Saints aren’t really built for life without him. Mark Ingram II, Tony Jones Jr., and Josh Adams don’t share his skills set as someone comfortable lining up out wide and running routes, and none of them really ran well consistently last season. Plus, Ingram is entering the final year of his contract and may be considering retirement before long. New Orleans needs a long-term fix here.

Maybe they surprise everyone and take one of the draft’s best runners in round two, where Iowa State’s Breece Hall and Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III are projected to go off the board. But there may be better value in waiting until rounds three, four, or five, and the Saints have made predraft contact with prospects expected to be picked there like Dameon Pierce (Florida), Brian Robinson Jr. (Alabama), and Rachaad White (Arizona State). Still, it would be nice to get this problem solved quickly.

Defensive tackle

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The Saints made some low-cost additions in Kentavius Street and Jaleel Johnson, but neither of them are really moving the needle and David Onyemata is looking at doing the heavy lifting alone, again, in a contract year. Defensive tackle has been a sneaky need for the Saints for a year or two now and they won’t keep getting away with moneyballing the position forever. Shy Tuttle and Albert Huggins and Malcolm Roach are fine backups, but none of them should be asked to play 25 or 30 snaps per game.

So it would be really nice to see the Saints juice up this position group and add an impactful rookie. That’s a player who can compliment Onyemata in 2021, maybe replace him in 2022 if the team doesn’t re-sign him, and just generally usher in some stability to the rotation. We can’t rule out either of the Georgia prospects, Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt, in the first round if New Orleans ends up able to take the best player available. Some other options to remember are Travis Jones (the Saints sent Ryan Nielsen to his UConn pro day), UCLA’s Otito Ogbonnia, and Missouri State’s Eric Johnson. But it sure feels like the Saints have too many higher priorities and they’ll end up adding some more undrafted free agents to the mix.

Tight end

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

So this is a problem. Adam Trautman took a step back in 2021, Nick Vannett isn’t making a splash, and Taysom Hill is going to try and be a full-time tight end apparently. None of those options are mighty appealing. The issue is that the Saints have already tied up a lot of draft picks (in Trautman) and money (in Vannett and Hill), so they’re left without many ways to get better here.

And a rookie tight end isn’t immediately fixing everything. There’s a very steep learning curve involved in turning pro, between handling different routes and more complicated blocking assignments. This year’s draft has a couple of nice options in UCLA’s Greg Dulcich and Colorado State’s Trey McBride, plus Virginia Tech’s Jelani Woods, but Iowa State’s Charlie Kolar might be my favorite of the bunch. Any of them could help, but it feels unlikely for the Saints to get things straightened out here any time soon.

Linebacker

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

This isn’t really a need at the top of the depth chart — Demario Davis is going to play every single down and Pete Werner should be right next to him whether the Saints re-sign Kwon Alexander or not (that’s why they drafted Werner so highly last year). New Orleans rarely fields three linebackers at a time, so you’ve got Kaden Elliss and Zack Baun in the mix for that last spot, and they both play more often on special teams anyway. But it would be nice to add some depth to the position, though spending a higher draft pick would be a luxury the Saints may be unable to afford given their more serious needs.

With that said, I would understand drafting a player like Wyoming’s Chad Muma or Alabama’s Christian Harris with a top-100 pick. I wouldn’t like it, and it isn’t what I would do with one of those premium selections, but I’d get it. Davis isn’t getting any younger. Baun and Elliss have been unplayable for much of their careers so far. You’re an injury away from disaster, and better depth does have value. But there are other, bigger fires that need putting out than finding a new backup linebacker.

Quarterback

Robert McDuffie-USA TODAY Sports

Is this controversial? Maybe, maybe not. But I really don’t want to see the Saints spend an early-round pick on a quarterback. They’ve committed to Jameis Winston for this season, so put all your resources towards helping him prove he can lead your franchise this season. Drafting a passer early immediately starts a timer on how long Winston has the job and takes focus away from the work he’s put in to win the team over. If you give him the best supporting cast possible and he falls flat, fine, that’s when you shift gears and move onto other quarterback prospects.

But, and here’s the but: there is a good reason that some teams share the philosophy to draft a quarterback every year until you have one. Whether it’s an early round, mid-round pick, or a late-round flyer, just take a shot until you’ve found your guy. And the Saints are well-positioned to do that. Mickey Loomis has the best job security in the world, and Dennis Allen has time, too, to get it right. Even if they don’t spend a first-round pick on Malik Willis, Desmond Ridder, or Sam Howell, or settle for a lesser prospect like Kenny Pickett or Matt Corral, the Saints could circle back later and roll the dice on someone like Carson Strong. Dak Prescott and Kirk Cousins were mid-round picks, too. They’re just outliers that prove the rule.

1

1