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What will the Saints do in the 2021 NFL draft? That will be dictated by what happens in free agency, which is set to kick off in just a few days. The Saints have been preparing for this by making a series of salary cap cuts and restructured contracts, answering some questions while raising new ones and creating new holes to fill on the depth chart.
Here’s how they can get better. I’ve limited my pool of players to the draft prospects reported to have met with New Orleans already, which makes this more difficult but maybe more informative in reflecting how teams actually work during the draft. Still, it’s far from perfect, and at the end of the day nothing more than halfway-educated guesses. So don’t take it too seriously. Let’s begin:
Round 1, Pick 28
Northwestern cornerback Greg Newsome II, participates in the school's Pro Day football workout for NFL scouts Tuesday, March 9, 2021, in Evanston, Ill. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
I got a couple of trade offers here from the mock draft machine’s A.I.; first a move up to No. 14 in exchange for Nos. 28, 60, and my sixth rounder, 216, which I declined. And then a call to move up to No. 25 from No. 28, costing only next year’s fifth rounder. I also had an opportunity to move down to No. 40, adding fourth- and sixth-round picks along the way, or backing down to No. 47 while recouping No. 97 and a 2022 seventh rounder. I declined each offer in the interest of seeing who’s available at 28, but those might give an idea of what trading up or down could cost on draft day. The best players available in our first-round cloud: Kansas linebacker Zaven Collins, Northwestern corner Greg Newsome, and Washington defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike. There’s a sizable gap between Onwuzurike and the first two. I like Collins better as a prospect, but given the Saints’ needs we probably need to make Newsome the pick. After cutting Janoris Jenkins, their only cornerbacks under contract are Marshon Lattimore, Patrick Robinson, Grant Haley, and Keith Washington. The Pick: CB Greg Newsome, Northwestern. He’s just as athletically gifted as Lattimore coming out of college, having comfortably timed in the 4.3’s at his pro day 40 yard dash. He meets the size threshold at 6-foot-0 and 192 pounds. You’d like to see greater college experience from him, having only appeared in 17 games with the Wildcats, but Lattimore suited up just 16 times with the Buckeyes. Get him in the building and let Kris Richard get to work coaching him.
Round 2, Pick 60
North Carolina State's Alim McNeill (29) sacks North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell (7) for a loss during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)
There were a few other trade offers here, but nothing that would have brought in significant picks (at least nothing greater than an additional fifth rounder). Onwuzurike was picked ahead of any potential trade partners anyway, but I just missed out on Purdue receiver Rondale Moore. The best players available on our board: Florida State corner Asante Samuel Jr. and North Carolina State nose tackle Alim McNeill. Missouri safety Joshuah Bledsoe and Wake Forest/Georgia quarterback Jamie Newman are in the next tier. We shouldn’t draft corners back to back with other needs remaining, especially in the middle of the defense. I really like McNeill. Saints defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen left N.C. State before McNeill arrived on campus, but you have to think he has an inside track on how to get the most out of him. After cutting Malcom Brown and with Sheldon Rankins headed for free agency, the Saints have plenty of snaps to go around at defensive tackle. The Pick: NT Alim McNeill, North Carolina State. He’s a big body at 6-foot-2 and 320 pounds with strength to reset the line of scrimmage and enough juice to pressure the pocket. I compare him to disruptive nose tackles like Vita Vea, which might be wishful thinking. But isn’t that kind of the point in doing a mock draft anyway? Start him out in a two-down role next to David Onyemata, and if he shows the chops to get after quarterbacks early on, give him some opportunities on third down.
Round 3, Pick 98 (compensatory)
Missouri safety Joshuah Bledsoe celebrates during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Vanderbilt Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)
It’s a long, long wait from 60 to 98. I have a tough time seeing the Saints staying put here on draft day. I didn’t get any trade offers to move up that I was comfortable with but they’ve often made moves in this range (see: Zack Baun, Adam Trautman, and Alvin Kamara). Newman was still on the board, but so was Bledsoe. There’s a big gap between the two of them and the next tier, which includes cornerbacks Thomas Graham Jr. (Oregon) and Trill Williams (Syracuse). Last time I picked Newman here. This time I’ll go with Bledsoe. The Saints have franchise tagged Marcus Williams which keeps him around another year, and while there’s hope he signs a long-term extension that isn’t guaranteed, so more depth is nice. New Orleans played a ton of dime personnel last year with D.J. Swearinger and P.J. Williams on the field, who Bledsoe should be able to replace while preparing to replace Malcolm Jenkins in a year or two. The Pick: S Joshuah Bledsoe, Missouri. He’s got good size for the position at 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds, though he may have to bulk up depending on the long-term vision for him (C.J. Gardner-Johnson plays at 210). He lined up all over the Tigers defense and was fearless in mixing it up at the line of scrimmage. He’s also eager to help on special teams which is vital for a fourth safety like him.
Round 3, Pick 105 (compensatory)
Notre Dame defensive lineman Adetokunbo Ogundeji (91) jogs off the field during the Rose Bowl NCAA college football game in Arlington, Texas, Friday, Jan. 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)
None of the players in our cloud got picked between my two picks, so I could select Newman here. Or I could continue loading up the secondary with some of the cornerbacks ranked high on our board. But we’ve got bigger fish to fry than adding another corner with our last top-100-ish pick, and in this scenario I’ll assume Jameis Winston re-signs to battle with Taysom Hill, leaving little opportunity for a rookie quarterback. So let’s keep going down the board. Notre Dame edge rusher Adetokunbo Ogundeji is available, and so are two field-stretching receivers: Josh Imatorbhebhe (Illinois) and Ihmir Smith-Marsette (Iowa). All three share similar grades at this point, so we’ll add another pass rusher and hope one of the receivers falls to our fourth round pick. The Pick: DE Adetokunbo Ogundeji, Notre Dame. Very similar to Trey Hendrickson when he came out of Florida Atlantic, Ogundeji fits the Saints prototype from a height/weight/speed profile at 6-foot-4 and 256 pounds and long 35-inch arms and has a lot of learning to do in the pros. Like Hendrickson, it could take a few years before he breaks out. But with Hendrickson expected to bounce in free agency, Ogundeji can play right away as a backup behind Cam Jordan, Marcus Davenport, and third-year pro Carl Granderson.
Round 4, Pick 133
Sep 21, 2019; Champaign, IL, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe (9) catches a pass for a touchdown against the Nebraska Cornhuskers during the first half at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports
So here’s a unique problem: both of the receivers I was watching are still on the board. The Saints have plenty of pass catchers under contract but they could really use someone with more straight-line speed than Michael Thomas (4.57 seconds in the 40 yard dash), Tre’Quan Smith (4.49), Marquez Callaway (4.55), Juwan Johnson (4.58) and Lil’Jordan Humphrey (4.47); Deonte Harris (4.35) is the only one on the roster with real juice in the open field. How do these two prospects compare? Imatorbhebhe timed a 4.49 coming out of high school, when he was a 6-foot-2, 203-pound USC commit (he transferred to Illinois after Sam Darnold went pro, and now weighs in at 216). Smith-Marsette is also wildly athletic but at 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds, with a visible second gear in his game tape, but he doesn’t have a 40 time on record ahead of Iowa’s pro day. Smith-Marsette is more of a factor in the return game and should be an asset as a blocker (like most Iowa prospects, regardless of position). Maybe flip a coin? The Pick: WR Josh Imatorbhebhe, Illinois. There aren’t many athletes like him, and he brings a rare blend of speed and size that the Saints don’t currently enjoy (to say nothing of his viral 47-inch vertical jump back in 2015). He averaged over 19 yards per catch in 2019 before taking a slight step back in 2020. He can be the new Devery Henderson, maybe.
Round 6, Pick 216
Iowa tight end Shaun Beyer during an NCAA football game against Iowa State on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019 in Ames, Iowa. (AP Photo/Justin Hayworth)
This might be a sleepy part of the afternoon for Saints fans, but you never know. Last year they traded all of their late-round picks to get Trautman, before sneaking into the end of the draft in a last-second trade for Tommy Stevens. So here are the best available prospects at, for now, our final draft pick: Iowa tight end Shaun Beyer, Oregon corner Deommodore Lenoir, Louisville running back Javian Hawkins, Northwestern quarterback Peyton Ramsey, and San Diego State safety Darren Hall. We’ll rule the defensive backs out, out of principle. And the running back; that position is settled after re-signing Ty Montgomery and Dwayne Washington. So if it’s down to a tight end or a quarterback, who do you choose? Beyer was a blocker almost exclusively with just 18 career catches, but he’s a good athlete with a diverse resume in track and field events, basketball, and wrestling. There’s an argument he can develop into the next Josh Hill. Ramsey isn’t a spectacular athlete and doesn’t have an elite arm, but he’s competent enough to get the job done and led Northwestern to some big wins last year. If Winston re-signs, what does he add to the mix with Hill and Trevor Siemian? The Pick: TE Shaun Beyer, Iowa. The Hawkeyes have been a tight ends factory, and Beyer has real potential even if he didn’t put together a nine-minute highlight reel of acrobatic catches. Hill was valued for so long because he could execute blocks out of every personnel package. It should take the rookie time to pick up the offense and all of those different roles, but you can do worse this late in the draft. Maybe Ramsey is available as an undrafted free agent.
Reviewing our draft
Round 1, Pick 28: CB Greg Newsome, Northwestern
Round 2, Pick 60: NT Alim McNeill, North Carolina State
Round 3: Traded last year for LB Zack Baun
Round 3, Pick 98 (compensatory): S Joshuah Bledsoe, Missouri
Round 3, Pick 105 (compensatory): DE Adetokunbo Ogundeji, Notre Dame
Round 4, Pick 133: WR Josh Imatorbhebhe, Illinois
Round 5: Traded last year for LB Kwon Alexander
Round 6: Traded last year for QB/TE Tommy Stevens
Round 6, Pick 216 (compensatory): TE Shaun Beyer, Iowa
Round 7: Forfeited for COVID-19 protocol violations
All in all I feel good about this. The secondary is much more talented, we've added some speed on offense. There's youth and athleticism in the defensive line. I'd like to add a good quarterback prospect but with Winston (fingers crossed) and Hill in the fold, that's probably not as high a priority. Without more picks, it'll be tough to check off every need on our to-do list. But that's why the draft happens after free agency, where the Saints should be as busy as ever despite the salary cap challenges.