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NFL Draft 2011: Saints coach Sean Payton eyes defense in first round

New Orleans Saints head coach Sean PaytonNew Orleans Saints head coach Sean PaytonNEW ORLEANS – Without tipping his hand over the holiday weekend, New Orleans Saints Coach Sean Payton provided a valuable insight into his team’s game plan for this week’s NFL draft.

The first round will be conducted in primetime beginning at 7 p.m. Thursday. The draft will resume at 5 p.m. Friday with Rounds 2 and 3 and conclude Saturday beginning at 11 a.m. with Rounds four through seven.

ESPN/ESPN2 will air wall-to-wall coverage.

“The draft is deepest at D-line but 60 percent of them aren’t going to make it in this league, so the key is to figure which ones we love,’’ Payton told SportsNOLA.com on Easter Saturday. “This happens all the time in our meetings where we say ‘this guy will fit, this guy will fit and this guy will fit’ and the fact of the matter is only one those three are going to be worth a (…) in this league.

“So, more than anything else, you got to feel in love with a couple of guys regardless of position and identify whoever it is and say this guy is going to be able to play eight to 10 years in our league.’’

The Black and Gold hold six picks, starting with the 24th selection in the first round Thursday night by virtue of their 11-5 record in 2010 and unexpected elimination in the wildcard round of the playoffs to Seattle “Slew.’’

Other picks include Nos. 56, 72 and 88 in Rounds 2 and 3 and Nos. 226 and 243 in the seventh round. They currently have no selections in Rounds 4, 5 and 6 dues to previous trades made during the 2009 draft.

From all indications, the Saints are targeting a defensive player with their first pick, specifically in the front seven at end (e.g., Adrian Clayborn/Iowa and Cameron Heyward/Ohio State), tackle (e.g., Phil Taylor/Baylor) and outside linebacker (e.g., Akeem Ayers/UCLA, Brooks Reed/Arizona, Justin Houston/Georgia).

That could change, for instance, if Alabama running back Mark Ingram would slip to them at No. 24. Ingram, who underwent minor knee surgery last season, has received a clean bill of health from the Saints medical staff and is the consensus No. 1 ball carrier in the draft.

According to most analysts, defensive line is the deepest position in the top tier of the draft, suggesting the Saints would get both a quality player and a player who fits a primary need if they go in this direction at No. 24.

Barring a trade up from 24 – Saints officials have the ammo with one second- and two third-round picks – they will â€œread and react’’ to the moves made above them as the first-round unfolds.

“I want all those quarterbacks and all those O-linemen that everyone is projecting will go in the first round to get selected because it will give us a better chance to get one of those four or five guys that we’re talking about,’’ Payton said.

Payton said he and his football operations staff are “98 percent’’ finished with their pre-draft preparation with only some last minute cross-checking due in the coming days.

“The reports have been written and read, the videos have been watched and evaluated,’’ Payton said. “At 24, it’s pretty typical to begin discussing eight or nine names on the wall, and we’ll cross check and study those guys. We’ll do the same thing in the second and third rounds.’’

Because of the ongoing labor dispute, there are compelling and unique dynamics to this year’s draft. Consider:

-- Trades will be allowed but can only involve current and future draft picks, no current NFL players.

-- Teams may talk with their draft picks and fly them in for post-draft interviews with the media but no contract talks can be held with agents until a new CBA is reached.

-- Teams are barred from talking to potential undrafted rookie free agents after the draft until a new CBA is reached.

Typically, the Saints would hold a minicamp for all draftees and selected free agents and undrafted rookie free agents on May 13-14-15. That minicamp remains in limbo and in all likelihood will be cancelled due to the current lockout.

But the ongoing labor strife will not prevent Payton and his coaching staff from completing their appointed rounds in May.

“We’ll start putting together our offensive, defensive and special teams’ installations and our training camp book and the first 14 practices of training camp,’’ Payton said. “Then, we’ll begin our game preparation for Green Bay (Sept. 8) and Chicago (Sept. 18) and our first few opponents.’’

Payton said he has discussed with Coach Gary Kubiak the possibility of practicing against the Houston Texans prior to their exhibition game in Week 2 of the preseason at Reliant Stadium.

Obviously, those practice plans are on hold as the NFL Lockout enters Week 7 with no end in sight.

NOTE: Don't be surprised if General Manager Mickey Loomis and Payton select a quarterback on the third day of the draft to join backups Chase Daniel and Sean Canfield on the roster. Though it doesn't appear to be a major need at this point, Payton could pull the trigger if the right one is still available in the seventh round.

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Saints beat writer Brian Allee-Walsh can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

 

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