We are one week from the start of the NFL Draft. As usual, everyone has their own opinions, guesses and hunches.
In my mind, mock drafts are purely an exercise in amusement. And just like point spreads in the regular season, they should be used for entertainment purposes only and not to be taken seriously.
Let's take a look at New Orleans Saints development this offseason (NOTE: there really is no such thing as an NFL offseason) that could affect their selections.
Going into the draft, a team can only hope to be in a position to select the best player available regardless of position. Need is a terrible evaluator and can cloud a teams' opinion of a player's ability. Teams do a much better job if they simply rank the players from top to bottom and then pick the player that falls to them. The Saints have put themselves in position to do that by re-signing some key players and also through free agency.
The Saints re-signed defensive end Will Smith and inside linebacker Jonathan Vilma. These moves were surprising to some but, on further study, those signings allow the Saints to select the best player in the draft. And New Orleans was able to sign them at a good price.
The Saints new Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan had time to study these two players and determine whether they fit into his system. A quick note on the Ryan scheme: his players must be versatile and flexible. There is no defense in the history of the world that is not included in the Rob Ryan playbook. In order to play these variations, the players must be able to play inside or outside, rush or drop.
The players also must be intelligent. Playing multiple defenses is a great idea, but leads to complex adjustments and the possibility for error. Ryan has been accused in the past of being unsound at times. I suspect that this is usually due to mistakes players make in adjusting to what is presented to them.
The question with Smith is not whether he can play a 5-technique defensive end or on the outside shoulder of an offensive tackle. He can do that at an adequate level. The question is how flexible can he be in other alignments. A 3-4 defensive end has to be able to play inside on the guard to allow the outside linebacker to become a pass rusher.
Jonathan Vilma was able to show last year that he could pair with Curtis Lofton at inside linebacker. When Vilma was healthy at mid-season, Steve Spagnoulo adjusted his scheme to get both middle linebackers on the field at the same time. As bad as the Saints were on defense last year, it was not because Spags did not adjust.
Obviously, after watching video from last season, Rob Ryan sees Lofton and Vilma working well inside together.
Much has been made about Vilma's move from the New York Jets to the Saints when the Jets went from a 4-3 to a 3-4 under Eric Mangini. At that time, Vilma felt that he could not play in that style of defense. This is not the same 3-4 where the ILBs had to be larger to take on internal blockers.
In the free agent market, the most valuable signing may have been inking Sean Payton long-term. We certainly discovered the value of a head coach last season. We knew that he was important, but we learned that it is not the system that counts, but the implementation and utilization of the system.
The signings of offensive tackle Jason Smith and cornerback Keenan Lewis are significant. Not that they are great players, but the duo provide talent young enough and perhaps coming into their own.
The Saints have discovered one thing where the offensive line is concerned that I find to be very interesting. No one has valued guards more than Sean Payton. He knows that you can help a tackle in his pass protection assignment through scheme. You cannot scheme inside. The guards and center must be able to work together and be strong enough to handle the task individually. Drew Brees needs solid protection inside so he can step up to find a throwing lane.
The change in offensive line coach to Brent Ingalls from Aaron Kromer, now the Offensive Coordinator of the Chicago Bears, will bear close examination. Ingalls takes over after spending the last four seasons as the Saints' running backs coach. Can he teach both the power running game and pass protection technique as good as Kromer did? The answer to that question will go a long way in determining the success of the left tackle situation after the loss of Jermon Bushrod.
The Saints have to get more athletic on defense, and that has only been marginally addressed in free agency. This need is especially true at the safety position where the athleticism of the present group is woefully short of NFL standards. The addition of veteran reserve Jim Leonhard is not the answer.
The safety position in the NFL has evolved over the last decade. At one time you played safety if you were not good enough to be a corner. That explains the success of three and four wide receiver attacks where safeties were forced to become cover people.
Safeties now have to cover people, cover ground and tackle. As corners get bigger to defend against larger receivers, safeties will have to be even more athletic. The Saints are fortunate that there are six or seven safeties that are NFL caliber talents in this draft. However, without a second round pick, the only opportunity to grab one may be in the first round.
With just five draft picks at their disposal, the Saints cannot afford to miss on any choice. The first round choice, especially, must be able to contribute immediately at a high level. Position of need can be a factor, but only as a secondary consideration. If the highest rated player at pick 15 is an offensive player, New Orleans has to pick him. They cannot afford to reach on a high draft choice.
The New Orleans draft theme has to be "stay with your board." Someone rated higher than 15 will fall to the Saints, and they have to be prepared to take him. The same thing is true of the remaining picks. History shows that this administration is very good in the late rounds, especially with offensive players. We have to hope that this trend continues.
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