Sean Payton committed a heinous crime Thursday evening.
He fired defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and secondary coach Ken Flajole just one season after a desperate pursuit to bring in a more schematically sound and solid defense.
In Payton’s year away from New Orleans, the results were not pretty. Upon resurrection from his NFL death, he reverted back to 2007-08 Payton—a man with zero patience who makes rushed decisions.
Time will tell if Payton’s decision to rush Spagnuolo out the door and transform the defense to a 3-4 is a sound one, or truly a 2007-08 decision as it seemed upon the announcement.
One thing is certain: It completely and utterly changes the draft prognosis for the Saints. While the Saints possess a few players who seem like good fits for a 3-4 defense, there are more pieces necessary to make it even a solid unit in 2013.
Unfortunately, this is one of the least 3-4 friendly drafts in recent memory. The Saints possess only one pick in the first two rounds—where the majority of quality 3-4 players can be plucked from.
What direction the Saints head in is unsure of course. But the 2013 Senior Bowl may help give us some answers. As with any college All-Star Game, it should be understood that scouts likely couldn't care less about the actual game.
The weekday practices—and specifically Monday through Wednesday—are the basis for scouts’ and personnel people’s grades for the week.
There are great players not at the Senior Bowl this week who should be given serious consideration on the Saints’ draft board.
Here are the scenarios at play for each draft slot the Saints currently reside in. All options will be brought to life, before a final decision is made.
Team Needs: ILB, NT, OLB, CB, OT, OC, TE
With the change to the 3-4 defensive scheme, the New Orleans Saints are entering another trying offseason. As has been discussed ad nauseam already this offseason, the Saints are well over the projected 2013 salary cap, meaning dollars must be cut.
It’s good in one sense: Neither Jon Vilma (projected $5 million in cap space) nor Brodrick Bunkley (projected $3.5 million) fit the new 3-4 defensive scheme. Both are now obvious cuts this offseason.
Will Smith (projected cap number over $10 million), however, is a perfect fit for the 3-4. The move could extend Smith’s career at least three more seasons. His production will only increase in the scheme. With Akiem Hicks and Cam Jordan also projecting as starting defensive ends, the Saints are set at that position.
Tom Johnson will likely be kept to handle backup duties—at least projected in the future—at the nose tackle spot. Clearly a nose tackle is necessary to make this new defensive scheme work. It is the same problem for every franchise that makes the change to the 3-4 faces.
But nose tackles simply are not grown on trees. 4-3 defensive tackles are much easier to find. As such, there is simply no player who projects to be available at No. 15 worth selecting to fill the nose tackle spot.
Other holes in the current personnel—as it relates to the 3-4 transition—reside at inside linebacker. David Hawthorne may or may not work there. He may be a rotation ‘backer in the new alignment.
Insert the man everyone is talking about, Manti Te’o. The Notre Dame product is an excellent football player who projects favorably to the inside linebacker spot in a 3-4. With his amazing coverage abilities and acumen for handling the run up the middle, he is the perfect fit for this defense.
Ideally, the Saints would trade back into the end of the first round and pick up a second-round pick. In that scenario, the Saints would be wise to select Washington cornerback Desmond Trufant, who is absolutely climbing up draft boards.
Then in the second, the team would take its nose tackle of the future in Brandon Williams of Missouri Southern. Few players accomplished what Williams did this week in Mobile. At 341 ponds, he is the perfect fit for a two-gap nose tackle. It’s conceivable that with his week he could jump into the first round.
He would be a reach at 15, but early in the second, likely a steal.
The team could also decide to find Jermon Bushrod’s replacement in the first round. Unfortunately, that player does not appear to be available at No. 15, as four offensive tackles are likely to be selected in the first 11 or so picks.
The Pick: Manti Te’o, ILB, Notre Dame
Remaining Needs: NT, CB, OLB, OC, OT, TE
The Saints could literally take the best player available here among the positions needed. But there is one player, if somehow available at this spot, who must be taken. That man’s name is Chase Thomas.
Thomas was a standout outside linebacker/rush end at Stanford. He is a gifted pass-rusher who excels in space and plays the run well. He has an excellent motor and, in short, is a winner.
Thomas might not last until the Saints’ third-round pick, though. If he doesn't, there are other exciting options, though none at the outside linebacker spot.
By all indications the Saints spoke with San Diego State cornerback Leon McFadden twice this week at the Senior Bowl. Teams talk to every prospect at an event such as the Senior Bowl, but multiple discussions likely means there is some actual interest.
McFadden is capable both in zone coverage and man-to-man. It is not known yet which the Saints will prefer to complement their 3-4 front. McFadden, though, brings tremendous versatility to the position. He is the best player at a position of need who figures to be available come time the Saints pick on draft day.
The Pick: Leon McFadden, CB, San Diego State
Remaining Needs: NT, OLB, OT, OC, TE
Given the team’s needs at this point in the draft, the Saints would love to trade down and acquire an extra pick either in 2013 or a subsequent draft. There is not a player of great necessity anywhere to be found—unless the team wants to severely reach on a prospect.
If it wants to secure a nose tackle of the future, this might be a good place to reach. Georgia’s Kwame Geathers and Tennessee-Martin’s Montori Hughes—who played at Tennessee before being dismissed from school—would be the best possible 3-4 nose tackle prospects available.
Hughes is 327 pounds and Geathers 355. The talent is there for both players.
There isn’t a pass-rushing outside linebacker to excite the Saints here. Nor is there an offensive tackle worth reaching to select.
The only solid option at a position of need is Dion Sims, a junior tight end from Michigan State. As written before, Sims is a ginormous man with incredible athleticism. 285 pound-men are not supposed to run pass patterns like a 250-pound tight end. He does.
His athleticism, girth and strength promises to make him more than a solid option as a blocker in both pass protection and the run game.
For a team that needs to find a cost-effective replacement for the eventual departure of David Thomas (Jimmy Graham will cost a ton of money to re-sign next offseason), Sims seems to be the perfect fit.
The Pick: Dion Sims, TE, Michigan State
Remaining Team Needs: NT, OLB, OT, OC
In much the same way as the fourth round, there is still not a solid outside linebacker prospect to be had who would not qualify as a reach. The same could be said of the center class at this point.
Offensive tackles are starting to fall into place now. Four small-school players who figure to appeal to the Saints—Terron Armstead of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Garrett Gilkey of Chadron State, Jordan Mills of Louisiana Tech and Manase Foketi of West Texas A&M—are likely to still be available here.
Armstead was a late add to the Senior Bowl. He practiced Wednesday and by all accounts was impressive given the circumstances. Armstead is 304 pounds, meaning he probably possesses the requisite quickness and open-field agility to be able to execute the type of blocking the Saints require from their tackles.
The nose tackles are starting to become more attractive based on common slotting. Another player enters the fray at the position as well. Mississippi State’s Josh Boyd figures to be in the conversation with this pick, though he’d currently be considered a reach.
The Pick: Terron Armstead, OT, Arkansas-Pine Bluff
Remaining Needs: NT, OLB, OC
At this point in the draft, the New Orleans Saints will be slightly desperate to add a future nose tackle for the 3-4 switch. They would also like to find a way to acquire another 3-4 pass-rusher.
If neither are available, a center could be had.
Never to worry, though, as Mississippi State’s Josh Boyd fits the mold. Despite playing at an SEC school, Boyd is an underrated talent. Watching him at the Senior Bowl practices, it was obvious that Boyd is a behemoth and a beast all in one.
Though listed at just 310 pounds, Boyd projects as a two-gap nose tackle with the potential to make plays from time to time. The Saints may want to augment this selection with an under-the-radar free-agent signing.
One way or the other, though, Boyd figures to become a player who can contribute for the Saints in short order.
The Pick: Josh Boyd, NT, Mississippi State
Remaining Needs: OLB, OC
It is believed the Saints will not possess a seventh round pick in this year’s draft due to the August trade with Seattle for Barrett Ruud’s services.
If the team is able to retain its seventh round selection, or gain a compensatory selection, there are a few players to whom the team should give strong consideration.
A late-round center would not be the worst pick ever. Mario Benavides is a player who makes a ton of sense this late in the draft. He could be available as an undrafted free agent as well.
A player who fits a more immediate need is Michael Clay, the outside linebacker from Oregon. Something of note in relation to Clay is that he is nearly indiscernible from fellow Oregon hybrid end Dion Jordan.
The two operated in the same role at Oregon. At times, Clay appeared to be the better player. His athletic skills are largely equal to Jordan's. If drafted by the Saints, he would essentially be a cheaper, less heralded Dion Jordan.
The Pick: Michael Clay, OLB, Oregon
The move to the 3-4 defense creates an interesting and unexpected element to the 2013 draft for the New Orleans Saints. The following players have been selected in this mock draft (the guess is this is the best group the Saints could put together given the circumstances surrounding this year’s draft).
Round 1: Manti Te’o, ILB, Notre Dame
Round 3: Leon McFadden, CB, San Diego State
Round 4 Dion Sims, TE, Michigan State
Round 5: Terron Armstead, OT, Arkansas-Pine Bluff
Round 6: Josh Boyd, DT Mississippi State
Round 7: Michael Clay, OLB, Oregon
In my estimation, the six selections instantly produce four rotation players, or starters (Te’o, Armstead, Boyd and Clay), while McFadden and Sims would certainly become impact players no later than their second years in the league.