Notre Dame's Zack Martin could provide much-needed help to the Saints' offensive line.
While the Saints’ offensive production was again prolific this season, issues with pass protection stood out in numerous contests. Teams with strong defensive lines—such as the Panthers Rams and Jets—exploited the New Orleans front line and exerted relentless pressure on quarterback Drew Brees.
The left tackle position was perhaps the most glaring weakness along the Saints offensive front, as starter Charles Brown was benched with two games remaining in the season in favor of rookie Terron Armstead. Even if Armstead emerges in the playoffs, the Saints could also benefit from a significant upgrade at the right tackle slot, where Zach Strief was by no means reliable.
In addition to New Orleans' offensive line, another area in need of attention is that of wide receiver. None of New Orleans’ top three pass-catchers are wideouts this season. If the Saints are to fare better in future endeavors against the defensive back-laden Seattle Seahawks, they need to improve their athleticism at the wide receiver position.
On the defensive side, upgrades in the secondary would do a lot to tighten up an already formidable unit.
Fortunately for New Orleans, this year’s draft is heavy with offensive linemen, wide receivers and cornerbacks. Even if they advance deep into the playoffs, the Saints should be able to bring in top-shelf talent at those three positions of need.
Following are eight draft prospects who can fill the Saints’ biggest offseason needs. The prospects are ranked in ascending order based on their ability to help the Saints next season. Offensive linemen come first, since that’s the team’s biggest area of need, followed by receivers and cornerbacks.
Richardson is projected to be a late first-round selection.
Considering the fact that the Saints made the playoffs and will be picking in the latter portion of the first round, Antonio Richardson makes a lot of sense.
For starters, he fills a big need. The Saints are in desperate need of help along the offensive line, particularly at the tackle spots. They’ve been accused of being somewhat of a finesse team—one that isn’t built for the rigorous brand of smash-mouth football that so often equates to championships.
If that is indeed the case, then New Orleans needs to find a way to acquire Richardson. The 6’6” 327-pound behemoth plays the game with a nasty disposition. He’s a bit unpolished from a technique standpoint, but his upside is higher than most of the highly rated tackles in this year’s draft class.
Richardson first turned heads midway through the 2012 season, when he turned in an exceptional performance against South Carolina’s star pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney.
If Richardson falls to his currently projected position of late in the first round, then he could be there for New Orleans’ taking.
Martin delivered a stand-out performance in the Pinstripe Bowl.
Zack Martin is another highly rated offensive tackle who could still be on the board when the Saints make their first-round selection.
Unlike Richardson, Martin possesses a more polished skill set. He doesn’t have Richardson’s size, but the senior does have great versatility. Although he played left tackle for the Fighting Irish, there's a chance that Martin could find himself playing guard in the NFL.
Against Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl, however, Martin made a strong case for staying at tackle in the league, despite his lack of great size. He completely dominated the contest and showcased his abilities as both a pass-blocker and a run-blocker.
As recently fired Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano discovered, Rutgers isn’t the NFC South, but Martin appears to have everything needed to succeed at the next level.
Robinson was a key cog in Auburn's run to the SEC Championship.
Greg Robinson hasn't yet declared for the draft yet, but in the event that Richardson and Martin are unavailable, he could be a viable option in the first round.
At 6'5" and 320 pounds, Robinson obviously has the size needed to play tackle in the NFL. He’s been dominant in the running game throughout Auburn’s run to the national title game, and although the Tigers don’t throw the football often, his play has been exceptional in the pass-blocking department as well.
What makes Robinson an intriguing candidate to be picked by New Orleans is his ability to play both right and left tackle, as the Saints are in need of upgrades at both positions.
If Armstead emerges and locks down the left tackle slot, then Robinson could very well be an option on the right side.
Whether the Saints escape Philadelphia this weekend with a victory or not, one thing is certain: All eyes in the New Orleans scouting department will be following Robinson closely in Monday night’s national title showdown between Auburn and Florida State.
Bryant has superb height and athleticism.
Come April, Clemson’s Sammy Watkins may be the first wide receiver taken off the draft board. While it’s highly unlikely that Watkins will fall to New Orleans, his teammate–Martavis Bryant–is a realistic possibility in the second round.
Like Greg Robinson, Bryant has yet to declare, but his draft stock has risen significantly as of late.
At 6’4” and 200 pounds, his frame is similar to that of AJ Green's, and his rubber band-like athleticism is also reminiscent of the Bengals star. Like Green, Bryant has good speed for a tall possession receiver, and he has adequate hands.
In the blocking department, Bryant has lots of room for improvement, but his issues can likely be ameliorated with solid coaching and a sincere work ethic.
Either way, Bryant's size and straight-line speed could greatly benefit New Orleans against teams with physical secondaries, such as the one found in Seattle, and he would be a fantastic edition to the Saints' receiving corps.
Landry gave opposing defenses fits in 2013.
Jarvis Landry may have been the most NFL-ready receiver in college football this year. Like most draft-eligible juniors, he hasn't officially entered the draft, but that declaration will likely occur Thursday or Friday, according to The Advocate.
Landry isn’t particularly tall or lengthy, but at 6’0”, he can play on the outside or in the slot. He’s not the most fleet-footed of receivers either, but his speed is adequate.
As far as his hands and route-running go, however, Landry has very few—if any—peers in this year's draft class. In addition, he’s a superb blocker and his enthusiasm for physical contact is a big plus.
Landry’s lack of any glaring weaknesses, combined with his skill set and football instincts, would make him an excellent fit in coach Sean Payton’s precision-based passing game. If he's still around late in the second round, don't be surprised if the Saints snag him.
Matthews enjoyed a fantastic career at Vanderbilt.
Jordan Matthews is another late-first/early-second round projection who would fit nicely into the New Orleans offense.
He has excellent size at 6’3” and 205 pounds, and he uses his body well as a possession receiver.
In the SEC, Matthews regularly squared off against some of the nation’s top defensive backs. All he did was set the conference record for pass receptions in a career with 257.
He tallied over 1,300 receiving yards in 2013, but Matthews didn’t just pad his gaudy stats against the Commodores’ weaker competition. He posted outings of 100 yards or more against perennial SEC East heavyweights South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
Matthews is also a heady player, so he isn’t likely to have difficulty in grasping Payton’s complex offense. If the Saints address their offensive line issues early in the draft, he would be a great grab in the second or third round.
Gaines was a solid all-around defender for the Tigers in 2013.
E.J. Gaines is projected to be picked in the middle or late rounds of the draft. Any time after the third round would be opportune for New Orleans to snatch him.
At 5’11” and 195 pounds, Gilbert possesses adequate size for a cornerback. He has impressive man-to-man cover skills, which is an important prerequisite for playing in New Orleans defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s aggressive scheme.
Gaines went up against some of the nation’s premier receivers in 2013, with his showcase game coming against Texas A&M’s Mike Evans. Evans is widely projected as a first-round pick and could be one of the top-10 overall selections. Gaines blanketed him with lock-down coverage, limiting the 6’5” Aggie standout to just eight yards on four catches.
In addition to his coverage abilities, Gaines also possesses decent ball skills, and isn’t afraid to stick his nose in to help with run support.
Joyner, while undersized, is an exceptional playmaker.
Lamarcus Joyner is another player the Saints will likely have an eye on during Monday’s national title game.
He’s a physical, hard-hitting defensive back who has solid man coverage skills. In fact, Joyner played corner for the Seminoles this season, although he was primarily a safety in previous years.
The chief criticism of Joyner is his height. At only 5’8,” his ability to match up with many of the league’s tight ends and outside receivers is a major concern. But what he lacks in height, Joyner more than makes up for with his tenacity.
He’s probably the most physical defensive back in this year’s draft, and his style of play resembles that of Cardinals nickelback Tyrann Mathieu.
Joyner has a penchant for making big plays, which makes him a desirable candidate to join Ryan’s blitz-happy defense.
NFL draft evaluation is a highly fluid process, and much can change in a short amount of time. What isn't likely to change, however, is the New Orleans Saints' pressing need for help on the offensive line.
The Saints will also be looking to improve their receiving corps and secondary in the coming months. All of the prospects discussed above should receive a long, hard look from New Orleans' front office.