Will standout cornerback Jason Verrett from TCU be available when the Saints pick at No. 27?
New Orleans Saints fans still have over three months left of waiting until their team makes its first-round selection, but it’s never too early for a 2014 mock draft.
After advancing to the divisional round of the NFC playoffs, the Saints hold the 27th overall pick in this year's NFL draft, which begins on May 8.
There has already been plenty of debate over what needs the Saints should address in the first round, as well as in the following rounds. Wide receiver, outside linebacker, cornerback and offensive tackle are all positions worthy of attention from the Saints' front office, and all potential prospects will likely be given strong consideration.
Following is the first 2014 Saints mock draft, featuring the ideal pick for New Orleans in each round.
Benjamin possesses impressive speed for a receiver of his size.
Of all the players the Saints have a legitimate shot at landing in the first round, Kelvin Benjamin is the most ideal.
In two matchups with the NFC Champion Seattle Seahawks, New Orleans’ wide receivers were outmanned and overwhelmed by Seattle's defensive backs. The fact that the Seahawks were able to lock down the Saints receivers in single coverage allowed them to devote extra bodies to help defend star tight end Jimmy Graham. As a result, quarterback Drew Brees struggled to find open targets in both games against Seattle.
The Seahawks weren't the only secondary that stymied the New Orleans passing game this season, but Pete Carroll’s young defense isn't going anywhere, and the Saints must upgrade their personnel if they want to get past Seattle in the coming years.
The 6'5" Benjamin would immediately upgrade the athleticism of the Saints’ receiving corps, and he would have an excellent shot to be the team's future No. 1 receiver.
Benjamin is long and rangy and has excellent hands, but he also has exceptional speed for a wideout of his size.
Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, Texas A&M’s Mike Evans and USC’s Marqise Lee are widely considered the draft’s top three receivers. Benjamin doesn't come quite as polished as this top-tier trio, and he joins a group of talented wideouts that are battling for position in the mid- to late-first round. These standouts include Donte Moncrief of Ole Miss, Odell Beckham Jr. of LSU, Allen Robinson of Penn State and Jordan Matthews of Vanderbilt.
If given the option, the Saints will find it difficult to pass on Benjamin. The question is, will he be available when they make their pick?
Gaines is a physical corner with adequate tackling skills.
With former starter Jabari Greer facing an uphill battle in his recovery from a severe knee injury and second-year man Corey White struggling for much of the latter portion of the season, New Orleans needs another cornerback on the roster who can contribute.
Late in the second round, top-shelf cornerback talents like Justin Gilbert and Darqueze Dennard will be long gone, and borderline first-rounders such as Jason Verrett and Bradley Roby aren’t likely to still be around.
There’s a good chance, however, that the Saints can grab E.J. Gaines of Missouri.
Gaines has a little of everything. He possesses decent size and adequate man coverage skills, and he's more than willing to come up and participate in run support.
In Missouri’s matchup with Texas A&M, Gaines shut down Mike Evans, limiting the projected top-10 pick to eight yards on four catches. By all indications, he’s a team-first player who has the potential to make a significant first-year contribution in Rob Ryan’s defense.
James celebrates with his teammates against Georgia.
Pass protection may have been the Saints' single biggest weakness in 2013. With the emergence of rookie Terron Armstead late in the season, though, the left tackle position appears to be in strong hands.
The right tackle slot is where things get dicey, as three-year starter Zach Strief is an unrestricted free agent. If the Saints elect to go wide receiver and corner in the first two rounds, the most ideal way to address this issue is to sign Strief to a short-term deal and draft Ja'Wuan James.
The Tennessee standout played right tackle for the overwhelming majority of his collegiate career, and he projects to play there in the NFL as well.
While Volunteers left tackle Antonio Richardson has garnered much of the pre-draft publicity, James is a noteworthy offensive tackle prospect in his own right. He has exceptional lower body strength, which aids him greatly in his run-blocking, and he's also an accomplished pass-blocker. James would be a solid pick for New Orleans in the third round.
Sam is a high-energy player who enjoys getting after the quarterback.
Outside linebacker is a position the Saints could very well choose to address early on in the draft. Of course, addressing deficiencies at weaker positions should come before building depth at the stronger ones, and outside linebacker is certainly not a glaring weakness at the moment for New Orleans.
Junior Galette racked up 12 sacks at the position in 2013, making quite the smooth transition into Ryan's defense. Victor Butler, a 2013 free-agent signee who was sidelined for the season with a knee injury, will likely snag the starting position opposite Galette.
While Galette and Butler will give New Orleans two reliable starters, the addition of an explosive speed-rushing linebacker would certainly add another dangerous dimension to Ryan’s swarming defense. Fortunately for the Saints, they may be able to wait until the fourth round to get one.
There obviously won’t be a can’t-miss pass-rusher such as Buffalo's Khalil Mack on the board at this point, but there should still be some solid options.
One of them could be Missouri’s Michael Sam. The consensus All-American played defensive end for coach Gary Pinkel’s squad but projects as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme such as the one New Orleans runs. Sam was a terror this past season for SEC quarterbacks, ringing up 11.5 sacks.
Other potential options at this spot include Alabama’s Adrian Hubbard and Auburn’s Dee Ford, but Sam would make for a quality addition to New Orleans' linebacking corps.
Richburg was one of college football's top centers in both 2012 and 2013.
Like Strief, Saints starting center Brian de la Puente is an unrestricted free agent. De la Puente is coming off a rather subpar season, but the Saints may elect to bring him back on a short-term deal while looking to the draft for a long-term fix.
Centers aren’t a hot commodity in the draft, and New Orleans could get a quality addition in the middle rounds. In the fifth round, Colorado State’s Weston Richburg could be a steal, if he’s still on the board.
Richburg has been one of the nation’s top centers for a couple of years now. He had a solid campaign as a senior 2013, and he didn’t get called for a single penalty for the entirety of this junior season in 2012. Being one of the draft’s top five centers, he would make an excellent value pick for New Orleans if he slips this far.
Whitley was frequently put to the test in the ranks of the SEC.
New Orleans could decide to go safety sooner than Round 6, especially considering the free-agent status of Malcolm Jenkins. Given that his skills as a playmaker are needed in Ryan's aggressive defense, there’s a strong possibility that Jenkins re-signs with the Saints. Nothing is certain, however, and the Saints will certainly be eyeing a number of safeties in the coming months.
Even if Jenkins returns, New Orleans will still want to add depth at the position, and in the sixth round, Nickoe Whitley would be an ideal selection.
Whitley made a name for himself as a ballhawk at Mississippi State. He totalled 12 interceptions over the past three seasons, including five in 2013. He does have a history with injuries, which has likely contributed to his stock slipping, but he would be a fine pickup for the Saints in the sixth round.
New Orleans has no seventh-round selection in 2014, as the team traded the pick to the San Francisco 49ers for linebacker Parys Haralson before the 2013 season began.
Championships are won on the field, but in the arm's race that is the NFC, the draft can be as crucial an event as any to a team's title hopes. While it's difficult to predict who will be available in a given round, the players mentioned here would all stand a good chance of being significant contributors to the New Orleans Saints in 2014 and beyond.