Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews goes up for a pass in practice.
There are more college football all-star games now than ever before, but the Senior Bowl has long been the exhibition that NFL scouts give the most weight to.
As usual, this year’s crop of attendees doesn’t lack for talent. The Saints have numerous needs to address in the upcoming draft, and there’s a chance that one or more of their selections will be playing in Saturday’s contest.
Following is a Senior Bowl scouting guide from a New Orleans Saints perspective. The players are broken down by position, and the positions are ranked based on biggest need for the Saints.
Tulane's Ryan Grant is no stranger to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Wide receiver is certainly a position of need for the Saints. Of the team’s top four receivers in 2013, only one, Marques Colston, was a wideout.
Most of the highly rated wide receivers in this year’s draft class are underclassmen, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any gems at the Senior Bowl.
One receiver in Mobile this week who definitely has early-round potential is Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews. The Commodore standout holds the SEC career records for both receptions and receiving yards, and he set the single-season conference record for receptions in 2013. Matthews has had a good week of practice, and he’ll get plenty of looks from Saints scouts on Saturday.
Wisconsin’s Jared Abbrederis also stood out in workouts this week, but he pulled a hamstring and won’t be playing in the game. UCLA’s Shaq Evans hasn’t done anything to hurt his stock in drills, and he’ll likely get several balls thrown his way during Saturday’s contest.
Mike Davis of Texas, Solomon Patton of Florida and Ryan Grant of Tulane are other receivers who will get plenty of attention from New Orleans scouts, as the Saints are likely looking to inject more youth into a position loaded with aging veterans.
Zack Martin was an All-American in 2012.
There’s an abundance of quality offensive lineman in this year’s draft, and the position appears to be well represented at the Senior Bowl.
New Orleans is in far greater need of tackles than guards, as three-year starting right tackle Zach Strief is an unrestricted free agent.
One prospect that could get attention from the Saints is Notre Dame’s Zack Martin. The 2013 Fighting Irish team captain is a versatile lineman who can play either guard or tackle. While his abilities as a run-blocker are desirable from any guard, his utterly dominant all-around performance in the Pin Stripe Bowl lends credence to the theory that he’ll stay at tackle in the NFL.
Another intriguing tackle prospect is Seantrel Henderson of Miami. At 6’8” and 335 pounds, Henderson undoubtedly looks the part. The former top-rated high school recruit had an up-and-down career at Miami, and he’ll be primed to showcase his talents against top-notch competition in Saturday’s game.
Other tackles to watch for are Virginia’s Morgan Moses and North Dakota State’s Billy Turner.
Center is another position of need for New Orleans. Like Strief, 2013 starter Brian de la Puente is a free agent, and his future with the organization is uncertain. Weston Richburg of Colorado State has been one of the nation’s best centers for the past two seasons. Saints officials will likely be eyeing his performance in the Senior Bowl with keen interest.
Stanley Jean-Baptiste has great size for a cornerback.
New Orleans has one of the more reliable corners in the league in Keenan Lewis. The other corner slot was occupied by Jabari Greer until he went down with an injury midway through the season. Corey White stepped in and had his moments, but he was shaky at other times.
Depth at the position is a big need for New Orleans, and there are a number of quality corners working out this week at the Senior Bowl.
Among them is Nebraska’s Stanley Jean-Baptiste. The All-Big Ten selection is one of the more physically imposing corners in this draft class, and his 6’3”, 220-pound frame is prototypical of the larger cover corners NFL teams are now looking for.
Other standouts to keep an eye on are Dontae Johnson of North Carolina State, Lavelle Westbrooks of Georgia Southern and Dez Southward of Wisconsin.
This year’s wild card at the corner position is Pierre Desir of Lindonwood (Division II), who has turned more than a few heads in practices. Desir drew rave reviews from NFLDraftScout.com’s Dane Brugler earlier this week, and it wouldn’t be a shock if he were on the Saints’ radar.
Dee Ford is a 'tweener,' but he projects as a linebacker in a 3-4 defense.
Linebacker looks to be the deepest position at this year’s Senior Bowl.
The highest-rated attendees are Stanford’s Trent Murphy and BYU’s Kyle Van Noy, whose outstanding performances in 2013 earned both prospects plenty of attention in Mobile this week.
With Junior Galette and Victor Butler already on board, outside linebacker is not the most pressing of needs for the Saints, but they do need to add some depth at the position. As a result, there’s a good chance that an outside linebacker will get a call from the team on draft day.
One Senior Bowl participant the Saints could by eyeing is Auburn’s Dee Ford. The All-SEC defensive end projects a linebacker in a 3-4 scheme such as the one New Orleans runs, and he’s been impressive in drills this week.
Other solid 3-4 outside backer prospects include Missouri’s Michael Sam, Florida State’s Telvin Smith, Alabama's Adrian Hubbard and Louisville's Marcus Smith.
On the inside, New Orleans has Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne, both of whom had solid campaigns in 2013. Depth is an issue here as well, though, and there are several former collegiate standouts in Mobile this week who could be in play for the Saints.
Florida State’s Christian Jones tops the list. The All-ACC selection was instrumental in the Seminoles' run to the national championship this season, and he’s been sharp in practices this week.
Another inside 'backer to watch for on Saturday is UCLA’s Jordan Zumwalt, who plays the game with great intensity and competitive fire.
Terrence Brooks was instrumental in the Seminoles' run to the national title.
At the safety position, rookie Kenny Vacarro had a solid rookie season for New Orleans, and Saints fans are excited about his future with the team. Veteran starter Malcolm Jenkins, meanwhile, is a free agent. New Orleans will be looking to cover its bases in case Jenkins doesn’t return, and the Senior Bowl isn’t a bad place to start.
The safety crop at this year’s game isn’t quite as deep as the cornerback pool, but there are still some noteworthy prospects.
Florida State’s Terrence Brooks and Vanderbilt’s Kenny Ladler were two of the top free safeties in college football this season, and both could go in the middle rounds of the draft.
LSU’s Craig Loston has quite the penchant for laying huge hits on opposing receivers, but like a lot of strong safeties, he has his difficulties in coverage.
Ahmad Dixon of Baylor is another big hitter, and the Saints may give him a hard look as a potential middle- to late-round selection.
With regards to quarterback, running back and defensive line, these positions are considered strengths for the Saints. It wouldn’t be a surprise, though, to see New Orleans add depth to any of these spots with a late-round draft pick.
Like most NFL squads, the Saints have had a strong presence in Mobile this week. Saturday’s game will cap off a week of evaluations of the nation’s top college football seniors, and more than one of these standouts could easily find themselves donning the Black and Gold next fall.