2013 fifth-round selection Kenny Stills enjoyed a productive rookie season in New Orleans.
As the 2014 NFL draft slowly draws near, New Orleans Saints front office officials are undoubtedly searching diligently for potential late-round sleepers who could make for perfect fits in their system.
Unlike last season, New Orleans will have a full complement of early round picks, and the Saints will be looking to close the gap on the newly crowned Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks.
While the first-, second- and third-round picks will draw the most attention, late-round picks are vital to a team’s long-term success.
The Saints have no seventh-round pick this year, but they’ll still have opportunities to pad their depth in rounds 4 through 6.
Here, ranked according to ability to make immediate contributions, are seven sleepers who would be perfect for the New Orleans Saints in the late rounds.
Ladler stood out during Senior Bowl practices.
One potential late-round sleeper at the safety spot is Vanderbilt’s Kenny Ladler. The 2014 Senior Bowl invitee recorded 87 tackles in 2013, and he led the Commodores with 90 stops in 2012.
Ladler is a versatile player who does a lot of things well, but if there’s one aspect of his game that would attract the Saints, it’s his skills as a playmaker.
The 6’0”, 205-pounder had five forced fumbles and five interceptions this past season. His ability to force turnovers is a trait that can’t be ignored on draft day and would make him a fine fit in Rob Ryan’s attacking defense.
Ladler is also adept at play recognition, and he’s a big hitter who has always been fond of contact.
So, why is he not a first-day pick?
The answer is that his change of direction is less than ideal for a first-rounder. He also has a bad tendency to overpursue and needs to play with more discipline.
Regardless of these shortcomings, Ladler is a solid all-around football player. If the Saints draft him, they would immediately be bringing another ball-hawking defensive back into the fold.
Like Ladler, Grant was also impressive at the 2014 Senior Bowl.
If New Orleans elects not to address its glaring need for wide receiver help early in the draft, Tulane’s Ryan Grant would make for a quality late-round selection.
The Texas native is already quite familiar with the artificial turf at the Superdome, where he played home games at Tulane. In addition, he was coached in college by former Saints assistant Curtis Johnson, who incorporated Saints coach Sean Payton’s base offense into the Green Wave playbook.
Grant is only 6’0,” but he’s solidly built at nearly 200 pounds and plays even bigger. He held his own with the more highly publicized wideouts at this year’s Senior Bowl, and he brings good route-running and soft hands to the table.
He’s not as fast, however, as other smaller wideouts in this year's draft class, which runs deep with wide receiver talent.
Grant is currently projected to go from the fourth to the sixth round, but his stock is rising. His familiarity with the Saints offense, along with his other attributes, make him a viable option for New Orleans in the later rounds.
Johnson brings a physical brand of football to the cornerback position.
Cornerback is another position the Saints could easily choose to address early on in the draft, but in the event they don’t, there should still be plenty of available talent for them to address the position in the later rounds.
A potential sleeper at corner is Dontae Johnson of North Carolina State. More than ever before, teams are looking for tall lengthy cornerbacks, and Johnson fits the bill.
The 6’2” converted linebacker recorded 82 tackles in 2014, which is quite the high number for a corner. In addition to his willingness to participate in run support, Johnson is an accomplished cover man. He picked off three passes in 2014, and often forced quarterbacks to throw away from him.
Johnson plays the game with passion, and he brings an aggressive disposition to the corner spot. He doesn’t have the best hands, however, and has failed to come down with a number of potential interceptions throughout his career.
His current draft projections span a wide range. He’s viewed as high as a fourth-round pick and as low as an undrafted free agent signee. Taking his size and physical style of play into account, Johnson would be a nice late-round pickup for the Saints.
Shayne Graham joined the Saints following the release of veteran Garrett Hartley.
Considering the difficulties the Saints had this past season in the kicking game, placekicker is not a position they should take lightly, and they may be looking to draft one in the late rounds.
Of course, there’s always the option of signing an undrafted free agent kicker, but the better collegiate kickers often hear their names called on draft day. Instead of plunging into the risky free agent kicker market, New Orleans should strongly consider bringing in a reliable placekicker via the draft.
Chandler Catanzarro would be a great choice, as the Clemson Tiger was as sure-footed a kicker as college football had to offer this season. He was 13-for-14 in 2013 in the field goal department, and he was perfect on kicks of 40 yards or more, which included a 51-yarder.
Kicking is an extremely important aspect of the game, and it’s an area that was unsatisfactory for New Orleans this past season, all the way through the team’s playoff exit in Seattle. Catanzarro is a potential late-round selection who could prove to be a difference maker.
Jackson wreaked havoc on opposing running backs all season in 2013.
Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne both enjoyed their best seasons in New Orleans uniforms, but the Saints still lack depth at the inside linebacker position.
In the late rounds, Andrew Jackson of Western Kentucky could prove to be a steal.
The 260-pound Jackson is a highly energetic inside ‘backer who enjoys playing the role of punishing tackler. He sheds blocks well, excels at play recognition and drives through ball-carriers with relentless intensity. He was projected as a potential early-round pick following a fantastic junior year in 2012, but he elected to return for his senior year.
Why the drop this season?
Jackson has less than desired height for an inside linebacker at 6’1,” and he’s not as agile as scouts would prefer, which will limit him in pass coverage. He also made his mark playing in the Sun Belt, which isn’t exactly top-shelf competition.
In addition, Jackson was suspended by Western Kentucky coach Bobby Petrino in the middle of the season for an undisclosed rules violation. He’ll assuredly have to answer for the incident come interview time in the coming months.
Recent projections have Jackson going anywhere from the third to the seventh round. If the Saints can snag him in the fifth, they’ll be getting another tough, hard-nosed run-stopper at a great value.
Johnson is another player who turned in a strong performance during Senior Bowl week.
New Orleans’ 2013 starting right tackle Zach Strief is an unrestricted free agent, as is starting center Brian de la Puente.
Considering the obvious uncertainty regarding both players, the Saints may bring in offensive line help in the early rounds of the draft. If they don’t, however, Wesley Johnson of Vanderbilt would be a nice pickup in the later rounds.
Johnson’s greatest strengths are his versatility and durability. He started games at center, guard and tackle for the Commodores, and he registered more starts than any player in Vanderbilt football history. He was a full-time starter since his freshman season of 2010, and he played well against probable Top-5 pick Jadeveon Clowney of South Carolina this past year.
The 6’5,” 295-pounder is an intelligent, hard-working player who’s certain to get the most out of his ability at the professional level.
As far as his weaknesses, Johnson is a bit on the small side for an NFL lineman. He’s not as lengthy as some of the more elite tackle prospects, and he lacks the power of a dominant run-blocking guard.
Johnson’s ability to play multiple positions should earn him a call by Day 3. With the Saints having multiple needs to address along the offensive line, there’s a good chance he could be on their radar.
Lynch is a gifted athlete who could develop nicely in the Saints' system.
Every draft has its share of “projects.” These prospects are often superior athletes, who, for varying reasons, haven’t quite developed the skills necessary to be deemed worthy of first-round status. Some go on to achieve their full potential with the aid of proper coaching, while others fade into obscurity.
Some raw but athletically gifted draft picks that have worked out well for the Saints recently include tight end Jimmy Graham and defensive end Akiem Hicks.
One such player that could be worth the gamble for New Orleans this year is Aaron Lynch.
The 6’6” South Florida product started out at Notre Dame before transferring after his freshman season. He only played one season for the Bulls before opting to try his hand at the next level, and he doesn’t have a lot of game film to his credit. What he does have is a tremendous first step off the edge as a pass-rusher.
At 260 pounds, Lynch would likely play outside linebacker in Ryan’s 3-4 scheme. He’s a strong prospect with a huge upside, and he won’t likely reach his full potential for a couple of seasons.
Lynch’s biggest drawback is his tendency to take plays off. He had stretches where he seemed to disappear, which is far from a desired trait in a draft pick.
If the timing is right, however, the Saints could pull the trigger on Lynch and thus add an explosive pass-rusher to the roster.
Late-round draft picks can often make the difference between a solid NFL team and a Super Bowl team.
On the Saints' current roster, prolific wide receiver Marques Colston was a seventh-round pick in 2006. Just last year, fifth-round wideout selection Kenny Stills enjoyed a productive rookie season.
Evaluating college talent isn’t an exact science, and every NFL team will experience both hits and misses in the war room, especially in the later rounds. The seven prospects discussed above all bring intriguing attributes to the table, and one or more of them could be high on the New Orleans Saints’ radar as potential late-round sleepers.