Stock Up, Stock Down for New Orleans Saints' Top Draft Targets
The New Orleans Saints wrapped up the 2013 season with an 11-5 record and a playoff victory. A big reason for the team's return to the postseason was that its defense was vastly improved over that of 2012.
With the emergence of first-round picks Cameron Jordan and Kenny Vaccaro, among others, the defense went from 31st in points allowed to fourth. Combine that with the team's usual high-power offense led by Drew Brees and you have a good team foundation.
That does not mean there aren't areas to improve. Lance Moore's departure leaves a hole at wide receiver that the Saints may want to fill with their first-round pick, and they need an everyday starter next to Keenan Lewis at cornerback. (Even if Champ Bailey pans out, they still need a future starter.) Adding an extra pass-rusher and some offensive line depth wouldn't hurt either.
With the draft hours away, players that the Saints could take with the 27th overall pick vary, and by picking so late there's no way of knowing who may be available.
Here are five players who are likely targets. And we'll evaluate their stock heading into the draft.
Dee Ford, DE, Auburn
It may not be the most pressing need, but if a quality pass-rusher is available, it's entirely possible that the Saints grab him. The most likely player to fall in that category is Auburn's Dee Ford.
Dee Ford's Senior Bowl performance catapulted him into first-round discussion, but it's his agility and burst off the snap that have kept him there. He has a bit of developing to do, but he is not completely a project and has the potential to be a starter as a rookie.
The Saints are not averse to drafting projects to play in the trenches—they drafted Terron Armstead after all—and if Ford can perform that is what matters.
That being said, the only drafts I've found where Ford is a first-round selection are those in which the Saints grab him, such as in Dane Brugler's mock draft. The first round is bit of a reach for Ford, especially since the Saints could just as easily take the best player available, which may be a better use of the pick.
Marqise Lee, WR, USC
Marqise Lee could be a value pick near the end of the first round if you're looking at his 2012 numbers. This year, however, he's projected as a late first-round selection, and is at best a top three wide receiver in the draft.
The 6'0" Lee is not going to be a top-tier receiver, but has great straight-line speed and is athletic enough to fool defenders and make them miss. The fact that he is not afraid to get physical despite his lack of size will help him greatly in the NFL as well.
Lee's playing style fits perfectly with the Saints' offensive system. He can replace the departed Lance Moore and be expected to notch a minimum of 750 yards. His ability to contribute immediately is what led Rob Rang of CBS Sports to plug Lee into the Saints in his latest mock draft.
Despite a need at wide receiver, it would surprise me if the Saints grabbed one here, since they have Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham handling enough of the load. Even if they did want to acquire one, the depth at wide receiver in this draft is significant enough that New Orleans can wait until later to find a receiver just as good as Lee.
Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
As someone who watched Ohio State's Bradley and never considered him first-round material—that combined with an off-field issue earlier this month—I am continually surprised to see him projected to land in the first round of this year's draft.
That being said, there is a set of cornerbacks expected to go late in the first round, and if the Saints feel that they need a cornerback, they may need to grab one early before the quality drops, as the depth is much more questionable there than at wide receiver.
If Roby returns to his 2013 form, however, than the pick makes a lot more sense. The Saints need a cornerback, and if Roby can make last year seem like a fluke, then he should be able to perform well, especially since he'll be the team's number two corner and won't have to take the best receiver every time.
The possibility of Roby could all be a smokescreen for the Saints to take the best cornerback available if another falls to them, however, and with cornerbacks Jason Verrett and Kyle Fuller rapidly climbing draft boards, the only way this pick would happen is if the Saints felt panicked, which I can't see happening.
Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State
From one Ohio State prospect to another, Ryan Shazier has fallen under the radar somewhat compared to teammate Roby. Despite that, he could end up being selected first, and could easily have the better career of the two.
Shazier is a playmaker on the edge who, first and foremost, is athletic and quick. More importantly, he has great ball awareness, and is able to adjust to the play as it is being made, making him that much more valuable as an outside linebacker.
Peter King's mock draft has the Saints selecting Shazier due to his disruptive presence and production at Ohio State (which included 23.5 tackles for loss in 2013). It's not as pressing a need as other positions, but a quality pass-rusher who an help against the run is hard to pass up.
Should Shazier fall to No. 26 overall, it would be both a best-player-available selection, and it would fill a need, though it is a small one. Shazier could work opposite Junior Galette and make for a pair of feared pass-rushers in the NFC South.
Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
The Saints need to take a cornerback early in the draft, even if Champ Bailey is able to perform like the Champ Bailey of old.
TCU's Jason Verrett looks like the kind of prospect who could be a strong complement to incumbent corner Keenan Lewis.
Despite being undersized, Verrett is an aggressive cornerback who is not afraid to go after larger receivers. His size might keep him from being a shutdown player but his quickness and ballhawking skills would, at worst, would make him a highly productive slot corner.
More importantly, as Don Banks of Sports Illustrated notes in his mock draft, Verrett is precisely the type of player whom defensive coordinator Rob Ryan would want. The question is simply whether or not Sean Payton and the front office agrees with him.
I would like to see this selection, but with the uptick in interest in this year's crop of cornerbacks, Verrett has gone from being a late first-round pick to a mid-to-late first-round selection; he may not be available at the 27th overall pick.
Should he be there though, I'd be surprised if the Saints passed on him.