New Orleans Saints: 2014 NFL Draft Wrap-Up and Analysis
The New Orleans Saints’ 2014 draft was enigmatic as much as anything else. Three great picks, three question marks. Talent abounds among the group of draftees, but collegiate production was not stressed as much as is ideal.
The six Saints draft picks, though, were quite diverse. Among them are a 5’10” receiver, a 6’3” cornerback, a Cal-Berkeley transfer from Penn State, a college coach’s son, a No. 1 overall high school recruit and a player who played at three separate junior colleges before finally making it to Kansas State.
And the Saints didn’t stop there. As is typical, Mickey Loomis and scouting director Ryan Pace worked late into Saturday night to bring in a truly talented group of undrafted players. They'll join the drafted players this week at the Saints’ practice facility in Metairie before they participate in rookie mini-camp Friday through Sunday.
A few of the positions the Saints were thought to be interested in addressing in the 2014 draft were left alone almost entirely. Center, tight end and quarterback were ignored altogether in the draft. And each position was only given one undrafted signee post-draft.
Sean Payton did not want to discuss Saturday night whether the team would address the center position some other way in the future, but admitted, “We had a handful of centers on the board and just never, really never matched … We are finishing up this seventh and we will continue to look in the post draft process for guys that we feel like fit that role as someone that can come in.”
Payton, in his press conference, admitted the Saints considered SEC quarterbacks Aaron Murray, A.J. McCarron and Zach Mettenberger at different points on Day 3, “those three players were guys we looked closely at and began to see a value once it got into the later rounds … They were in the discussion and talked about.”
Two other major themes arose, especially from Saturday’s selections.
Each of the four selections on Saturday were players who sustained a major injury in college. However, only Vinnie Sunseri suffered his injury in the past year and is yet to have played a game with his reconstructed knee.
Speaking of the evaluation and discussion process of drafting a player with medical concerns, Payton said, “All of those things are taken into account and are a part of the process. We felt pretty good where these guys are at and yet recognize the rehab they have gone through. All but Vinnie have played a full season at least, if not two.”
And of course, special teams was a huge factor on Day 3. Payton admitted that a big part of their immediate plan, especially for Sunseri and Fortt, is to have those players contribute on special teams.
“The punt return game is something we want to work to improve and that is kind of a point of emphasis this offseason,” Payton said. “I think finding young players, when you draft them it is important to have a vision as to what is your vision for the player.”
It’s no coincidence that the punt return game was discussed with having a vision for these draft picks—especially as guys coming off major injuries.
All quotes taken from neworleanssaints.com. Full transcript available here.
Round 1, Pick No. 20: Brandin Cooks, WR/RB/Returner, Oregon State
Round 2, Pick No. 58: Stanley Jean-Baptiste, CB, Nebraska
Round 4, Pick No. 126: Khairi Fortt, ILB, California-Berkeley
Round 5, Pick No. 167: Vinnie Sunseri, S, Alabama
Round 5, Pick No. 169: Ronald Powell, OLB, Florida
Round 6, Pick No. 202: Tavon Rooks, OT, Kansas State
As mentioned previously, the Saints knocked three picks out of the park, while three other picks left us scratching our collective heads. Brandin Cooks figures to be an impact player from Day 1. With elite route-running ability, quickness, speed and leaping ability he has the full package.
Cooks’ college coach at Oregon State, former Saints assistant Mike Riley, in an interview with Jeff Duncan of nola.com talked about Cooks’ versatility, “We kept trying to find ways to get the ball in his hands. We ran screens to him and used him on sweep reverses. He returned kicks. He ran all the routes, especially the deep ones.“
It’s funny that Cooks is 5’10” as a receiver, when the Saints’ choice at cornerback, Stanley Jean-Baptiste, stands 6’3”. Payton spoke on Friday night about the pick being the Saints placing their own emphasis on getting taller in the secondary, but having nothing to do with Richard Sherman.
“A year-and-a-half ago, starting before last year’s draft, we’ve made an effort to really put a high value on size, and we’ve been able to do that defensively.”
Payton likes that Jean-Baptiste can play press-man coverage and has good ball skills.
But the corner has his detractors, such as getting lost in coverage from time to time and some stiff hips. Time will tell with Jean-Baptiste. It will also tell with Khairi Fortt—the Saints’ fourth round pick. Fortt was not someone on my radar whatsoever.
Payton intimated that Fortt will play inside linebacker and look to contribute on special teams. The special teams part was very true for Sunseri. It is the primary reason the Saints drafted the undersized safety from Alabama.
Make no mistake, he and fellow fifth-round pick, Ronald Powell, have a real opportunity to contribute on defense over the next few years. Both are instinctive, high-character workers who love football.
Payton likes that sixth-round pick Tavon Rooks—as well as the other picks—faced adversity in their career. Rooks played at three separate junior colleges and faced a major injury while at Kansas State.
Adversity is probably the primary trait each of these players have in common. They’ll all overcome it to get to this point. For that reason this group of players are ideal for New Orleans. It just seems approximately half of them were selected when more talented players were available.
Best Pick: Ronald Powell, OLB, Florida
With apologies to Brandin Cooks and Vinnie Sunseri—the other two players I considered for this acknowledgment—Ronald Powell earns the nod as the best selection for the Saints in this draft.
It’s not about immediate value or impact. It is unlikely that Powell will earn defensive rookie of the year honors, or even see the field extensively in 2014. It’s about value.
Finding a player as immensely talented as Powell in the fifth round—at pick No. 169 overall, nonetheless—is beyond belief. Powell was the No. 1 high school recruit coming out of Moreno Valley, Calif., in 2010.
Two knee surgeries later, Powell missed the entire 2012 season, but came back to lead the Gators in sacks and quarterback hurries in 2013. Still less than two years removed from two major surgeries, Powell ran 4.62 40-yard dash at February’s NFL Combine, while benching 225 pounds 21 times.
At his Pro Day, he bettered his own bench mark by three. Powell was described by his former defensive coordinator, Dan Quinn, as a leader and someone with great attitude.
On film, Powell shows tremendous burst off the snap of the football. He has great agility, violent hands and power—all essential for long-term success as an NFL pass-rusher.
It’s impossible to project just what kind of impact Powell can make this year, or any year going forward. But with all the information available it seems likely Powell will become one of the better players ever picked 169th overall.
For a more comprehensive scouting report, click here.
Worst Pick: Khairi Fortt, ILB, California-Berkeley
If you could see my fingers right now, you’d see they are split so narrowly apart they’re actually touching. That’s how close I was to giving this award of incompetence to the Saints’ sixth round selection of Kansas State offensive tackle Tavon Rooks.
One thing changed my mind: Pierre Desir was on the board when the Saints instead chose Cal inside linebacker Khairi Fortt. Whereas the Rooks selection makes very little sense, since he was ranked by nfldraftscout.com as the 69th best tackle in this draft, and even lower on ESPN’s Scouts Inc. That is dumb.
But Payton talked the night before about how the Saints have begun valuing size much more than in the past. That reasoning was used to explain the Stanley Jean-Baptiste selection in the second round.
It's fine that the Saints had a higher grade on Jean-Baptiste—presumably because he has two inches on Desir. But Desir is 6’1” with fluid hips and insane play-making skills. Unlike Jean-Baptiste, Desir projects to be able to move inside to cover slot receivers—something he could do immediately.
And the Saints know, based on last season—and even seasons prior to that—that it is impossible to ever have too many corners. The Saints could have easily come back with Sunseri and Powell in the same spots they took them in the fifth round.
When the Saints selected in the sixth round, Andrew Jackson—an inside linebacker I’d been touting to New Orleans since a week-plus before the draft—happened to be available. Oddly, he was taken by Indianapolis one pick after the Saints took Rooks.
Doubling down on tall corners would have been a way for the Saints scouting department to hedge their bet. Between Jean-Baptiste and Desir, surely one of them would have become a solid starting corner. Now they’re hedging their bet on Jean-Baptiste alone—a player most scouts had ranked below Desir.
And that misses the fact that Fortt is coming off a major knee injury—though two years removed—and was never an impact player at the college level. He made a lot of tackles at Cal on a bad defense. But he never made big plays.
As I wrote of Fortt immediately following the selection, he’s not very sound in terms of the angles he takes to the football. When he gets to the football, he also happens to be a shoddy tackler.
In a quick phrase, the better selection at No. 126 would have been Pierre Desir.
Undrafted Free Agents
While the Saints had by-and-large a hit-or-miss draft, they seem to have hit on a couple of really good prospects in the priority free agent market following the draft. Following is a brief description of each player signed since the draft ended on Saturday night.
Spencer Hadley, LB, Brigham Young
Hadley was a standout player at BYU the past few seasons—even with the more heralded “Ziggy” Ansah and Kyle Van Noy playing on the same defense. He has a chance to make this team as a special teams ace and develop into a sub-package defender.
George Uko, DT, Southern California
In terms of value, the acquisition of George Uko could potentially bring much more benefit than the seventh overall selection that another former Trojan defensive lineman—Sedrick Ellis—brought. Uko figures to compete at defensive end in New Orleans.
Seantavius Jones, WR, Valdosta State
Jones represents one of three potential Marques Colston replacements. At 6’3”, 209 pounds Jones has the size to become a great red zone threat.
Brandon Coleman, WR, Rutgers
At 6’6”, 225 pounds Coleman is an absolute beast. Matt Miller had Coleman going 93rd to the Patriots in his final mock draft and his 25th best receiver, No. 170 overall on his big board. Like Jones, he is an ideal fit as a possible Colston replacement.
Logan Kilgore, QB, Middle Tennessee State
The 6’3” quarterback was an accurate passer—61 percent career completion percentage—at Middle Tennessee State. He’s a nice developmental prospect.
Tim Flanders, RB, Sam Houston State
Tim Flanders scored 15 total touchdowns in his senior season at Sam Houston State and averaged nearly 6.0 yards per carry.
Micajah Reynolds, OL, Michigan State
Reynolds began his career at Michigan State on the interior of the offensive line before moving to defense in his junior season. According to this article from the Lansing State Journal’s Brian Calloway, he will move back to the offensive line in New Orleans.
Pierre Warren, S, Jacksonville State
Warren is a big safety—at 6’0”, 194 pounds who ran a 4.59 40-yard dash at his Pro Day earlier this spring.
Ty Zimmerman, S, Kansas State
The 6’1”, 202 pound safety from Kansas State scored two defensive touchdowns in his senior year in Manhattan, KS.
Brian Dixon, CB, Northwest Missouri State
Dixon is another tall corner—6’0”—who has recorded a 4.41 40-yard dash.
Lawrence Virgil, DE, Valdosta State
The second Valdosta State signee—Virgil is quite strong. He benched 225 pounds 39 times at his Pro Day.
Matt Armstrong, C, Grand Valley State
Armstrong is the former college teammate of Saints’ incumbent starter Tim Lelito, and high school teammate of fellow priority free agent signee Micajah Reynolds.
Trashaun Nixon, LB, New Mexico State
Despite his small stature for a linebacker, Nixon recorded 5.5 sacks, six passes defensed and four forced fumbles in his final season for the Aggies.
Brandon McCray, DT, Louisiana-Lafayette
McCray is a massive human being—6’5”, 318 pounds. He is yet to have put it altogether on the football though.
Kasim Edebali, OLB, Boston College
The Hamburg, Germany native registered 8.5 sacks in his final season on Chestnut Hill.
Chidera Uzo-Diribe, OLB, Colorado
Uzo-Diribe finished his college career with 30.5 sacks and managed to force five fumbles in his senior season in Boulder.
Nic Jacobs, TE, McNeese State
Jacobs played at LSU until 2012, then transferred to McNeese State to finish his college career. In 2013, he caught 32 passes for 453 yards and four touchdowns.
Je’Ron Hamm, WR, Louisiana-Monroe
Hamm is the last of three receivers who could one day replace Marques Colston. At 233 pounds he is the thickest of the bunch.
What's Next for the New Orleans Saints?
For the most part, the Saints did everything they set out to do in the draft—at least when combining the draft with the priority free-agent signings.
The three big receivers they signed should yield an eventual Marques Colston replacement.
Nabbing Brandin Cooks was a coup that should net immediate results as he takes over Darren Sproles' role in the offense and proves more than capable. He may even add another dimension with his ability to catch the ball down the field.
Nic Jacobs is a great prospect as an all-in-one tight end who can block and catch the ball down the field. It is the Saints' hope that he can one day become the second tight end behind Jimmy Graham.
And the team brought in several guys who have shown they know how to rush the passer at the college level. At least one of them ought to become the eventual answer to who starts opposite Junior Galette.
With Stanley Jean-Baptiste and the other defensive backs brought in, they got bigger in the secondary, which should allow them to better defend the giant receiving corps that now occupy the NFC South.
Yet the one area that remains a question mark is the center position. It really was the lone position entering the draft that seemed to have a bright neon sign blinking “Need”!
Sean Payton literally did not want to talk about it in his post-draft press conference, but signing former Saint Jonathan Goodwin to man the middle for at least one season remains a stark possibility.
Still, the Saints got deeper and more talented this weekend. May 16-18 will be the first chance for the coaches to teach and evaluate which of these players can make this roster and contribute in 2014 and beyond.