The murkiest NFL draft in years began Thursday night with more questions than answers, to be sure.
But a little more than two hours after it started with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell declaring that the 2014 NFL draft was officially open, Saints officials made sure things were crystal clear as far as they were concerned.
Addressing one of their few needs on the offensive side of the ball, the Saints traded up in the first round to get the man they hope will step in and replace Darren Sproles — Oregon State wide receiver Brandin Cooks.
When the draft started unfolding Thursday evening in New York City, the Saints sat back and waited to see how things would shake out before quickly leaping into action when Cooks’ name remained on the board.
To get a shot at Cooks, the Saints traded the 27th pick in the first round and their third-round selection (91st overall) to the Arizona Cardinals, who owned the 20th pick, and wasted little time in adding him to their vast offensive arsenal.
When Cooks was passed over by a couple of teams that needed a wide receiver, Saints coach Sean Payton said the decision to move up seven spots while giving up a third-round draft pick was well worth it.
Payton said the Saints still had three players left in their cloud after 19 picks were made, but at that point they became concerned that each of them might be gone by the time they picked at No. 27.
“In this case, it filled a need,” said Payton, whose team ranked second in the NFL in passing yards in 2013. “It was one of the positions we outlined going into the draft, and (Cooks) was also the highest-rated player that we had left.”
Cooks, a 5-foot-10, 186-pounder, became the fourth wide receiver to go off the draft board behind Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, Texas A&M’s Mike Evans and former LSU star Odell Beckham Jr.
Watkins went fourth to the Buffalo Bills, Evans was chosen seventh by the Tampa Bay Bucs and Beckham went with the 12th selection to the New York Giants — where he’ll catch passes from fellow Newman High School alum Eli Manning.
The Saints dealt the speedy Sproles, their jack-of-all-trades running back, receiver and kick returner, to the Philadelphia Eagles on March 13 for a fifth-round pick in this year’s draft.
So getting Cooks, who ran the 40-yard dash in a blazing 4.33 seconds at the NFL combine in late February, became a bigger priority for the Saints — who also released wide receiver Lance Moore a week before sending Sproles to the Eagles.
Cooks’ time at the combine was the fastest among all wideout candidates that were evaluated by hundreds of general managers, coaches and player personnel executives.
Even though the Saints finished fourth in total defense last season under first-year defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, they may have been looking on that side of the ball with their first-round pick —- possibly to add depth at cornerback or defensive end.
But seeing the opportunity to get a dynamic player like Cooks, who will get a chance to return punts and kickoffs and contribute on offense right away, took precedence.
Payton said the Saints decided that Cooks, the Biletnikoff Award winner as the nation’s top receiver in 2013, was the only one of the three players they were considering at No. 27 who they would trade up to get.
It worked out exactly liked they hoped it would, even though they had to part with another draft pick.
“We’re excited with our selection,” said Payton, who took an offensive player in the first round for only the second time since 2007. “We were able to move up and get a player we valued.
“The interesting thing about the early part of the draft was how the quarterbacks would go, and we hoped a number of them would kind of push back the players we had in our cloud. It didn’t work out that way, but it did with some other positions.”
Payton said Cooks is an impact player who should fit in well with Drew Brees and a lineup that already includes tight end Jimmy Graham and wide receivers Marques Colston and Kenny Stills.
“He’s a playmaker … he’s someone that the one thing about him was that he was a tough player both physically and mentally,” Payton said. “He’s durable and he obviously runs well, but I like his mental makeup. He’s got a lot of intangibles about him — other than his skill set — that we liked.”