It started with a text message.
After Jeff Ireland saw Ryan Pace was leaving New Orleans to become general manager of the Chicago Bears, he shot Saints GM Mickey Loomis a message that simply read, “Keep me in mind.”
The seed was planted.
A few weeks later, the former Miami Dolphins general manager was sitting down to eat a meal with Loomis. The two decided their priorities and views meshed, and Ireland was hired to be the Saints’ assistant general manager.
The fit felt natural since Ireland sought Loomis’ advice during previous stops in Dallas and Miami.
“Mickey’s been a mentor of mine. As a young personnel guy moving up, he was someone I would call on for advice and information,” said Ireland, who replaced former director of college scouting Rick Reiprish. “You guys all know Mickey; he’s a gentleman. He’s a very good executive, and he’s made some good decisions for this franchise. He’s someone I look up to.”
It’s been an easy transition. Ireland has served as a sounding board for Loomis on personnel issues, including the recent trade for former Dolphins linebacker Dannell Ellerbe. Despite having first-hand knowledge of Ellerbe after signing him in Miami, Ireland said he was not the architect behind acquiring the linebacker in a trade for Kenny Stills. He only offered input when asked.
But despite having input on certain issues, Ireland made it clear that Loomis and coach Sean Payton still run the show.
His primary task is to oversee the draft and work with the college scouting department.
Ireland has jumped into this task head on. He was at LSU’s Pro Day on Friday and was recently spotted at Clemson, where he watched linebacker Stephone Anthony. He also has other upcoming trips planned, including one to Florida State.
It has taken some time for him to get up to speed. Ireland was a draft consultant for the Seattle Seahawks last season but spent the year out of football. He continued to keep an eye on college players so he would be familiar with the class when he landed a job, but he did not fill out any scouting reports and had to get caught up.
Ireland did say he gained a new appreciation for the game by being away from it.
“I missed it so much,” he said. “I missed the relationships that you have in football.”
One area where Ireland had to make an adjustment was in the way he fills out scouting reports and grades players. Every team and staff has its own grading system and language. Instead of taking over and having the team do things his way, he has worked to integrate himself into New Orleans’ pre-existing system.
Ireland is exited about the prospects of this year’s draft. New Orleans has nine picks overall, including five in the first three rounds. Ireland said that gives the team options, and he noted the Saints have the flexibility to do whatever they want — particularly early in the draft.
If the team wants to move up for a player it likes, it has the currency to do so with a pair of first-round selections, an early second-round pick and two in the third. With all the picks being accumulated in recent weeks, Ireland was asked whether he demanded nine picks when he signed on with the team.
“That was a perquisite. No, of course not,” Ireland said. “But I’m certainly glad to have them. That can certainly help a franchise get back on its feet.”
The Saints have several areas they can address in the early rounds. The team still could use more pass rushers and help at linebacker. A cornerback could be added for depth and an interior offensive lineman likely will be sought to serve as depth and eventually move into a starting role. And it wouldn’t be surprising if a wide receiver is selected at some point.
In Ireland’s opinion, this is a good year to have a lot of picks. He sees good depth in several of those positions and is confident the Saints will find players who can come in and help.
“Every draft is going to have strength at certain positions,” Ireland said. “This particular draft, there’s some good, young pass rushers, there’s some good corners, there’s some good offensive linemen. I don’t really see a weakness in the draft.”
If Ireland can help turn this team around and get it back on track after last season’s 7-9 finish, that text message to Loomis might end up being one of the most important in franchise history.