INDIANAPOLIS — The Saints won't know how good this draft class looks until it sets its draft board the second way.
The horizontal axis has a list of players ranked by position, and that is already coming together. The best linebacker at the top. The worst one at the bottom. The order of some of those players will change over time. Maybe someone will run better than expected here at the NFL combine, which will cause the scouting staff to go back and re-evaluate the player.
But the Saints will truly figure out the strength of the class they form the vertical axis. That is how the players are ordered, top to bottom, and that's when coach Sean Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis and assistant general manager Jeff Ireland will be able to sit back and see how many players the Saints have given first-round grades.
"It's when I start putting them in there vertically because I'll do it two ways, is when it's, 'Oh my God, we have 37 first-rounders. Holy cow, it's a strong draft," Ireland said. "It's never happened, but it's a strong draft. Or you have 37 second-rounders and 42 third-rounders."
It was during this process last year that the Saints decided to shut down any talk of making a trade that involved draft capital. When New Orleans saw how deep the draft class was, it realized giving away a pick would be too costly.
In Payton's mind, at least, any trade involving the second-rounder would have meant trading away Alvin Kamara. That wasn't something Payton was willing to do after he saw how the vertical axis formed.
"More and more and more pick 2-10 became too important to think about trading. There was too much depth," Payton said. "Pick 2-10 was really Kamara. 2-10 was Kamara in our mind, my mind. Marcus Williams who was by our grade 1-27, 1-28 — in other words, 28th-ranked player — he bumped down, and so we went with the graded player there at 2-10."
This week plays a big part in reaching a final grade. The workouts play a role, though Ireland said that is on a case-by-case basis. Some players have done enough on film to create a vision. Others need to show the team something. But one of the more important pieces of the puzzle is the medical examinations that all players undergo this week.
Ireland refuses to touch his grades until he knows if players have any other outstanding issues. At that point, he starts to fill out his draft cards.
He'll put down the player's name, height, weight and speed. The card also contains the player's test scores, some one-letter codes for prototyping and a two-letter makeup grade. Ireland also likes to write some notes on them.
But, really, it's all unnecessary. The Saints assistant general manager will know the board inside and out by the time the draft comes around.
"By the time I put that card up there, I have everyone memorized for the most part," Ireland said. "But it's a good reminder when I'm looking at this guy, this guy, this guy I can look horizontally to, 'This guy's got a bad makeup grade, and these two have two really solid makeups.’ ”
This year's draft will be a little different for the Saints. New Orleans had five picks in the first three rounds of last year's draft. This year, as it stands, the Saints have two. Ireland likes to keep a small draft board but admits having extra picks in the later rounds might cause him to toss some more names on it.
It's also possible the team could move up, but the Saints don't expecting to get the same level of impact as last year, when they selected cornerback Marshon Lattimore, tackle Ryan Ramczyk, Williams and Kamara.
"We're not going to have the same draft. There aren't as many picks," Loomis said. "Now, we've got some later picks, so we might be able to find a sleeper or two and get some contributions that way. Might be able to take those fifths and sixths and bump ourselves up, but look, that's hard to follow. We're going to try. We're going to give it our best shot, but it's harder when you don't have as many picks. That's the bottom line."
It will be harder. But since bringing in Ireland and overhauling the scouting staff, this team always seems to figure out how to get a few impact players in the fold. That's what happens when the horizontal and vertical meet at the right spot.