The New Orleans Saints, like a lot of teams around the NFL, find themselves in a fortuitous position heading into April’s draft.
New Orleans is in the second year of a concerted effort to rebuild the defense, and the Saints still have needs all over the defensive side of the ball, particularly in the front seven.
This NFL draft class appears to be suited to those needs. In a year in which positions like quarterbacks, wide receiver and tight end seem a little thin, the defensive front seven has been widely praised as deep from top to bottom, particularly at defensive tackle, where there could be as many as 10-12 players who receive first-round grades, according to NFL talent evaluators at the NFL scouting combine at the end of February.
New Orleans general manager Mickey Loomis agrees with that assessment.
“I think we would be in that line,” Loomis said. “We like what we’ve seen so far in terms of the front seven.”
An abundance of defensive tackles fits the Saints’ needs. New Orleans started 35-year-old Kevin Williams at the three-technique, play-making defensive tackle spot last season, and Williams had to play more than 50 percent of the snaps. A young, disruptive defensive tackle could make the rest of the Saints’ front seven much better, and there appear to be plenty of options.
But Loomis has been at this thing long enough to know that it’s premature to predict that the 2016 class of defensive linemen can live up to the stacked 2011 class that produced Cam Jordan and nine other Pro Bowlers — including J.J. Watt, Von Miller, Muhammad Wilkerson and Justin Houston — in the front line.
A draft class can end up being different than it looks at first glance.
“And yet, again, man, let’s figure that out three years down the road,” Loomis said. “There’s been plenty of years where we thought a position was light, and then it turned out there were several players that really did well at the position. But the early assessment would be, yeah, there’s a lot of good players in the front seven.”
Beyond the defensive line, the 2016 draft class also appears to be stocked full of a new breed of linebacker, a lighter, faster model capable of racing with running backs, tight ends and sometimes wide receivers down the field. New Orleans has Dannell Ellerbe on the weak side, but Ellerbe was able to play just seven games last season. And when he was out, New Orleans struggled to find a replacement capable of covering. The Saints led the league in receiving yardage allowed to running backs and tight ends.
This draft class is full of players who can handle that role.
UCLA’s Myles Jack, Ohio State’s Darron Lee, LSU’s Deion Jones, USC’s Su’a Cravens and Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith, who is trying to recover from a serious knee injury, all fit that bill.
“I don’t think the lighter linebacker is unique to this era. Although let’s face it, this era, we’re playing sub defenses close to 60, 65 percent of the time, so it’s become more of a specialized game than it was 20 years ago,” Loomis said.
Loomis remembers bringing in a lighter, faster linebacker three decades ago.
“When we were in Seattle, we had Rufus Porter, who came in as a linebacker for us, and he was like 215 pounds, and ended up in the Pro Bowl,” Loomis said. “Those guys, I think there’s always been a place for them if they have special attributes, like speed or intelligence or those sorts of things.”
With all of that in mind, Loomis’ task is to find the right players for a young Saints defense, players who can step in and help New Orleans build a defensive foundation.
Beyond all the measurements, the key is to find players who have special qualities.
“What you’re looking for is an attribute that you can take advantage of, and I think our coaches do a great job of finding things that a player does well and putting them in a position to succeed,” Loomis said. “Sean says it all the time, tell me what this guy does well, and I’ll find a way to take advantage of it.”