Draft spotlight: Louisville’s Sheldon Rankins standing out in a talented class of defensive tackles _lowres

Louisville defensive end Sheldon Rankins (98) runs through drills during NCAA college football practice for the Senior Bowl, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016, at Fairhope Municipal Stadium, in Fairhope, Ala.(AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

The New Orleans Saints had nearly every member of their football operations staff at the Senior Bowl this week to get a closer look at the next crop of draft hopefuls.

There were high-level scouts and low-level scouts. There were coordinators and position coaches. Even coach Sean Payton was on hand to get a closer look at some of the guys. Offensive line coach Dan Roushar was so engrossed by the proceedings that he posted up on the field behind the offensive linemen during Thursday’s practice.

There’s a reason the Saints took this week so seriously: They need to find several players who can contribute in this year’s draft class to end the recent run of 7-9 finishes.

Here’s a look at 10 players who might have caught their eye during practices this week:

DE Noah Spence, Eastern Kentucky

There should be no questions about Spence’s game after this week, not that those questions should have ever existed. The former Ohio State pass rusher was active each day in practice and routinely disrupted the various quarterbacks. And by the end of the practices, it became clear he was the most talented player on the field this week. Spence has the talent to be a top 15 pick. He’ll just need to quiet any concerns about his character for that to happen.

OG Cody Whitehair, Kansas State

Whitehair held his own all three days and exits the Senior Bowl practices the way he entered: As the top guard in the game. He’s strong and powerful, sets a good base and routinely held his own in one-on-one rushing drills. There were a few times he was knocked off his spot by a bull rush, but there wasn’t enough bad things to become concerned about his ability to succeed at the next level.

DE Jihard Ward, Illinois

The 6-foot-5, 296-pound Ward moves better than you’d expect and consistently caused havoc coming off the edge. He has violent hands and knows how to slice through offensive linemen and create pressure. The most impressive thing is that Ward often went up against Indiana offensive lineman Jason Spriggs, one of the better tackles at the Senior Bowl, and held his own.

DT Sheldon Rankins, Louisville

Before being knocked out of action due to a knee injury, Rankins was one of the better defensive tackles on the field during the first two days of practices. He knows how to push the pocket and create pressure from the interior of the line. Those are two traits the Saints should covet after failing to find consistency in those areas last season.

WR Braxton Miller, Ohio State

The former Buckeyes quarterback had an impressive week and could see his draft stock soar if he runs well at the combine. He is extremely sudden and almost every corner he faced had trouble keeping up with him this week. The only issue is that many of routes contain extra movement and sometimes it takes him too long to get open. With a little refinement, Miller should find success at the next level.

TE Jerell Adams, South Carolina

While Adams didn’t catch many passes in college, he stood out this week as both a blocker and a receiver. He has decent speed and knows how to work the seams. If New Orleans is looking to add another player or upgrade this position, it could do a lot worse than Adams.

DT Adolphus Washington, Ohio State

Washington is another player with some character issues who stood out throughout the week. He has very good speed and burst from the interior and could provide an element the New Orleans’ defensive line is sorely lacking. Like Spence, his draft stock is dependent on making teams feel comfortable with his previous off-the-field transgressions.

K Ross Martin, Duke

Everyone knows the Saints need more consistency in the kicking game. Martin, who made 26 of his 30 attempts last season, could fit the bill. The Duke kicker turned heads during practice when he drilled a kick from 60 yards in cold conditions and following a bad snap. His longest kick in college came from 53 yards, so perhaps the long kick in practice was a bit of a parlor trick, but you can’t fake leg strength, and he has plenty of it.

DT Vernon Butler, Louisiana Tech

The big defensive lineman showed he can compete against a higher caliber of talent by standing out in all three practices this week. He’s another guy who possesses skills the Saints could use. It became clear this week that this draft class is rich on defensive tackles. If the Saints don’t use an early pick on one, there will be talented players available in later rounds.

LB Deion Jones, LSU

There’s no question Deion Jones needs to add a little bit of bulk to his 219-pound frame to play linebacker in the NFL. But he stood out this week by flashing his sideline-to-sideline range in the passing game and even showed up by making some good reads against the run. The question for him is if he can maintain his range after adding some bulk to his frame.