A draft class can’t be truly evaluated for three years.
Both Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis believe in that oft-repeated NFL axiom. Throwing out a draft class — or touting it as a franchise-changing foundation — after a single season is impossible. Some rookies develop into something beyond their first impression. Others regress.
But the New Orleans Saints are cautiously optimistic about the draft class of 2015, a group of nine players who presented enough promise that all nine remain on the roster and six played prominent roles as rookies.
“I think it is too early to evaluate drafts ... and yet I felt like this draft class we just had did a lot of good things, and I think there are guys that maybe did not get as much of an opportunity this year that we have high hopes for,” Loomis said. “One of the things we had is a lot of play by first-year and rookie players. I think the most in the league, if my memory is correct. So that is encouraging on the one hand because, look, we like the talent, but we have room to grow here with these guys.”
The challenge is repeating that performance this spring.
A 2011 draft class that produced Cameron Jordan and Mark Ingram — if not much else — was followed by a 2012 class that finally fizzled when the Saints traded away Akiem Hicks this season. A 2013 draft class that handed New Orleans Kenny Vaccaro, Terron Armstead and John Jenkins was followed by a 2014 draft that landed Brandin Cooks, but nobody else who’s made a significant impact in two seasons, and safety Vinnie Sunseri is the only other pick still on the roster.
The process of trying to follow up the 2015 draft class with another group of rookies who can help begins in earnest at the Senior Bowl in Mobile this week.
A game like the Senior Bowl can be overlooked. For starters, the early entries projected at the top of the first round aren’t allowed to play, and other high-profile first-rounders who are eligible sometimes skip the week of practices in order to protect their stock.
But drafts aren’t made on the first round alone — a fact proven by the Saints’ drafts in 2011 and 2014 — and the Senior Bowl offers the best chance for teams to evaluate prospects in actual football action against other prospects, rather than the workout tests and drills against air that dominate the rest of the draft cycle.
New Orleans picked four players — middle linebacker Stephone Anthony, strong-side linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha, running back Marcus Murphy and quarterback Garrett Grayson — and added a fifth rookie, defensive tackle, Kaleb Eulls, as an undrafted free agent who ended up making the 53-man roster.
Anthony, a starter at middle linebacker from day one, led all NFL rookies with 112 tackles. Kikaha, who played 621 snaps despite being asked to make the switch to strong-side outside linebacker, produced 50 tackles, four sacks and forced four fumbles. Murphy returned a touchdown against Carolina before getting hurt. Only Grayson, whose path to the field is blocked by a guy named Drew Brees, remains a largely unknown quantity.
“You’ve got to come in and earn the older guys’ respect, kind of fit in and kind of take control at the same time,” Anthony said late in the season. “It was a tough challenge, but I think I’ve handled it well so far. Still got a ways to go, still work to do.”
None of the Saints’ 2015 rookies are proven commodities yet.
But they are contributing, approaching their sophomore seasons as starters looking to improve instead of disappointed first-year players still hoping to carve out a role, a leap too few of the Saints’ draft picks have been able to make in recent years.
“You can train for football specifically, not any kind of specific drills or something like that,” Kikaha said. “It’s going to be amazing, you can make a lot of progress, and going through a season, I know what to expect, I’ve learned from a lot of mistakes, I’ve learned from advice, so it’s going to help being prepared for next season.”
New Orleans is looking for more players like Anthony and Kikaha in the 2015 draft.
“That same charge that we took going into the draft last year, in regards to character, toughness, intelligence, and finding the players and having a vision for what they’re going to play, I think all of those things kind of hold course and are in place,” Payton said in his postseason press conference.
A different group will be evaluating those players on the practice fields at the Senior Bowl this week.
New Orleans overhauled its college scouting department, installing Jeff Ireland as the college scouting director and hiring three new area scouts.
With a full year to work together, that group now has a chance to put together the first draft it can call its own.
And Loomis is optimistic the Saints can start building draft classes on top of each other.
“We had a number of changes in our personnel department last year, and you don’t feel the effects of that for a couple years down the road,” Loomis said. “And yet I’m pretty fired up about the guys we have and the institutional knowledge that a guy like Jeff Ireland or (area scouts) Jon Sandusky or Brendan Prophett and some of the guys that have been here that we’re empowering a little more. I’m pretty fired up about where we are going.”