Sean Payton has high hopes for the 2015 draft class.
New Orleans made nine picks on draft weekend, the most the Saints have ever had in Payton’s tenure. Five of those selections were made in the first 78 picks.
And when Payton looks at the Saints’ haul, he sees a rookie class that could live up to the standard set by the Saints’ 2006 draft class, a group that included Reggie Bush, Roman Harper, Jahri Evans, Zach Strief, Marques Colston and New England Patriots stalwart Rob Ninkovich.
A few of those players took a couple of years to develop, but as the 2015 class gets ready for its first training camp — the rookies reported to the team facility in Metairie on Wednesday — the Saints are looking for rookies who can contribute on day one. With that in mind, here’s the six picks with clear shots at starter-type snaps in various roles.
Stephone Anthony, inside linebacker
The first-round pick from Clemson looked right at home during the Saints’ organized team activities and minicamps. A speedy option who finished second among inside linebackers at the NFL combine in both the 40-yard dash and the 20-yard shuttle, Anthony also flashed good instincts, making several highlight plays in the passing game during the summer practices available to the media. Now, Anthony has to prove he can be physical against the run, although defensive coordinator Rob Ryan had no doubts about the 6-foot-3, 243-pounder’s physicality. If Anthony lives up to his billing, he should start right away at middle linebacker.
Delvin Breaux, cornerback
Breaux may have forced his way into the mix for key snaps with an impressive summer. The CFL import shined in organized team activities, displaying good speed, excellent ball skills and battling toe-to-toe with Brandin Cooks, who spent most of his time terrorizing the rest of the Saints secondary throughout summer workouts. Originally brought in as an outside cornerback — a position seemingly locked down by veterans Keenan Lewis and Brandon Browner — Breaux got a brief look in the slot during minicamp. Afterward, Payton said the move was an effort to get the Saints’ best 11 players on the field, putting Breaux firmly in the competition for playing time in a revamped secondary.
Hau’oli Kikaha, outside linebacker
Kikaha will line up as a strong-side linebacker in the base defense, but he was drafted to rush the passer, and he should get plenty of opportunities as an edge rusher in passing situations. If Kikaha, who racked up 32 sacks in his last two years at Washington, can live up to his reputation, the Saints can slide Cameron Jordan inside on passing downs and create all kinds of problems for opposing quarterbacks. Kikaha showed a quick first step in summer workouts; now he has to prove he can do the same in pads.
Andrus Peat, right tackle
The No. 13 pick in most drafts is a near-lock to start, a guy teams expect to be a plug-and-play addition. Peat, on the other hand, was drafted at a position of strength for the Saints, and he’s going to have to unseat a solid, established veteran to earn a starting job on day one. Zach Strief has held down the right side of the line admirably the past two seasons. If Peat can’t beat out Strief, the rookie from Stanford could still see time as a sixth offensive lineman in short-yardage situations.
Marcus Murphy, return man
Drafted largely for his explosive abilities, Murphy isn’t likely going to make a dent in the running back depth chart unless the injury bug bites position. As a return man, though, Murphy could be the answer for a return game that was uneven last season up until the emergence of Jalen Saunders. Saunders is back, but Murphy, who returned five kicks and two punts for touchdowns in his time at Missouri, has the skills to win the job, provided he’s healthy after being placed on the non-football injury list when the rookies reported on Wednesday.