After the Saints walked away from the draft with six defensive players, a talking point emerged that defensive coordinator Rob Ryan handpicked the groceries for the upcoming season.
This isn’t true — at least not entirely. While New Orleans certainly made an effort to acquire players who fit his scheme and a certain profile, Ryan wasn’t any more involved with the selection of these players than a coordinator would have been in any other season.
“With (coach Sean Payton and General Manager Mickey Loomis) being here, and (assistant general manager) Jeff Ireland — they’re going to ask the coach’s opinion,” Ryan said. “But we have three of the best in the business doing the selecting.”
The coaches’ opinions carry some weight. At some point in the predraft process, they’ll be asked to watch and grade players and put them through workouts or watch a pro day. Their observations and opinions might change how the team views that player. But the idea that Ryan, or any other coach, can handpick his players is misguided.
In fact, how much sway the coaches hold in the draft process is debatable. There are conversations each year about the offense and defense, and what body types the coaches are looking for that will fit the scheme. But there are not many conversations about which specific traits a coordinator is looking for in players. The team primarily relies on its scouts to assign values on players and help guide decisions.
“They have some input. It’s more about (in their role), they’ll write up the grades on players we ask them to grade,” Payton said. “Jeff Ireland, myself and Mickey will kind of closely be (more) involved with the overall process. ... They are part of the process, the coaches are, but ultimately it would be the (scouting) reports.”
Still, regardless of his level of involvement, Ryan has no complaints about how his cupboards have been stocked. This whole offseason has been about getting him better players to work with, and he’s impressed with what he has seen so far.
Speaking with the media following the second day of rookie minicamp, the defensive coordinator gushed about his new middle linebacker, Stephone Anthony, who was picked at the end of the first round of the draft. He also gave high praise to second-round pass rusher Hau’oli Kikaha.
But the draft wasn’t the only pipeline for new talent. The Saints also brought in cornerbacks Brandon Browner, Kyle Wilson and Delvin Breaux, and pass rusher Anthony Spencer and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe this offseason to bolster the defense. Ryan singled out Breaux as someone who has impressed him this week, and he said he vouched for Spencer, who recorded a career-high 11 sacks in 2012 playing for Ryan in Dallas, after the veteran visited New Orleans last month.
“It’s the most exciting part of your job and the best part of your job when you get good players to work with,” Ryan said. “We’re real excited about them.”
That excitement needs to lead to results. New Orleans had one of the worst defenses in the NFL last season, finishing 31st in yards allowed. There has been too much commitment to improving on that side of the ball for the group to struggle again. Patience nearly expired following last season, which led to endless speculation about Ryan’s job security.
He’s back for another season, although Dennis Allen has been hired to help him lead the defense, and needs to figure things out quickly. Ryan has some flexibility in how things will be pieced together, and he said he will use the offseason to figure out what scheme and personnel will give him the best chance to succeed.
But it shouldn’t take long to figure out. Chances are Ryan already has a rough idea of how things will come together. For the most part, many of the players added this offseason were acquired with an idea and vision for how they will potentially be used.
“You do start the process in the very beginning with this is who we are, these are some of the prototypes we are looking for and yet the idea is really drafting good football players,” Payton said.
The Saints are hoping that finding good football players leads to good football.
“On defense, we need to improve on every aspect,” Ryan said. “Physicality is one area. We’re getting guys that are smart, tough and want to play football. We got them all over the roster, and we’re excited about them.”
Hopefully, for Saints fans, the early internal excitement leads to external excitement down the road. After going through “The Winter of Defense,” this team can’t afford another fall by its defense.