Each day during the NFL draft, when the New Orleans Saints’ brass would enter the war room, they would stand and evaluate the players on their draft board.
Before them were columns of white and gray magnets. The gray magnets signified players who had been selected. The white ones were for available players, and each was sorted by grade, position and need. Throughout the draft, questions would be asked and plans would be made based on the location of the white magnets still on the board.
In some regards, the Saints went through the same process with their own drafting habits. They looked at the process of how things were done, what worked and didn’t, and essentially decided which parts of the process to keep white and which ones to turn gray.
Looking at what the team accomplished in this draft, and how they went about doing so, it appears many of the old magnets turned the color of ash.
The days of instant gratification are out. After trading up and moving around the board with some consistency in the early rounds, swinging for the fences every year, New Orleans took a more relaxed and measured approach to this draft. Instead of taking one big cut and hoping the ball found the seats, the Saints decided to work the count and try to get multiple men on base.
It helps that three of those guys — pass rusher Hau’oli Kikaha, cornerback P.J. Williams and linebacker Stephone Anthony — should be instant contributors on defense, so it wasn’t all about the future. But many other prospects were.
It will take months, if not years, to see if this approach leads to a more fruitful future. But one thing is clear: This team appears to be committed to playing the long game. The only trade the team made was to jump up in the fifth round Saturday to select cornerback Damian Swann.
That level of patience was a surprise. With nine picks entering draft, including five in the first three rounds, the Saints were strong favorites to make a move up in the first round to select the pass rusher of their dreams. Instead, they sat back, let the board come to them and took the player with the highest grade on one of those white magnets: Stanford tackle Andrus Peat.
Peat doesn’t have an immediate, obvious fit. He could supplant Terron Armstead or Zach Strief at tackle, causing one of those players to move inside, or he could play guard himself. Perhaps he serves as a backup or makes his living during his inaugural season serving in jumbo sets as a blocking tight end.
The point is that there’s a chance he doesn’t instantly gratify fans looking for an impact player. Instead, he might come along slowly and eventually serve as Strief’s replacement, locking down that position for the foreseeable future.
Part of the reasoning behind the selection was the result of how the board fell, which caused the Saints to take the best player available. But they resisted the urge to trade up, which would have meant sacrificing picks later in the draft.
“There might be someone that we want to move forward and get,” coach Sean Payton said. “It’s not always right, but that’s kind of the approach that we have taken in this year’s draft. It’s not that we haven’t made calls or inquired about certain players — because we have. It’s just ended up falling the way it has.”
The team made another pick with an eye on the future, this one much more distant, by selecting Colorado State quarterback Garrett Grayson in the third round Friday. While there is no immediate need, it gives the team a possible successor to Brees and the potential to have options when the incumbent’s contract expires in two seasons (when he’s 38).
If the short game were being played, perhaps this pick wouldn’t have been made. New Orleans considered a quarterback in last year’s draft — but waited and missed out on the guy it wanted. The Saints couldn’t let that happen again.
“We’re hoping that we’re not looking at a Jahri Evans taken somewhere or is available on the board when we didn’t select (him),” Payton said.
Before the draft, the Saints put the 2006 draft on the board and, as an exercise, went through it to see how things stacked up. That draft, the first of Payton’s tenure, still remains the standard. The team pulled Reggie Bush, Roman Harper, Evans, Zach Strief and Marques Colston out of that draft. New Orleans also drafted defensive end Rob Ninkovich, who is now prospering with the New England Patriots after the Saints gave up on him.
What the Saints realized was that all of those players were smart, had good makeup and brought a certain toughness to the team. What the brass also likely saw was that they picked their spots and took a calm, measured approach to that draft.
By betting on the right kind of players, Payton said he believes he will have success.
“Hopefully, we can continue to minimize the misses and increase the amount of the guys that we hit on,” he said.
The 2006 draft kicked off an era in which this franchise is a perennial contender and a one-time Super Bowl champion. By taking a similar approach, New Orleans is hoping this class can take the franchise from contender to champion again.