INDIANAPOLIS — Evidence of the historic draft class the New Orleans Saints put together in April is everywhere at the NFL scouting combine this week.
New rookies compare themselves to the players the Saints drafted. Assistant general manager Jeff Ireland spent part of Wednesday night accepting Inside the League's award for best 2017 draft, bestowed on New Orleans by the NFL's scouting community.
On the front of the team's combine booklet, there are pictures of Marshon Lattimore and Alvin Kamara, the men who made the Saints only the second team in history to sweep the Rookie of the Year awards.
"We’ll accept the kudos, and it’s very much appreciated, but we’re on to next year," Ireland said. "We’ve been on to next year for a while."
New Orleans finds itself, at least at the moment, looking at a draft that appears to be very different than the past three the Saints put together.
In all three of those drafts, the Saints were trying to fill major holes in the starting lineup, and they had the ammunition to go get immediate-impact players.
New Orleans was picking in the top half of those drafts, and the Saints stockpiled picks in the first three rounds to land players like Andrus Peat and P.J. Williams in 2015, Michael Thomas, Sheldon Rankins and Vonn Bell in 2016, then knock it out of the park with Kamara, Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk, Marcus Williams, Alex Anzalone and Trey Hendrickson last year.
All of those draft finds played key roles in a resurgent season that won the Saints the NFC South and changed their draft outlook, at least to a degree.
New Orleans is picking No. 27, and instead of a draft full of first and second-day picks, the Saints have a first-rounder, a third-rounder and six picks on the final day.
"Now, you have to prepare for a lot of these players that you really, really like going off early," Ireland said. "You have to be prepared and have a vision for the players that are in the back end."
But that doesn't mean this draft is any less important for the Saints.
"I think it’s an important draft for us," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "We’ve had, I think, two real good ones, and I think this is another one, as this team has gotten younger and younger and younger, there’s some spots that we hope to address and have a chance to fill."
New Orleans no longer has so many obvious holes in the lineup.
"Pass rush is still something that’s important, obviously, there are a few spots," Payton said. "We’ve got to make sure that we’ll be real on top of this interior line class. I think the front seven defensively, you look closely at."
A few of those needs are partly dependent on potential departures. New Orleans would like to get back the services of defensive end Alex Okafor, who was turning in a great season before tearing his Achilles, but he will likely have other suitors competing for his services. The same goes for versatile offensive line backup Senio Kelemete, and New Orleans will need a swing offensive tackle if Zach Strief retires, as reported.
Can't see the video below? Click here.
Need, however, is only one factor in the draft, and the Saints' improved depth means the team has some leeway to pick the best player available, regardless of position.
"We’re in a position where you’re truly taking the best-graded player, and it might be in an area where you have depth," Payton said. "But that’s something we won’t be afraid to do."
New Orleans will have a better idea of where the strength of this draft lies after the combine.
"Shoot, I think there’s a handful of running backs, corners," Payton said. "There’s going to be some options at quarterback."
Picking the best player available has paid big dividends in the past. Few thought New Orleans needed to draft Ramczyk in the first round last year, but injuries to Strief and Terron Armstead meant the rookie played every snap on the offensive line.
That 2017 draft, and the catch the Saints managed to reel into New Orleans, looms over the entire NFL this draft.
"Sometimes, when you hit on a class like that, it plays huge dividends going forward," Arizona general manager Steve Keim said. "I'll never forget the draft class we had when we took Larry Fitzgerald with our first pick, Karlos Dansby with our second pick, and Darnell Dockett with our third pick, and we took Antonio Smith, who had a nice NFL career, in the fifth round. Those kinds of draft classes set you up for the future, and obviously we were in the Super Bowl a few years later."
A Super Bowl is the Saints' ultimate goal, and to get Drew Brees back to the NFL's biggest game, New Orleans must continue to add to the talent and depth on a young team with potential to get better and better.
New Orleans has put together two stellar drafts in a row.
"Everyone involved in the process is excited and proud of that," Payton said. "That’s why we do this, and that’s why we’re thorough and in detail."
The challenge is to keep this run going.