Indianapolis – “Best player available” isn’t nearly as alluring and topical as, say, a general manager or coach identifying that his team is leaning toward selecting an offensive lineman or defensive back entering the NFL Draft.
And yet, that exactly is what the New Orleans Saints hope to do in this year’s draft, same as the goal has been in previous years. So hoping to pin down General Manager Mickey Loomis, Director of Player Personnel Ryan Pace – or any other Saints official – and have him identify a specific position of emphasis as they attend the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine, pretty much would be a futile endeavor.
There’s much time, and many scenarios, that will play out before the draft is held on May 8-10.
“I think for one thing, our goal in free agency and the offseason is to fill as many of our needs as possible,” Loomis said. “We always try to do that before the draft, so that when we get to the draft, we can just take the best player available to us at the time that we’re selecting.
“Particularly when you’re selecting 27th, we don’t really have a good idea who’s going to be available to us in the first round, much less the second, third or fourth. So, if we can get to the point where we can just take the highest graded player first and “need” second, that’s what we’re angling for. We’ll see how that unfolds. I think for the most part in the past, we’ve been able to do that. But each year is different.”
The good thing this year is that almost every evaluation of the 2014 draft class suggests it is a talented and deep one.
“I think it’s early to make that determination, although I think the impression of our scouts and Ryan Pace and (Director of College Scouting) Rick Reiprish is that it is going to be a deep draft,” Loomis said.
Pace and his staff bunkered for days before they arrived in Indianapolis and prepared to view player workouts at Lucas Oil Stadium, and to conduct interviews over the next several days.
“At this point in time, we already have all the reports written so the football, on the field aspect of it, has been done,” Pace said. “Now we’re just kind of fine-tuning – the medical reports are a big deal this week, our interviews at night will be a big portion of this combine, and the workout drills, (so) we can kind of sort through some things when we’re splitting hairs on players, those are good to view as well.”
However, workouts in Indianapolis will not be overemphasized. The evaluation process that already has taken place – and Pace estimated that at least three evaluations had been submitted on each of the 300 players invited to the Combine – will take precedent over anything that can happen here.
“You don’t want what’s going on here to greatly affect what our current grades on these players are,” he said. “So it’s really just verifying certain things, paying attention, certain measurable that we like to track. As far as our evaluations and our grades (are concerned), that hay is pretty much in the barn.”
Too, it’s not a significant detriment to a player’s draft status to not work out at the Combine. That’s not so suggest it’s not preferable and, indeed, some top picks accept the risks involved. Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles, a possible top 10 pick, has said he will throw at the Combine and participate in drills.
“We always say, ‘Fast guys are fast, no matter where it’s at,’ ” Pace said. “So we’d encourage them to work out here on a surface where everybody is judged on the same plane. Some guys will have legitimate excuses, whether it’s injuries, or something else.
“We’d prefer for you to work out here and kind of see them all side by side, all in one place.”
But in recent years, many projected top picks have opted to participate in the interview process, but not to participate in the on-field drills.
Rather, those players have chosen to work out that their respective pro days at their college campus, giving them more time to work on Combine-specific drills and more time to go through drills with players whom they’re more familiar with.
For instance, quarterbacks throw to their college teammates at their pro days, rather than to receivers they’ve never played with at the Combine.
“Historically, about 70 percent of the guys here are going to work out and do everything that they’re asked,” Loomis said. “I don’t think that’ll be any different this year. You pay attention to what’s going on here and yet, you don’t put too much stock in that.
“They’re in shorts and T-shirts (at the Combine), they’re not playing football. And we’ve got evaluations of these guys playing football, and that’s what we’ll rely on the most.”
That reliance has led the Saints to pursue the best player available and, in doing so, to unearth gems in later rounds (
“We’ve had great success,” Loomis said. “It’s our area scouts and our entire pro and college scouting department. They do a great job of finding guys that have traits that transfer well into the NFL.
“The second part of that is our coaching staff. Starting with Sean (Payton) and the rest of our coaches, they’ve always been willing to just go by what they see, not by how a player was acquired.
“Sometimes it’s a little embarrassing when you cut a draft pick in favor of a college free agent, and yet, we’re just going by what we see, who has earned that position. And our coaches do a great job of developing players, taking your players, spotting talent and being able to develop that into something they can use.”
So, it may not sound alluring or be topical, but the Saints will be looking at this Combine through the same eyes they’ve viewed the rest, looking for the “best player available” to supplement moves that already have been made in the offseason.