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John DeShazier: Saints come away with second consecutive fruitful draft harvest

Posted May 1, 2017

2017 class could be a very good one

The New Orleans Saints didn’t bull's-eye every mark in the 2017 NFL Draft, but they walked away having filled several needs and with players who should play significant roles if the team is going to return to the playoffs for the first time since the 2013 season.

Of course, that’s the Monday mantra of every team.

Today, not one of the 32 feels it didn’t make impact additions in the draft. Not one believes it drafted a player who won’t make the roster, who won’t start or provide critical, quality depth, who can’t contribute to an upgrade on special teams.

But for New Orleans, a second consecutive fruitful harvest from the draft – all five picks in 2016 made the 53-man roster, with three becoming starters (defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, receiver Michael Thomas and safety Vonn Bell), one playing significant snaps (defensive lineman David Onyemata) and the other (running back Daniel Lasco) showing himself to be a potential special teams ace before being sidelined by injury – looks more probable than possible.

“We’re excited about the way things fell,” Coach Sean Payton said. “I know most teams are. They always are at this time of the year, but looking down at the list and just seeing where and how we were able to acquire these guys.”

No, the Saints didn’t pick up an edge rusher early. One possible target, linebacker Reuben Foster, might have been plucked right before he’d have been picked by the Saints at No. 32. And, perhaps, others simply didn’t match up to the pick value that the Saints had when they were on the clock. But there’s no reason to invest in thousands of hours of scouting if, when the moment of truth arrives, that research and evaluation is going to be abandoned in favor of a player whose grade is significantly lower than the mark of another prospect that also can help the team, albeit at another, less urgent, position.

So the Saints selected the players who were best for the Saints, and came up with class that could be a very good one.

First-round pick Marshon Lattimore (No. 11 overall), basically landed in New Orleans’ lap. An early run on offensive players pushed the Ohio State cornerback down the ladder, allowing the Saints to address a position of need with the player who was considered the best in the draft at his position. The Saints, in fact, considered moving up in the draft in order to pick Lattimore.

“Yes, with that player (we) discussed with a couple teams moving up a pick or two picks up, and then when it fell to two picks and (Kansas City) drafted (quarterback) Patrick Mahomes, and there it was for us then all of a sudden,” Payton said. “That was part of the equation of Lattimore falling to us. Had they taken Lattimore, then Mahomes would have been a guy we had real strong grades on.”

Said Lattimore: “I’m physical and can tackle as well as cover and press. It’s a pass-heavy league, and I feel like I can disrupt everybody. So I feel like I have a good chance to be a great cornerback in the league."

The people who were surprised that the Saints selected Wisconsin offensive tackle Ryan Ramcyzk with the last pick of the first round, No. 32 overall, probably were among those who didn’t closely listen to Payton entering the draft. Specifically, he said that the Saints wanted to come out of the draft with a young offensive lineman.

Ramcyzk arguably was the best tackle in the draft and given that the draft wasn’t considered particularly deep in quality offensive linemen, New Orleans nabbed its man early. He’ll play right tackle and initially, likely will be tutored by incumbent Zach Strief, who is entering his 12th season.

With Foster and several other defensive ends off the board, Ramcyzk was a logical choice.

“Our grade on Ryan was at the top half of round one, inside of a grade of 15,” Payton said. “The next pass rusher grade would be somewhere (in the second or third round).

“There was a big gap. We weren’t going to go away from just a clear gap in grades. He was a player graded in the first round by every one of our scouts. We felt good about that.”

Utah safety Marcus Williams (No. 42 overall) gives the Saints a defender with some ball-tracking capabilities – a combined 10 interceptions and eight pass breakups in his last two seasons. And the second-round pick is a needed addition to the rotation of Bell, Kenny Vaccaro and Rafael Bush.

“I feel like I do a lot of things well,” Williams said. “I feel like I take away the ball. I am able to get sideline to sideline. I am that guy that wants to take that ball away regardless where I am at and I can make tackles.

“At the end of the day I’m just going to continue to get better and be that safety wherever they play me – up in the box, back in the post. I feel like I can do it regardless if I haven’t done it before because that is just my mentality. I feel like I’m just that type of player and I have a lot of confidence and that is the type of person they are getting with me.”

Among the three third-round picks – Tennessee running back Alvin Kamara (No. 67 overall), Florida linebacker Alex Anzalone (No. 76) and Florida Atlantic defensive end Trey Hendrickson (No. 103) – the first and third are the ones that stand out.

Kamara projects to the Darren Sproles role in the Saints offense, a make-defenders-miss play-maker who also offers value as a returner. In Kamara’s final college season, he had 143 touches on offense for 988 yards and 13 touchdowns, and in two seasons he had 26 punt returns for 284 yards and a touchdown.

The Saints liked Kamara enough to consider him at No. 42 overall.

“Listen he’s that type of player that gives you a lot of different versatility, and we just had a real high grade on him in that role,” Payton said. “I think he will play on fourth down in the kicking game. I think he has real good makeup and IQ. I think he will be a good fit for our team and our system in that room. That was a pick we were excited about.”

In Hendrickson, the Saints dipped into the defensive end pool and came away with a player who had 22.5 sacks and 29.5 tackles for loss in his last two seasons. But the fact that the Saints didn’t draft an end earlier might have said as much about the belief in the players they have in the building, as it did about the draft grades they had on the available players.

When they did call a name, it was that of the Conference USA Defensive Most Valuable Player.

“Well, you know, I feel like I can make an impact if they want me to play all three (technique) or run down on kickoff, I’m going to make sure I do that to the best of my ability,” Hendrickson said.

Rounding out New Orleans’ picks was Miami defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad, who hasn’t played since 2015 due to a couple of disciplinary issues with the Hurricanes.

“He was (in New Orleans for a visit), he is someone when you talk to those people at the school, they had a strong opinion about him in regards to football makeup,” Payton said. “Certainly he made some mistakes, but they were ones we were very comfortable with.

“This is a guy that loves football and we sat for a good round and a half waiting on this selection and he’s a pressure player.”

“Going through that process, it showed me how much I miss the game of football,” Muhammad said. “I really miss the game of football because I love the game of football. The game of football’s going to help me in life as a person and as a father.

“I am not going to put myself in that position ever again because I know what football means to me. It means the world to me.”

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