Indianapolis – At this time last year, Jeff Ireland was helping the New Orleans Saints prepare to draft the players who would comprise, arguably, the best draft class in franchise history and one of the most decorated rookie classes in NFL history.
Did Ireland, the Saints' assistant general manager and college scouting director, know that the franchise was on the verge of drafting: four opening-game starters (cornerback Marshon Lattimore, offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk, safety Marcus Williams and linebacker Alex Anzalone); an electrifying running back (Alvin Kamara) who played as many snaps as a starter; a defensive end (Trey Hendrickson) who played crucial snaps and has a chance to be a starter; and another defensive end (Al-Quadin Muhammad) who showed significant promise in the preseason?
Maybe, Ireland didn't know the class would be the league's best. But he had a good feel for the seven-man collection.
"We felt like it was a strong draft, No. 1, just the sheer numbers in the top of the draft," Ireland said Thursday, reflecting on the draft from the annual NFL Scouting Combine. "When we had the draft capital that we had in the first (two picks), second (one pick) and ultimately in the third round (three picks), we felt like we should have a good draft."
It turned out that "good" was a major understatement.
Lattimore, the first of the Saints' two first-round picks, and Kamara, the first of the three third-rounders, were NFL Defensive and Offensive rookies of the year, respectively. Ramczyk played every down on offense and was a consensus All-Rookie team member. Williams, another All-Rookie team member, was second on the team in interceptions and third in tackles. A shoulder injury ended the season for Anzalone, who started the first four games, and Hendrickson showed signs of being a capable, every-down player during his snaps.
"Individually, with each of those players, the draft just kind of fell the right way for us," said Ireland, who was Miami's general manager for six seasons prior to joining the Saints. "It begins with putting the card up on the board in a place where you feel like you can get them. But individually, each of them we felt like had strong character, strong makeup, were intelligent.
"I think we went into the draft feeling like we needed to raise the bar in terms of the mental awareness and the processing speed that each player had, especially on defense, and we feel like we were able to fill that void that we were looking for."
The gems of the class, for the Saints and for the league, were Lattimore and Kamara.
"With Marshon, he's prototype size," Ireland said. "He has incredible intelligence for that position and normally, that's rare – when you have the size, the speed, the physicality, the ball skills and intelligence. It was a no-brainer for us when we had the opportunity to pick him (at No. 11). And he's a great kid, too. Comes from a good family, comes from a school (Ohio State) that has historically developed their players at a high level.
"With Alvin, that process started back in February. I give my scouts all the credit because they identified the player very early, they knew that that particular player was going to fit in what we do from catching the ball and running the ball, we knew his intelligence was very good, we knew the makeup was exceptional. So it was a no-brainer when he was still there. Based on where we had him on the board and based on where we were in the draft, it was a no-brainer to go get him (at No. 67 overall)."
But, obviously, the success didn't stop there.
Ramczyk was chosen with the last pick of the first round, No. 32 overall, and Williams was taken 10 picks later to help the Saints fill a couple of voids, too.
"(Ramczyk) comes from another school (Wisconsin) that historically has developed offensive linemen, and we look at those things," Ireland said. "When we had the opportunity to pick him, we said it in the draft: You pick this player and you have an opportunity to have one of the best offensive lines in the league.
"Did we know he could flip from left to right and back to left (at offensive tackle)? We thought he could athletically, but until you actually see him do it…(but) that was something else. Because normally a rookie can't do that. If you think you can do that every year with a rookie offensive lineman, you're fooling yourself. Because what he did was truly remarkable, actually. And then to play every snap on offense, that was incredible as well. Very few sacks given up, very few mental errors. He's wise beyond his years."
Williams fit that model, too.
"We wanted to raise the bar of the intelligence on our defense," Ireland said. "We did that with Alex Anzalone, we did that with Marshon and we certainly did that with Marcus. It was very clear early on, in the OTAs and the minicamp, that this guy was going to fill a very good void as a signal-caller back there, a leader, someone that can problem-solve on his own and get other people lined up. He was a ballhawk in college and I think he's going to be a ballhawk for us for the near future."
In the three drafts since Ireland joined the Saints in January 2015, the Saints also have added offensive lineman Andrus Peat, defensive end Hau'oli Kikaha, cornerback P.J. Williams and defensive tackle Tyeler Davison (in '15), and defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, receiver Michael Thomas, safety Vonn Bell and defensive tackle David Onyemata (in '16).
Add in several rookie free agents who have started or played significant roles (like cornerbacks Ken Crawley and De'Vante Harris and receiver Tommylee Lewis), and a healthy portion of starters and major contributors have joined the franchise in the last three years.
Ireland said he has some core beliefs regarding the kinds of players he wants the Saints to add.
"I'm a firm believer in prototype," he said. "I'm a firm believer in, just, process. I'm a firm believer in certain protocols that we go about how we do our business consistently. I believe in communication. I believe in a very collaborative effort to bring everybody involved. I believe in creating a vision – a vision on how he can help us Year 1, early on in the process, what's the ceiling.
"I ask my scouts all the time, 'What's the first- and second-down role? What's the third-down role? What's the fourth-down role? Until we know that, we're going to grind it and grind it and grind it until we actually have a clear vision. And if we don't have a clear vision, then we take him off the board. He's not for us.
"So we make sure that the players that we have on the board, every single one of them, we have a clear vision of how we're going to utilize them, and how we're going to develop them. And we have a plan for that process. Hopefully, being a voice of reason on draft day is something I can bring to the table as well. I've been through quite a few of them myself as a decision-maker. Just helping the process, being a part of the team."
Now, the process is in full swing as the Saints prepare to add more parts to the team. This time last year, Ireland and the Saints were readying to add an outstanding class. This year, they're aiming for more of the same.
"This is an exciting time for us," he said. "We finally get a chance to get to meet some of the players we've been scouting for the last six months, get up close and personal with them, and then watch them work in shorts and kind of verify what we see on tape.
"I really don't like to talk about the strengths of any draft. I think it's a strong draft, though. I think it's strong in certain positions. I'm looking forward to diving into some of these positions as we go along. There are some really good positions out there."