With four selections on the books as of today, the New Orleans Saints head into the 2009 NFL Draft out of the bright lights and consistent dialogue reserved for teams holding picks in the top five of the draft.
The Saints hold their own selection in the first round (#14 overall), two choices in the fourth round (#116 and #118) and a seventh round pick (#222).
While four picks in seven rounds may cause the cynics to squirm and squawk a bit, Saints Executive Vice President/General Manager Mickey Loomis is not in that number. Loomis knows that the team has received strong return on investment in its dealings with the subtracted picks from this year's draft class. MLB Jonathan Vilma signed to a long-term contract with the Saints soon after free agency began in February, and the end result in the trade with the New York Jets is that the Saints sent their fourth round pick last season which the Saints actually are getting back this season, and the Saints then shipping their third round pick this season to the Jets to complete the trade.
Tight end Jeremy Shockey was acquired by the Saints on the eve of 2008 training camp from the Giants in exchange for the Saints' second and fifth round choices in this weekend's draft. Shockey proved to be an integral member of the team's top-ranked offense in 2008 with 50 receptions for 483 yards, despite missing four games (three with a sports hernia and one with an ankle injury). Shockey still ended up third on the team in receptions and averaged over four receptions per game and has returned to full health and has been a mainstay in the team's off-season strength-and-conditioning program.
"It is what it is," Loomis said of the team's less than full cupboard full of draft picks. "Our second, third and fifth picks are on in the field in the forms of Jonathan and Jeremy. And, I'm pleased we have those players here and I'm not looking back."
Loomis did concede that in a perfect world that the Saints would still have all their draft picks, as well as Vilma and Shockey, but added, "To make a trade you have to give up something of value to get something of value."
Thus having two players, in Vilma and Shockey, that are Pro Bowl caliber players and under contract for the future certainly offsets the issue of not having draft choices in the second, third and fifth rounds. In addition, the Saints shipped their sixth round pick in 2009 to the Green Bay Packers during the second day of the 2008 draft in exchange for a pick the Saints used to snare Michigan wide receiver Adrian Arrington. The tall, speedy and precise route runner was having a head turning training camp last summer and eliciting comparisons to another late round pick that turned into gold in Marques Colston (seventh round pick in 2006).
Vilma, Shockey and Arrington certainly figure prominently in the team's make-up heading into 2009, and realists would point to the draft as a place where hits often run side-by-side with misses, particularly in the later rounds. As future Hall of Fame Head Coach Bill Parcells is fond of saying about the unknowns of transitioning from college to the NFL, "they don't sell insurance, and for good reason, on the draft."
The four draft picks, barring any draft day trades, will join a Saints team that has been amongst the most active this off-season in not only player procurement, but also has witnessed the additions of several new assistant coaches, headlined, of course, by the addition of highly-respected defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Joining the Saints via free agency in 2009 have been Pro Bowl S Darren Sharper (Minnesota), CB Jabari Greer (Buffalo), DT Lynell Hamilton/Rod Coleman.aspx">Rod Coleman (Atlanta), DE Garrett Hartley/Paul Spicer.aspx">Paul Spicer (Jacksonville), S Pierson Priloeau (Jacksonville), TE Dan Campbell (Detroit), TE Darnell Dinkins (Cleveland), WR Biren Ealy (Tennessee), FB Heath Evans (New England), C Heath Evans/Nick Leckey.aspx">Nick Leckey (St. Louis), LB Dan Morgan (Carolina) and most recently, LB Anthony Waters (San Diego).
"For us the offseason is about three things: 1) signing our own players that we want to keep, 2) targeting players and positions we want to address and adding to our team through free agency, 3) the draft and identifying the players that we think can come in and help our team," Loomis said.
With the roster needing some final tweaking, the draft comes at a perfect time for the deep Saints. Of course most agree that the ideal foundation of a team should be constructed through the draft, free agency certainly has changed the way most teams build their teams in the modern day NFL. Loomis is on record as saying that whatever means are available in creating competition throughout training camp and during the preseason is his favored approach.
"If we pick at 14," Loomis said, "I feel good that we are going to get a very good football player. And to that, there is always a group of players in the later rounds and in the rookie free agent pool that can help you out. That is proven over time and we have players on our team that have proven that and had success in the NFL. We feel good we have identified some of those types of players and I expect us to sign about 10 free agents or so after the draft is over."
Loomis could easily point to the fact that the Saints have indeed used the draft as a foundational tool in building the squad. Of the 70 players currently on the roster, 21 have been acquired via the draft, including six of the team's number one picks (DT Sedrick Ellis, WR Robert Meachem, RB Reggie Bush, T Jammal Brown, and DEs Will Smith and Charles Grant). In addition, four other players were first round picks of other teams: Vilma, Shockey, Morgan and reserve QB Anthony Hargrove/Joey Harrington.aspx">Joey Harrington.
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More From Loomis
On his philosophy of picking at No. 14: "We are going to get a good football player at 14 if we draft there. There is always a chance of a trade, maybe this year more along the lines of trading back than ahead, but you never know. You are always listening and gauging the what you think the upside to a trade is and how it will play out."
On what the Saints do to investigate character issues: "It's definitely a factor and something we take seriously. In terms of a positive combine drug test, you are looking at players that know they are going to get tested and it tells me there is a problem. We have taken guys off of our draft board in the past because of similar mistakes."
On the amount of time the Saints' staff has invested in preparing for the draft: "Rick Reiprish (Saints Director of College Scouting), our college scouting department, our area scouts and out coaches have all worked countless hours on preparing for the draft. We take it very seriously and I am confident we have all the information we need going into the draft."
Loomis said the team brought in around 25 players for pre-draft workouts this year. "It's a tool to use to collect more information about a player. Some of it might be medical, some of the information may be more geared towards something down the line. You don't always bring in guys that are just going to go in the first round. Rather you want to make sure that any holes or questions you might have get answered."
Loomis on how the various NFL teams protect the information they have gathered in the months leading up to the draft: "I don't know what the other teams are thinking, and I hope they don't know what we're thinking. We don't go out there and knowingly spread bad information. That's not a tactic that I'm comfortable with. But I'd prefer more to keep quiet, to be honest with you," he said. "In fact, even this press conference, if it wasn't mandated I wouldn't do it. It's just difficult, because obviously we want to keep this stuff close to the vest. When the questions start getting a little specific and people start reading into you, that's where we draw the line."
WHAT OTHER EXPERTS ARE SAYING ABOUT THE 2009 NFL DRAFT
"You have to have some flexibility because when you're picking (out of the top 10 in a draft) there can be the opportunity to trade back. Someone could get antsy and is trying to fill a position and you're sitting there. You can take advantage of trading back."—Baltimore Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome
"The first thing you do is cross your fingers and hope somebody falls to you," said Gene Smith, general manager of the Jacksonville Jaguars. "Sometimes that happens late in the draft. What people don't understand is in most drafts there are not 32 'first-round' players. You get into 'second-round' players at the bottom. There can be value in that."
"You still set the board based on value on the quality talent, and then you see who falls to you," explained Tom Modrak, Buffalo Bills' vice president of college scouting. "He may have been 15th on your board and you're picking 23 and you can get him there. That's setting the board properly."
"This year there are really good players down there at the bottom of the draft, the 31-40 players are really solid football players there," said Gil Brandt, longtime Dallas Cowboys personnel man who is a senior analyst and columnist for NFL.com.
"You figure we're picking at nine and then we're picking at 41, so you kind of focus in on the nine and you kind of focus in on the 41, and the guys that are probably going to go in between you may not focus on quite as much. It's a question of just trying to apply your resources to the best spot available." --Green Bay Packers General Manager Ted Thompson