Indianapolis – The number of picks change.
The process doesn’t.
The New Orleans Saints made seven draft picks last year, seven in 2017, five in ’16 and nine in ’15. They’ll enter this year’s NFL Draft – April 25-27 in Nashville, Tenn. – with six picks: A second-rounder, a fifth-rounder, two sixths and two sevenths.
The goal hasn’t changed, whether it comes to landing another Marcus Williams (second round, ’17), Tyeler Davison (fifth round, ’15) or Will Clapp (seventh round, ’18).
As the Saints participate this year in the NFL Combine, they’re looking to find the right fit.
“The process is similar,” said Assistant General Manager/College Scouting Director Jeff Ireland. “We’re always going to look at every player like we have an early first-round pick. I always look at it as whether we’re picking a player early or not, it’s still a historical document that we’ve got to collect the information for three or four years later. So we do the work. That’s our job. Regardless of whether we have picks or not, we’re going to get it done.”
“We have the picks that we have,” General Manager Mickey Loomis said. “The only thing I’ll say is, every year there are players that are in the back half of the draft that end of being contributors and being real good players in our league for a long time. We’ve had some of those guys over the years and our goal is to identify and acquire players of that caliber regardless of the position that we are in the draft. Our scouts are really hard at work, they’ve been hard at work, our coaches are diving into it and I’m pretty confident we’ll be able to find some players that can help us.”
On paper, the Saints’ needs don’t appear to be significant.
The team went 13-3, including a 10-game winning streak, won the NFC South Division for the second straight year, earned the No. 1 seed and advanced to the NFC Championship Game last season. It has a couple of notable unrestricted free agents (running back Mark Ingram and Davison headline the list) but appears otherwise solid.
Still, the draft remains crucial.
“We like our roster, for sure,” Ireland said. “We’ve done a good job of building the depth of our roster, but we’re still going down the same path of getting guys to compete for those roster spots. We know where our depth is. So we know where we’ve got to go and try to find places that we need to compete for an upgrade, and that’s what we’re continuing to do.”
Per the usual, the draft will supplement free agency. The free agent process already is underway; last year, during the Combine, the Saints agreed to terms with unrestricted free agent safety Kurt Coleman.
“Every year when it finishes, you start with your own team,” Coach Sean Payton said. “We’ve got a handful of player that we’ll have to work through, whether we’re redoing a contract or giving a new contract. I think that’s where the focus has been for Mickey and I in the last several weeks. Now with the draft coming up, free agency coming up, you do kind of look at your roster, where can you improve it with the right fit.”
Of the current roster, Payton said, “We’re experienced and strong in the offensive line. The same way in the defensive line; now, be it we have to deal with an injury to (defensive tackle) Sheldon (Rankins) and there’s a couple, I would say, there’s a couple of positions.
“Take, for instance, running back. How things unfold with Mark’s contract, that’s an important position for us because both he and Alvin have given us a really good combination of runners. That same thing can exist throughout your roster. It might be your fourth linebacker, Craig Robertson, and the significance of his job and what he does. Those are the specifics regarding our team, the Saints, before we even get to the players outside that team.”
Said Loomis: “I think this: We had a really good record last year and our coaches did a fantastic job coaching our team. But this is a new team. I think we’ve got a good mix of young and veteran players, and we’ll see how this year shapes out. It’s an entirely new season and we’ve got to start from square 1.”
Part of the yearly reboot, Loomis said, is to fill out the roster well enough so that as the Saints get into the draft, they’re not concerned about a particular position, only about getting the best player available and being able to take that player.
“Obviously, as we get closer and we see how our roster shapes up, we’ll get a clearer picture,” he said. “But we’ve got a long time to go before then.”
Before then, the evaluation process will continue. Ireland said that defensive line appears to be a strength in this year’s draft.
“I definitely see there’s a lot more depth in that particular position, especially defensive end,” he said. “Defensive tackle may not be as deep, but there’s certainly numbers there as well.”
“I think it’s a good D-line draft in general, I think it’s a good draft at corner, receiver depending on what you’re looking for, interior offensive linemen maybe a little bit more than the tackle position,” Payton said. “Those are some things that, coming off the winter meetings, that you’re able to see.”
What also will be on display is that regardless of the number or placement of picks, the Saints will be looking to find the right picks.
“Every draft is different because the players are different, and the approach to every draft is going to be different,” Ireland said. “Your needs and your wants and your musts are different. It’s hard to say that I’m approaching it differently, but you are. You’re approaching it different because your team is different and the players are different. It’s just a matter of finding the right guys and making sure you’re cutting down your margin for error on every single player, and putting those players in a position where you can draft them.
“It’s the same process that we’ve been using since I’ve been here, and it’s just a matter of cutting down your margin for error, making sure that the makeup of the player and the athleticism of the player matches what our coaches are looking for.
“My job is to find the head coach players that fit the kind of guy he wants in the locker room, the kind of guys we already have in the locker room. Make sure that they fit, make sure that they’re going to grow and continue to develop, and want to do that. And then the right athlete that’s going have a chance to develop and be a starter or a good player in the league.”