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WHAT: New Orleans Saints
WHEN: Wednesday, Aug. 15
WHERE: Metairie, La.
HOW: Drove from Houston. For some reason, I thought it was a four-hour drive, but I should have checked in advance, because it was actually closer to a six-hour drive, extended by awful traffic in Baton Rouge. There’s not a whole lot between Houston and New Orleans on I-10, but making that drive was worth it to have dinner in NOLA on that Tuesday night.

The Saints’ 2017 draft wasn’t expected to go down this way. Marshon Lattimore wasn’t supposed to still be available at No. 11—New Orleans’s first pick. Ryan Ramczyk’s hip was the only reason he made it to No. 32. And then there was the serendipitous way the second round played out. Looking back, the Saints didn’t miss on much of anything that weekend.

A few weeks before the draft, Sean Payton was traveling to work out players at Ohio State and Michigan, but he couldn’t shake an unmistakable feeling—almost like a non-negotiable planted in his head—lingering from his private workout with Alvin Kamara at Tennessee’s campus.

“I remember leaving on that flight thinking: We have to draft this player,” Payton says. “[Kamara was going to be] our second rounder, the 10th pick [of that round]. Well, Marcus Williams got bumped. All of the sudden, he fell and, man, we’ve got an opportunity to select Marcus Williams, so we took him. But at the same time, you think, ‘sometimes you’re just going to miss on a player,’ because you know he’s not going to make it to your next pick. So we start calling, calling …”

New Orleans found a partner—San Francisco—who was willing to deal, and the team sent its seventh and 2018 second-rounder (which, interestingly enough, was dealt again, the Redskins, who drafted LSU’s Derrius Guice) to San Francisco for the No. 67 pick, and the Saints wound up with the four guys they’d considered to be first-round talents going into the draft.

Landing that kind of haul is rare. Having all of them pan out takes it to another level. Lattimore was Defensive Rookie of the Year, Kamara was Offensive Rookie of the Year. Ramczyk was the team’s right tackle from the jump, moonlighted at left tackle, and played every offensive snap last year. Williams was third on the roster in snaps played (1071) and, despite the Minnesota Miracle, looks like a star at free safety.

Want to keep going? Third-rounder Alex Anzalone started at linebacker in the team’s first four games before a shoulder injury ended his rookie year, another third-rounder, Trey Hendrickson, will be a factor on the edge after logging spot duty there in 2017.

So if this class can match that, you’re talking about one of the best of all-time, potentially.

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“It’s so important in so many ways,” Payton said. “The number one thing, that draft class, many of them are playing starting roles. You get a corner like Lattimore. He’s starting and playing well. Then, Ramcyzk came in and played every game last year, started at left tackle, and he’s solidified our right tackle position. … it’s one thing to say [our draft picks are] playing, but they’re all playing at a winning level.”

And interestingly enough, as impressive as the group it is, it does have a precedent for Payton. The first class he drafted in tandem with GM Mickey Loomis as Saints coach, the 2006 class, had a whopping six players (Reggie Bush, Roman Harper, Jahri Evans, Rob Ninkovich, Zach Strief, Marques Colston) who played 10 or more years in the NFL.

There is, of course, the obvious comparison in the quality of player—it’ll be tough for the 2017 group to match the long-term balance of the ’06 class, but the high end production has a chance to be better. And there is, more importantly, the impact each group had on winning. The 2006 rookies helped key a sudden turnaround, and deep playoff run. Ditto for the ’17 rookies.

“It’s hard not to make that comparison,” said Drew Brees, the one player who was there for both. “We’re only a year into it, that’s why I don’t want to get ahead of myself. But that ’06 class, that was unbelievable the amount of years those guys played, highly productive players, not just journeymen hanging on. Instrumental pieces of teams. So if this class can match that, you’re talking about one of the best of all-time, potentially.

“Look at the productivity of those first four picks—Marshon, Ramczyk, Alvin and Marcus—all very instrumental in a lot of things we were able to do defensively, offensively, as a team last year. You never know what to expect from rookies, even high-round guys, because it’s a process. That was a pleasant surprise. And you want to keep building off it. I think we’re just scratching the surface.”

As it is, the Saints are back in a championship window less than a year after there were questions about the future of the roster, and the future of Brees and Payton. Thanks to the work of Loomis, Payton and assistant GM Jeff Ireland in April 2017, the complexion of the whole operation has changed. Hopes are high, and the Saints aren’t running from that—the slogan on the building says Prove Them Right. If what the 2006 class did is a precursor to the impact Lattimore and Kamara and the rest will have, New Orleans could be proving them right for some time to come.

“Those guys [in 2006] all played 10 or more years. It was an outstanding class,” Payton said. “It was the foundation of what became a Super Bowl team in ’09. When you have a class that contributes in a winning way, and you hit on a number of players like that, man, your 53 on a roster, we’re talking about 15, 20 percent. That’s significant.”

And like Brees said, we’ve only seen the start of it.

OH. I DIDN’T KNOW THAT: Williams has come back from the Missed Tackle Heard ’Round The South with a vengeance. On balance, the coaches believe he’s been the best player on defense not named Cam Jordan through the spring and summer, and is showing range on the back end that figures to affect the way that every offense attacks the Saints. It wouldn’t surprise anyone here to see a double-digit interception season out of the 21-year-old.

STORYLINE TO WATCH: The defense has a chance to be really, really good. For the better part of the Drew Brees Era, scrimmaging on Airline Drive pitting the first-team offense against the first-team defense has routinely featured the former kicking the latter’s rear end. This year, according to a number of staffers, that hasn’t been the case whatsoever. In fact, it’s been close to dead even. Jordan and Sheldon Rankins look stout up front, Lattimore and Williams are anchors on the back end, there’s a lot of promise in second-wave guys like Anzalone and Hendrickson, and veteran role-player additions Demario Davis and Kurt Coleman look like they’re working out. And that’s before getting to freak rookie edge rusher Marcus Davenport, who’s been banged up and may need a little time to develop. With ex-Raiders coach Dennis Allen at the controls as coordinator, it’s fair for expectations for this group to be as high as they’ve been in a long time.

TOP POSITION BATTLE: It’s crazy to consider that a temp role is the one to watch here, but that’s how balanced the Saints roster has become. So let’s go with the battle to take Mark Ingram’s carries during the veteran’s four-game PED suspension. The Saints have veteran journeymen Terrance West and Shane Vereen in the mix, along with 2017 rookie Trey Edmunds and 2018 sixth-round pick Boston Scott, but 24-year-old darkhorse Jonathan Williams might be the man to watch here, given the camp he’s having. Why is this important? Well, the Saints would really like to manage Kamara’s workload. One scout I talked to about it analogized it perfectly, saying the sophomore phenom is better utilized “as a sniper rifle than a machine gun.” Having a viable early-down option would help the coaches do that.

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OFFBEAT OBSERVATION: Watching this group practice inside the field house, the team speed was noticeable, and two things stood out in that regard. First, watching Kamara move at ground level is wild—he’s one of those guys who moves so smooth and fast that he just seems to eat up real estate. Second, rookie receiver Tre’Quan Smith bears watching. Michael Thomas is always impressive physically, and Ted Ginn still has world-class, and Smith, the team’s third-round pick, didn’t look out of place at all with that group. The coaches have been impressed, too. If he proves he can be consistent, there might be a role for him here right away.

PARTING THOUGHTS: During my talk with Brees (there’s more where that came from here), we wound up talking about Payton’s longevity in New Orleans—there are plenty of people in the league who figured he’d be somewhere else now—and I thought the quarterback’s view on it was interesting. Here’s it is:

“I think there are a lot of coaches that have a shelf life. I’ve even heard where [Payton mentor Bill] Parcells has said himself, four or five years, I think that was in his documentary—you can only be somewhere for four or five years, and then guys begin to sort of tune you out, because they’ve heard it so many times. So then you lose the team and it’s time to move on. Sean’s interesting, because here we are going on 13 years together, and we’ve had stretches of guys here for lengths of time, we had that group of receivers that was here for seven or eight years, we’ve had some defensive guys here for long stretches. I think it’s unique with Sean doesn’t seem to wear on us, you know when it’s coming, you know he’s going to challenge you, you know there’s a level of expectation, a level of discipline, and yet, we’re having fun still, there’s still this great relationship. And I think that’s because you know with Sean, he’s going to tell you how it is. he’s going to be fair with you, he’s going to be honest with you. It’s not always going to be what you want to hear, but I think guys appreciate that, guys respect that.”

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