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2020 NFL Draft Grades – New Orleans Saints

How does a team maximize a four-man draft class, the smallest in the NFL? It attacks undrafted free agency, which is precisely what the Saints did, netting the league’s best crop of UDFAs in 2020.
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Given the months and months of build-up to the annual NFL draft, the rush to summarize a team’s rookie draft class in a few sentences and stamp a letter grade on it has never quite made much sense to me.

In the past, I’ve compared this process to patrons at a restaurant complimenting (or complaining to) the chef based on the menu, rather than waiting to actually taste the food.

In much this same way, it obviously takes time to properly evaluate a draft. Given all of the complexities of the 2020 NFL draft, specifically, this is especially true.

So, while we cannot skip years ahead to know for certain which players will ultimately exceed or fail to live up to expectations in the NFL, we can provide a much deeper dive into each team’s rookie class.

Therefore, in a 32-part series, will be providing a detailed breakdown of each of the NFL teams’ rookie hauls, following the original draft order. Each team will be evaluated on the quality, quantity and relative safety of their draft classes (including undrafted free agents), with specific players recognized as Best Player, Best Value and Best Project, culminating in one “final” grade.

Today’s team: New Orleans Saints

Head Coach: Sean Payton

General Manager: Mickey Loomis

Players selected in 2020:

Round 1, Pick 24 overall: C Cesar Ruiz, Michigan

Round 3, Pick 74 overall: OLB Zack Baun, Wisconsin

Round 3, Pick 105 overall: TE Adam Trautman, Dayton

Round 7, Pick 240 overall: QB Tommy Stevens, Mississippi State

Key Undrafted Free Agents:

DT Malcolm Roach, Texas

WR Juwan Johnson, Oregon

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WR Marquez Callaway, Tennessee

OL Calvin Throckmorton, Oregon

OL Darrin Paulo, Utah

LB Joe Bachie, Michigan State

RB Tony Jones, Jr., Notre Dame

Overview of the Saints’ 2020 draft:

Entering the 2020 NFL draft with a league-low five selections - including just one amongst the first 73 picks – the New Orleans Saints seemingly had little choice but to prioritize quality over quantity. That reality would be a real problem for most franchises. But this is a club, of course, coming off back to back 13-win seasons and armed with the NFL’s all-time leading passer, Drew Brees, desperate for one last taste of Super Bowl glory. Building and maintaining an offense around Brees and masterful play-caller Sean Payton has been priority No. 1 throughout much of Mickey Loomis’ career, justifying the surprising decision to draft Michigan center Cesar Ruiz at No. 24 overall after using his top pick in the 2019 draft on fellow pivot, Erik McCoy. If the Ruiz selection was initially met with question marks, the Saints’ only other choices in the 2020 draft were followed with exclamation points, as Loomis packaged a combination of current and future draft picks in bold trades with the Cleveland Browns and Minnesota Vikings to acquire Wisconsin linebacker Zack Baun and Dayton tight end Adam Trautman in the third round. The trade up for Dayton was particularly bold with Loomis shipping the Saints’ 4, 5, 6 and 7 round 2020 draft picks to land the small-school star at No. 105 overall. New Orleans entered Day Three of the draft with zero selections but ultimately traded back into the seventh round, sending the Houston Texans a sixth round pick in the 2021 draft for the right to draft Mississippi State quarterback Tommy Stevens 240 overall. Assigning grades for drafts always come with a “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” caveat with New Orleans’ tiny but talented class likely to draw all sorts of polarizing opinions, either rewarding or criticizing the Saints’ for their highly aggressive trades. When evaluating the Saints’ work in the 2020 draft, it is important to include a loaded undrafted free agent class, arguably the richest in the NFL this year. Seven of the Saints’ 12-man UDFA class earned draftable grades on my board.

Best Player of the Saints’ 2020 Draft: C Cesar Ruiz

Before breaking down Ruiz as an individual prospect, it is important to first establish New Orleans’ plan with him and McCoy. According to SI’s Albert Breer, the Saints plan to slide McCoy – who started all 17 regular and post season games for the Saints at center as a rookie – outside to guard with Ruiz handling the snaps to Brees.

Asking any player to switch positions in the NFL obviously comes with some risk, especially given how well that McCoy played a year ago. The Saints’ decision is further complicated by the fact that Ruiz is entering the NFL less polished than McCoy did. Ruiz does offer a tantalizing combination of initial quickness and knockback power and possesses the fire hydrant-like frame so conducive to winning leverage battles. Taller, slimmer and more agile, McCoy has a prototypical guard frame and, like Ruiz, started a few games there in college so the transition should not be that difficult. Once the wrinkles are ironed out, the Saints’ interior should be as stout as any in the NFL, which is critical for Brees, and not just because he’s 41-years old. Brees has told the Saints and others close to him that outside rushers do not affect him as much as disruption in his face, so reinforcing the middle will continue to be a huge priority as long as he is taking snaps for the Saints.

Best Value of the Saints’ 2020 Draft: OLB Zack Baun

A dominant senior season (and diluted urine sample from the Combine) made Baun one of the most talked about prospects in the build-up to the 2020 NFL draft. In his second season as a starter for his home-state Badgers, Baun exploded for 19.5 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks in helping Wisconsin reach the Rose Bowl to cap his career. He followed that up with a strong showing at the Senior Bowl, building buzz that he could crack the first round. Instead, Baun slipped all the way through the second frame and into the third before the Saints traded up to nab him. At No. 74 overall, Baun would be characterized as a steal by many but his fit in New Orleans is especially clear given the Saints’ struggles with durability and upcoming contracts at linebacker. Each of the Saints’ projected starting linebackers – Kiko Alonso, Demario Davis and Alex Anzalone – are entering the final year of their respective deals with Davis the only who finished last year healthy. Baun’s experience and strengths lie with his ability to attack off the edge, but he possesses the instincts, physicality and agility to handle any of the other traditional linebacker duties, providing the club with all sorts of flexibility in 2020 and beyond.

Best Project of the Saints’ 2020 Draft: TE Adam Trautman

With Payton calling the plays and Brees delivering some of the most catchable footballs in league history, pass-catchers love New Orleans almost as much as Mardi Gras enthusiasts. Michael Thomas set a new NFL record with 149 receptions a year ago (45 more than the next NFL wide receiver) and he is the odds-on-favorite to repeat this upcoming season, as well. Journeyman tight end Jared Cook, meanwhile, was an immediate hit in the Bayou, catching a career-high nine touchdowns in his 11 NFL season – the same number he’d caught in his previous four campaigns in Oakland, Green Bay and St. Louis. Now, with those two stat-monsters taking most of the passes, there could be little left for a rookie, especially one making a massive jump in competition like Trautman, who played his college ball against the likes of Indiana State, Valparaiso and Stetson. Trautman proved up to the challenge at the Senior Bowl, however, showing impressive athleticism, confidence and – perhaps most importantly, ultra-soft hands to pluck the football. If given an opportunity, Trautman could surprise with just how quickly he makes an impact as opponents will understandably be focusing their attention elsewhere and Brees is a master at finding the open targets.

Overall Grade for the Saints’ 2020 Draft: B-

Previous 2020 NFL Draft Report Cards: Cincinnati Bengals |Washington Redskins | Detroit Lions | New York Giants | Miami Dolphins | Los Angeles Chargers | Carolina Panthers | Arizona Cardinals | Jacksonville Jaguars | Cleveland Browns | New York Jets | Las Vegas Raiders | Indianapolis Colts | Tampa Bay Buccaneers | Denver Broncos | Atlanta Falcons | Dallas Cowboys | Pittsburgh Steelers | Chicago Bears | Los Angeles Rams | Philadelphia Eagles | Buffalo Bills | New England Patriots | New Orleans Saints | Houston Texans | Minnesota Vikings | Seattle Seahawks | Baltimore Ravens | Green Bay Packers | Tennessee Titans | San Francisco 49ers | Kansas City Chiefs