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Saints 2021 Draft Class Poised for Stardom?

Two rookies from the Saints 2021 draft class had strong inaugural seasons. Here's a look at the potential on this entire draft class on New Orleans hopes in 2022.
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The New Orleans Saints have drafted well in recent years. Since 2016, smart drafting has helped them put together one of the most talented rosters in the NFL.

Several of their picks over the last six years have been immediate contributors, but it can also sometimes take a few years before a draft class will pay dividends. The Saints hope that this is the case with a 2020 class that has underperformed thus far.

Such has not been the case with their 2021 selections. This group has already produced two top-tier starters, and that's with their first-round pick missing nearly all of last season. It’s too early to tell if this draft class will compare with the best ones in franchise history.

2016 and 2017 produced eight of the league's best players at their positions. The draft classes of 2006, 1981, and 1986 produced 13 players in the franchise's Hall of Fame and built the Saints into perennial contenders.

The Saints 2021 draftees have gotten off to an equally promising start. Let’s have a look at how they performed last season, and what their impacts could be in 2022.

PAYTON TURNER, DE

  • 1st Round (28th overall selection)
New Orleans Saints defensive end Payton Turner (98) engages Atlanta Falcons offensive tackle Jake Matthews (70). Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans Saints defensive end Payton Turner (98) engages Atlanta Falcons offensive tackle Jake Matthews (70). Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Turner was a surprise opening round pick out of the University of Houston. After 8.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss over his last two collegiate seasons, he vaulted up draft boards with standout performances in scouting evaluations. New Orleans thought highly enough of him that they bypassed more glaring needs at receiver, cornerback, and linebacker with the selection.

Turner was hampered by injuries from the start. He was sidelined for much of training camp and preseason, missing valuable reps. Finally getting on the field in week 2 against Carolina, Turner flashed the ability that New Orleans saw when they drafted him. He had a sack, five pressures, and three tackles for loss in just 31 snaps against the Panthers.

After that strong debut, he played solid football over the next few weeks as a member of a deep edge rotation. Unfortunately, Turner sustained a shoulder injury during a Week 9 loss to Atlanta. The injury would sideline him for the rest of the year, limiting his rookie campaign to just five games.

An athletic wonder at 6’6” and 270-Lbs., much more will be expected from the 24-year-old Turner in his second season. He was able to play both inside and along the edge in college, something that we saw a sample of in 2021. His versatility fits right in with a New Orleans defensive line with excellent depth, talent, and versatility.

Possessing impressive agility for his size, Turner puts tackles on their heels quickly and has a good explosion off the snap. Once engaged, his upper body strength allows him to seal the edge against the run or push blockers into the pass pocket. He has explosive speed in pursuit to track down ball carriers and close on the quarterback. His inside spin move can be lethal to pass blockers.

Turner’s bull-rush ability, along with the athleticism to develop other pass rush moves, still gives him a tremendous upside. He’ll have to compete for snaps against perennial Pro Bowler Cam Jordan, developing star Marcus Davenport, and underrated contributors Tanoh Kpassagnon and Carl Granderson. Turner’s development as a run defender is also crucial for additional playing time.

PETE WERNER, LB

  • 2nd Round (60th overall)
New Orleans Saints linebacker Pete Werner (20) tackles Seattle Seahawks running back Alex Collins (41). Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans Saints linebacker Pete Werner (20) tackles Seattle Seahawks running back Alex Collins (41). Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

After a standout career at Ohio State, Werner was selected to fill a New Orleans need at linebacker.

The seventh linebacker chosen, Werner flashed the potential of a future Pro Bowl regular. An early season injury to veteran LB Kwon Alexander thrust Werner into a bigger role early on, but he responded with a strong performance.

Werner played in 15 of 17 contests and was in on 40% of the defensive snaps. He contributed 62 tackles, including four for loss, and provided consistent play against both the run and pass. His performance was impressive enough that the team didn't re-sign Alexander this offseason.

Without Alexander, much more will be expected from the 23-year-old Werner in 2022. The Saints ask a lot from their linebackers, often employing just two in their base alignments. He’ll have to improve as a pass rusher, but otherwise Werner checks off every necessary box for every down duties.

At 6’3” and 242-Lbs., Werner has the size and strength to hold up against the run. He also has the speed for sideline to sideline pursuit and sifts through blocks effectively to the ball carrier. Werner possesses excellent awareness in zone coverage, but also has the fluid athleticism to match up with backs or tight ends man to man.

Playing alongside All-Pro LB Demario Davis, Werner has the versatility and football IQ to play either inside or outside. He’ll have high expectations after a promising rookie campaign to develop into a consistent playmaker for a New Orleans defense that lacks proven depth at linebacker.

PAULSON ADEBO, CB

  • 3rd Round (76th overall)
New Orleans Saints cornerback Paulson Adebo (29) intercepts a pass from Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Bob Self/Florida Times-Union via Imagn Content Services, LLC

New Orleans Saints cornerback Paulson Adebo (29) intercepts a pass from Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Bob Self/Florida Times-Union via Imagn Content Services, LLC

New Orleans finally addressed the cornerback position that many thought they’d do in the opening round by trading up to select Stanford's Adebo in the third round. A first-round talent who opted out of the 2020 collegiate season, Adebo was the tenth corner selected. His play as a rookie would cause several teams to regret bypassing him.

Adebo started every game as a rookie and started his career strong by giving up only one completion on five targets and intercepting a pass in a season-opening rout of Green Bay.

Targeted often opposite shut-down CB Marshon Lattimore, Adebo responded by tying for the team lead with 3 interceptions, breaking up 8 throws, and allowing less than 62% completion rate when targeted.

The 23-year-old Adebo also proved valuable in run support. He recorded 66 tackles, including four for a loss. Lattimore and Adebo were one of the league's top cornerback tandems for a New Orleans defense that didn't allow a 300-yard passer and just one 100-yard receiver over its final nine contests.

At 6’1” and 192-Lb. Adebo is a physical defender with fluid athleticism. His natural coverage skills allow him to lock up wideouts one-on-one, a perfect complement to the elite Lattimore. He also has outstanding awareness and ball skills in off-ball coverage.

Adebo didn’t just fill a huge void on the Saints defense last season. His combination of coverage skills, open field tackling ability, and playmaking potential gives him the look of a perennial Pro Bowler. Lattimore, Adebo, and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson have the ability to lock up the league's best receiver units, allowing the defense to be more aggressive and creative in their schemes.

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IAN BOOK, QB

  • 4th Round (133rd overall)
Jun 2, 2022; New Orleans Ian Book (16) works on passing drills during organized team activities at the Saints Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY

Jun 2, 2022; New Orleans Ian Book (16) works on passing drills during organized team activities at the Saints Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY

Book was one of college football's most successful winners over his four seasons at Notre Dame. Perceived physical limitations caused him to slip to the fourth round, where the Saints made him the ninth signal caller chosen. Because of a training camp competition between Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill at quarterback, Book's reps were limited during preseason.

The plan was for Book to sit, watch, and learn the offense in 2021. He was inactive for 14 of the team’s 17 games. However, that plan was scrapped during a Week 16 loss to Miami when injuries and Covid forced Book into starting duties.

Predictably, he struggled for a team missing 28 regular contributors. Book was sacked 8 times and completed just 12 of 20 throws with 2 interceptions in a 20-3 loss.

Undersized at 6-feet and 205-Lbs. and lacking ideal arm strength, Book may never be a regular NFL starter. However, he’ll have a better opportunity to prove doubters wrong this preseason. Winston is the unquestioned starter, Hill has moved to tight end, and the Saints signed QB Andy Dalton to provide veteran backup experience.

Ideally, Ian Book won't be a factor in the 2022 season. But he still has a chance to carve out a role if his athleticism, football IQ, and accuracy can overcome his other limitations.

LANDON YOUNG, OT

  • 6th Round (206th overall)
New Orleans Saints offensive tackle Landon Young (67) prepares to block against the Philadelphia Eagles. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans Saints offensive tackle Landon Young (67) prepares to block against the Philadelphia Eagles. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The Saints have had a lot of success with linemen taken in the middle and late rounds of the draft. They may have found another in Young, taken out of Kentucky.

Young impressed coaches with his footwork during training camp and preseason. He’d see little action early in the year, playing just three offensive snaps over the first nine contests on a New Orleans line among the deepest and most talented in the league.

A never ending mountain of injuries up front robbed the offensive line of their depth and effectiveness, forcing Young into a starting role in week 11 against Philadelphia. Young had a solid performance against a talented Eagles defensive front. He played all but one snap during the game, despite suffering a foot injury in the first half that sidelined him the rest of the year.

Capable of playing either left or right tackle, Young moves fluidly for a player of his size (6’7” and 321-Lbs.) and has solid upper body strength. He could be in the mix for the team’s third tackle spot.

The Saints used a first-round pick on OT Trevor Penning to replace departed free agent Terron Armstead. Penning will compete with veteran James Hurst for the left tackle spot. However, Hurst could also be used at guard, especially if Young shows that he could capably step in as starter if called upon.

KAWAAN BAKER, WR

  • 7th Round (255th overall)
Jun 14, 2022; New Orleans Saints receiver Kawaan Baker (87) during minicamp at the Saints Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Jun 14, 2022; New Orleans Saints receiver Kawaan Baker (87) during minicamp at the Saints Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Baker, a developmental project out of South Alabama, was taken with the fifth-from-last pick in the draft. He’d spend most of his rookie year on the practice squad, even on a Saints offense that struggled to produce at wide receiver. Baker was active in just two games and played 27 snaps, none on offense and all on special teams.

Baker has terrific speed and outstanding leaping ability, along with good size at 6’1” and 215-Lbs. However, he’ll have to prove that he can get separation at the NFL level, especially on a much improved New Orleans receiving corps.

All-Pro WR Michael Thomas is back after season-ending ankle surgery. The Saints also spent a first-round choice on Ohio State WR Chris Olave and signed five-time Pro Bowler Jarvis Landry. Baker will battle for one of the final few roster spots at the position with established weapons Deonte Harty, Marquez Callaway, and Tre'Quan Smith, along with newcomers Dai'Jean Dixon, Rashid Shaheed, and Kirk Merritt.

No NFL team has had more success than the Saints at finding wide receiver talent in the late rounds or as undrafted signings over the years. It’s possible that Kawaan Baker could be another of those finds, but he’ll have an uphill battle to prove it.

Is the 2021 New Orleans draft class poised for stardom?

Paulson Adebo and Pete Werner are already established starters who are expected to develop into Pro Bowl quality players. Payton Turner has the potential to be a difference-maker on the defensive line. If Landon Young, Ian Book, or Kawaan Baker can develop into reliable depth, then this draft class will be an even bigger success.

It’s obviously too soon to compare this draft class with those greats, or even with other solid classes of 1993, 2002, and 2008. At the very least, these 2021 draftees will have a major impact on the Saints success in 2022.

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