The 2017 New Orleans Saints Draft is now a part of the history books and as we do every single year, it's time here at the Saints News Network to hand out a report card along with our final grade, for this year's Draft class.
The Saints came into the Draft hoping to add some talent at several key positions, in the hope that they can improve their roster enough to snap a consecutive 3-year streak of 7-9 losing seasons and no Playoffs during that time.
Were they able to do that?
Let's take a brief look at each player that they picked, how they "fit" with the team going forward, and our final overall grade for this year's class --- starting first with this talented young man with their top pick.......
PICK #1 (ROUND 1, #11 OVERALL) MARSHON LATTIMORE, CORNERBACK, OHIO STATE
Coming into this year's Draft, Saints brass identified to overwhelming "team needs": an edge rusher to line up on the opposite side of All-Pro defensive end Cam Jordan; and a cornerback to play on the outside boundary on the opposite side of #1 CB (when he's healthy) Delvin Breaux.
The Saints let it slip just hours before the start of the Draft that they were "leaning" towards taking a CB, and NEVER in their wildest dreams did they expect Lattimore to still be there at #11 --- so when they realized that he was, this became the easiest pick to make of opening night.
The Saints obviously have an affinity for players from the Ohio State program, as they now have a total of 5 former Buckeyes players on their roster; but Lattimore joins last year's 2nd Round pick and emerging young superstar WR Michael Thomas as the ones who likely will have the biggest impact going forward on the upcoming 2017 season.
The big concern with Lattimore? His injury history.
Lattimore missed a significant of time early on in his college career, after hamstring issues sidelined him for a total of 21 games in his first 2 years at Ohio State. But he did manage to stay healthy enough to pay a full slate of games (13) in 2016, and rewarded the Buckeyes program with a 2nd-team All-American performance in 2016, with a total of four interceptions that earned him first-team All-Big Ten honors as well.
Lattimore is a phenomenal athlete (he posted a blazing 4.36 seconds in the 40-yard dash and impressive numbers in the vertical leap (38.5 inches) and broad jump (11 feet) at the Scouting Combine), which lends to his capability of being what analysts and scouts refer to as a "lockdown" cornerback.
But clearly with only one true full college season under his belt, Lattimore is a player who is still "growing" with regard to his overall development and especially the mental aspect of the sport (like understanding the complexity of different schemes and coverages). And though he projects as the #2 CB on the outside boundary on the side opposite of Delvin Breaux, Lattimore needs to improve on his ability to cover the slot -- something he'll have no choice to learn how to do at the NFL level.
Player Grade: A-
PICK #2 (ROUND 1, #32 OVERALL): RYAN RAMCZYK, OFFENSIVE TACKLE, WISCONSIN
Given that starting right tackle Zach Strief is 33 years old and very well could be playing in his final season as a Saint, this pick actually made a lot of sense, but taking offensive linemen this high in the Draft is never a popular move among any NFL fan base --- and it certainly drew mixed reviews among the Who Dat faithful.
That said, Saints head coach Sean Payton did say in fact that he wanted to get an offensive tackle in this draft. And Ramczyk (pronounced RAM - CHECK) was a first-team All-American and a projected first-round pick, so getting him at #32 depsite how unpopular it was among Saints fans, was actually a smart move by team brass, since now you have the "replacement" for Strief who likely can play on your line for a decade plus.
The caveat is that the 6-foot-6, 310-pound Ramczyk is what you'd call an"unproven commodity" --- after playing only one season at the FBS / Division I level. Nevertheless, he was the 2nd highest rated tackle in the entire 2017 offensive lineman class; and Saints head coach Sean Payton told reporters later that night after the pick that the Saints had him graded in the top half of Round 1.
Ramczyk actually had quit football for a year and was going to instead pursue a career in welding of all things, since his father has convinced him it was a more reliable way to make money than playing for Division II school Winona State. But Ramczyk eventually playing the sport, and eventually signed with Division III Wisconsin-Stevens Point, before transferring to Wisconsin -- where seemingly overnight he blossomed like a flower into an All-American.
Ramczyk played left tackle for the Badgers, but Payton said they envision him as a right tackle (and the likely the new starting one, going into the future). With the 12-year veteran Strief likely on the "last leg" of his NFL career, this pick was the right one for the Saints to make -- even if the some of the fans didn't like it.
Player Grade: A-
PICK #3 (ROUND 2, #42 OVERALL) MARCUS WILLIAMS, FREE SAFETY, UTAH
With the release of veteran free safety Jairus Byrd in February, New Orleans was likely to target the safety position; despite the presence of last year's 2nd Round pick Vonn Bell and the recent signing of free agent free / strong safety Rafael Bush, who returned to the Saints after a 1-year stint with the Detroit Lions. The Saints could still use some quality depth at the position, especially given many of the 3-safety sets that they use in pass coverage.
Williams tallied 18 turnovers (11 interceptions, 4 forced fumbles, and 3 fumble recoveries) during his three seasons with the Utes. Williams was a three-year starter for the Utes and was an "impact player" on their top-rated defensive unit for the past two seasons. In 2016, he had 64 tackles, five interceptions and two forced fumbles. Prior to that in 2015, he had 65 tackles and five interceptions.
A "ball-hawk" in the truest sense of the word, Williams would give the Saints almost the identical type of skill-set that they THOUGHT that they were originally getting when they signed Jairus Byrd back during the 2014 Free Agency period.
Williams can play the single-high safety spot for Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen's scheme as well; and last year the the 6-foot-1, 202-pounder graded out as PFF’s third-best safety in college football and additionally led all FBS safeties in run-stop percentage. He also manged to finish with the 2nd-highest tackle efficiency (a total of 3 missed tackles in the entire 2016 FBS season) among all safeties, per PFF.
While other higher-rated safeties such as LSU's Jamal Adams and Ohio State's Malik Hooker had gotten most of the attention from analysts leading up to this Draft, a kid like Williams -- who was tucked away quietly in Salt Lake City, Utah for the past 3 years -- is the perfect example of a player who can potentially play very well at the next level, minus the "hype".
Player Grade: A+
PICK #4 (ROUND 3, #67 OVERALL): ALVIN KAMARA, RUNNING BACK, TENNESSEE
The Saints of course just signed veteran free agent and former All-Pro RB Adrian Peterson last week, but Peterson -- just like starter Mark Ingram -- is a "power" runner; and not known for his ability to catch passes out of the backfield as a receiver.
But what the Saints have lacked in recent seasons is another dimension to their running game in Sean Payton's offensive scheme: the "scatback" type of player capable of catching passes out of the backfield like former Saints RB's Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles.
So just imagine if the Saints could select a player capable of filling BOTH roles? That's exactly what they did when they traded up in the 3rd Round with the 49ers, giving up a 2nd Round pick in 2018 plus their final 7th Round pick in this Draft to take speedy University of Tennessee star RB Alvin Kamara.
Kamara had 1,294 rushing yards, 683 receiving yards and 24 total touchdowns (including a punt return) in two seasons at Tennessee, but surprisingly wasn't used in an "every down" role, which he can be . WWL New Orleans TV and Radio analyst Mike Detillier notes in his recently published 2017 Draft Report that Kamara has an "extra gear" in space and he just flies up the seam for huge gains, especially on catching balls out of the backfield.
Detillier says that Kamara's running style and versatility personally reminds him of Tampa Bay RB Doug Martin when he came out of Boise State; and that might be exactly what Sean Payton was thinking as well when he attended a workout with Kamara. Bottom line is that now the Saints are LOADED at the RB position, which can only help 38-year old Saints QB Drew Brees and the offense.
Player Grade: A-
PICK #5 (ROUND 3, #76 OVERALL): ALEX ANZALONE, INSIDE / OUTSIDE LINEBACKER, FLORIDA
Every single year during the Draft, the Saints organization is good for one pick that ends up being a "head scratcher"; and this year's Draft was no exception when the Saints passed on the "edge rusher" position and instead chose University of Florida inside / outside linebacker Alex Anzalone -- who is really a talented player whenever he can actually stay ON the field, and not OFF of it. He's the college version of often-injured Saints weakside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe.
Anzalone only managed to play in a grand total of 31 games in four seasons because of injuries, and he battled an entire series of shoulder injuries during his first three seasons. Nevertheless, he managed to stay healthy enough to play in the Senior Bowl and go through the pre-draft process. As it is, NFL scouts like both his talent and his potential (the Saints themselves obviously agreed with that assessment); which is a reason why the Saints passed on taking an edge rusher like Jordan Willis of Kansas, Tim Williams of Alabama, or talented Youngstown State Division II All-American star Derek Rivers --- whom was taken a few picks later by the Patriots.
The 6-foot-3, 241-pound Anzalone does however have some intriguing athleticism and versatility, which is what Saints brass was likely attracted to when they made this pick; despite his injury-riddled past. He ran the 3rd-fastest 40-yard dash of any linebacker at the NFL scouting combine (4.63 seconds); and it's not a stretch to say that he was playing at a high level of success last season (53 tackles and 3 sacks) until he suffered a broken forearm during Florida's eighth game.
Just like Ellerbe, when Anzalone's healthy he is fully capable capable of being a 3-down LB -- but that's only when he can actually stay healthy enough to remain on the field and not be stuck at the doctor's clinic or trainer's room getting treatment.
The biggest question now regarding Anzalone moving forward: where do you even line him up at?
The Saints have loaded up at linebacker this offseason, signing veterans A.J. Klein and Manti Te'o in free agency to join returning 2016 season veterans Ellerbe, Craig Robertson, Nate Stupar, and of course the "forgotten man" --- 2015 1st Round pick Stephone Anthony.
ESPN Saints beat writer Mike Triplett noted on Friday night after the pick was made that Anzalone will likely play outside linebacker in the Saints’ 4-3 base package, at either "Sam" or the "Will" behind starters Ellerbe and Robertson. Anzalone primarily played on the weakside / "Will" at Florida, but moved was moved around depending on the game plan for a specific opponent from week to week.
Player Grade: C+
PICK #6 (ROUND 3, #103 OVERALL): TREY HENDRICKSON, DEFENSIVE END / EDGE RUSHER, FLORIDA ATLANTIC UNIVERSITY
Coming into this Draft, it was accepted by everyone that getting an edge rusher to complement All-Pro defensive end Cam Jordan was THE biggest "need" on the entire team ; and although the Saints did sign former Arizona Cardinals defensive end Alex Okafor to a 1-year deal a few weeks ago in Free Agency, they cannot count on Okafor beyond 2017.
Add to that the uncertainty surrounding returning 3rd year veteran defensive end Hau'oli Kikaha from what is already the 3rd torn ACL that he's suffered to his left knee in his young career, and it becomes obvious that the Saints needed to make edge rusher a position that they had to address -- so why they waited until the last of their 3 picks (despite their comment to the media that it was simply just how the Draft Board fell) of the 3rd Round, is certainly up for debate.
That said, you've heard it said for months and months now that this Draft was the "deepest" class in years on the defensive side of the football, particularly at the edge pass rusher position; and a player like the one the Saints picked at this spot --- FAU (Florida Atlantic University) defensive end Trey Hendrickson --- is the prime example of why that's so.
The 6-foot-4, 266-pound Hendrickson didn’t earn his starting role until very early on during his sophomore year; but in the subsequent 32 games that he did end up starting after winning the job, the 22-year old posted an impressive stat total of 28 sacks, a whopping 39.5 tackles for loss, and forced seven fumbles. Hendrickson finished as FAU’s all-time leader in tackles for loss, QB sacks, forced fumbles and quarterback hurries.
Hendrickson is a player that despite his "small school" pedigree, shows good natural burst coming off of the outside edge along with a great quickness for that position. While he's not what you'd consider a "great athlete" by any means, he definitely qualifies as a 'pure' pass rusher (in the classic sense) with a "high motor" who can create a whole ton of pressure -- something that other than the notable exception of Cam Jordan, the Saints haven't been able to do very much of in recent seasons.
Hendrickson would probably be used mostly in substitution packages along with Okafor (and Kikaha if he fully recovers) with the Saints to begin his career, but this is a young man who if given an opportunity, can make a real impact and could end up being one of the true "steals" of this year's 2017 Saints Draft class.
Player Grade: B+
PICK #7 (ROUND 6, #196 OVERALL) AL-QUADIN MUHAMMAD, DEFENSIVE END, MIAMI HURRICANES
It just wouldn't be a Saints Draft without a "project player", but when you're picking this late in the Draft as the Saints were here, it's hard to be too critical of any player that they're willing to invest in at this point. The pick of Miami Hurricanes defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad is notable for a lot of things -- the least of which is that if he can get his collective act together, Muhammad could actually be a late-round "gem" for New Orleans.
Palm Beach Post Canes beat writer Matt Porter says that Muhammad, a Newark, N.J. native, was a heralded high school recruit who was suspended for nearly as many games (14) as he played in (17), and finished with 10.5 tackles for loss and 7.0 sacks.
Entering his redshirt junior season, he was dismissed in Aug. 2016 (along with linebacker Jermaine Grace) after UM found he violated NCAA rules by dealing with a South Beach luxury car rental agency. Porter adds that Muhammad was also suspended for the 2014 season for punching a fellow student after UM’s spring game and benched for the first game of 2015; which led many at the school to wonder "what might have been".
Porter notes that Muhammad is an extremely raw and unpolished young player given his playing inexperience, but looks the part of a physical outside edge pass-rusher. NFL.com wrote that he “has the physical traits to warrant a look even though he hasn’t played football in two of the last three seasons. He’s a basic pass rusher who doesn’t have explosive burst upfield and he still has work to do with his hands. At this point, he’s a developmental outside linebacker with character baggage that could have a heavy impact on his draft status.”
ESPN ranked him 22nd among defensive ends and said his “frame and versatility are intriguing,” given that he has played both 4-3 defensive and and 3-4 outside linebacker at Miami, but his maturity is a “substantial concern. … “plays with a chip on his shoulder and [shows] good fight taking on bigger blockers. Relentless would be an overstatement but [displays] good effort.”
Bottom line: Muhammad has an entire "boat load" of potential, and he just needs the right situation to be in with a team that will allow him to grow and develop his skills not only on the field, but OFF of the field as well. As the father of a 4-year old son, perhaps realizing that he now has the opportunity of a lifetime will allow Muhammad to flourish as a man and as a football player, during his time in NOLA.
Player Grade: C
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS (AND THE FINAL GRADE) FOR THE 2017 SAINTS DRAFT:
The Saints actually addressed a handful of team "needs" with this year's Draft, even if their methodology was a bit off from the usual track that most normal NFL teams try to adhere to. The Saints actually addressed a handful of team "needs" with this year's Draft, even if their methodology was a bit off from the usual track that most normal NFL teams try to adhere to.
The Saints in no particular order were able to get #1 rated and "lockdown" corner of the entire Draft, a likely starter at right tackle for the next decade or so, a "ball-hawk" and hard-hitting free safety for their secondary, a speedy "scatback" to fill the old Darren Sproles role that's been missing from the offense, and an underrated but outstanding defensive end coming off of the outside edge.
To be sure, the pick of Anzalone was baffling at best --- but we all know that if you've been following the Saints for any number of years, they're always due to make you scream obscenities at the TV at least once per Draft; and this year was no exception. The Muhammad pick at the end could prove to be intriguing, but then again it could also blow right up in their face.
But that said, the obvious influence of Director of College Scouting Jeff Ireland has never been more apparent; and though the results have been somewhat mixed ("hits": Micheal Thomas, Sheldon Rankins; "misses": Stephone Anthony, Garrett Grayson; "up in the air": Andrus Peat, Hau'oli Kikaha, Von Bell) over the past 3 Drafts now, he seems to have been a calming effect over the entire process.
Yes, the Saints addressed several team 'needs', which is always the main goal of any Draft.
But for a team that many consider to be in a "win now" mode before their future Hall-of-Fame 38-year old QB retires, it just seemed to lack that one home run pick or bold move that screams out that they're really trying to (to use a very old outdated term from a bygone Era) "go for the gusto".
Nevertheless, it's safe to say that this current version of the 2017 Saints looks to be on paper anyway, better than the team that finished 7-9 and missed the NFL Playoffs for a 3rd straight year in 2016.
Whether they really are or they aren't, is still yet to be determined........