The New Orleans Saints are now only 4 days away from the start of the opening night of the 2017 NFL Draft; and as Saints fans everywhere are buzzing with anticipation, writers and analysts all over the country that cover the Draft annually are now releasing the final versions of their Mock Drafts --- and this morning here at the Saints News Network, we are "in that number".
In our Final Saints Mock Draft this morning, we present the picks for the Saints of the players that we think will likely be available when the Saints have their turn "on the clock" in each round.
The Saints are coming off a 3rd consecutive 7-9 losing season, the longest such streak in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees Era. As a result, the Saints haven't reached the NFL Playoffs since the end of the 2013 season, which of course also makes 3 straight years as well.
A few quick things to keep in mind before we start:
The Saints will be picking at #11, 32, 42, 76, 103, 196, and finally at 229 during the Draft, which this year will take place in Philadelphia beginning this Thursday night, April 27th and ending on next Saturday, April 29th. That means that they have 5 out of the first 103 picks --- and a very special and unique opportunity to get some of the absolute best college football players available in this year's Draft class.
However, the Saints do not have a pick in either the 4th or 5th Round.
And while there’s a strong argument to made for the Saints to go “all in” with defensive players in this year’s Draft, they could also decide to further strengthen or upgrade their top-rated offense as well.
One last thing to remember: the Saints have been rumored for weeks to already have a pre-arranged deal in place to acquire 27-year old All-Pro and 2-time World Champion cornerback Malcolm Butler from the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots in exchange for one of these picks (likely #32), but as of this very moment no such deal has been announced and it's very possible that it might not happen at all.
This Final Saints Mock Draft will reflect that, as we makes the picks for each round with the presumption that a potential Saints trade with New England for Butler will NOT happen.
So with those things in mind, let's cut right to the chase; as the Saints News Network presents our last and FINAL 2017 Saints Mock Draft --- beginning with this talented young man with their first pick at #11 overall........
ROUND 1 (#11 OVERALL) HAASON REDDICK, LINEBACKER, TEMPLE UNIVERSITY
No one player in the entire 2017 Draft class has seen his stock rise any higher in the past few weeks than Reddick; whom Bleacher Report's Matt Miller says that NFL scouts now realize is a three-down defensive weapon and not just an undersized pass-rusher destined to rotate into a defensive lineup on third downs.
Just the other day, ESPN and WWL New Orleans TV and Radio football analyst Mike Detillier told me that he believes Reddick is now considered a Top 10 player in the class, which makes sense when you consider that he had an incredible 22.5 tackles for a loss and 9.5 sacks in 2016.
Reddick has drawn many comparisons to Denver Broncos All-Pro linebacker Von Miller because of his ability to play as an "in-the-box" linebacker but also because he can line up on the outside as a stand-up pass rusher coming off of the edge. But being a bit older than most analysts that cover the NFL Draft every year, I compared him to Hall of Fame former Saints linebacker legend Rickey Jackson; because just as Jackson did coming out of college from the University of Pittsburgh back in 1981, Reddick is a "hand in the dirt" 4-3 defensive end who most teams that run the 3-4 defensive scheme, envision utilizing him as an outside linebacker.
But because of his athleticism, Reddick can not only rush the passer off the outside edge, but he's athletic enough (as he showed back at the Senior Bowl in late January) to line up as both a middle linebacker or weakside linebacker in the 4-3 as well, making him what's known as "scheme versatile" -- allowing him to play for any NFL defense regardless if they play the 4-3 or the 3-4.
What sets Reddick apart from many players in this Draft besides his versatility, is his ability to DOMINATE a game; much in the very same manner as Jackson did all of those years ago. A bone-jarring hit here. "Blowing up" a RB in the backfield for a loss there. Sacking a QB on a 3rd down pass-rushing situation in a game's most crucial of moments.
The biggest knock on Reddick is his size. He actually started off as a defensive back who had to "bulk up" and gain nearly 30 pounds to convert to defensive end as a sophmore, before the Owls coaching staff put him at linebacker in his senior year. He also has small arms (32 1/8 inches), meaning that he won’t ever completely overwhelm you with power.
Which is another reason why I use the comparison to Rickey Jackson; another player that wasn't the biggest or the strongest, but yet just always seemed to had a 'knack' for being in the right place at the right time.
If you're an older Saints fan, then when you watch the film on Reddick, his "style" might not remind you of Rickey Jackson. But what will remind you of Jackson is that Reddick is literally EVERYWHERE all over the field, making play after play after play after play --- just like that former defensive end-turned-outside linebacker from Pitt named Rickey Jackson did for the Saints over 35 years ago.
For a lack of a better term: Reddick is a "game-changer", just like Von Miller or (if you're 'old' like me) Rickey Jackson. The Saints undoubtedly NEED more "game changers" in their front seven on defense, and Reddick has what can only be described as a rare and unparalleled blend of versatility and speed that could translate rather nicely to playing the "Will" LB in the Saints' current 4-3 scheme. Yes, the Saints already have Dannell Ellerbe at the "Will" position, but only when the injury-prone 31-year old veteran can actually remain healthy enough to stay on the field.
Grant it, the Saints could instead target the best pure edge rusher (whoever is still on the board at #11, most likely Derek Barnett of Tennessee or Taco Charlton of Michigan), but if they're smart? Then they should take the best all-around, "pound for pound" defensive player in this Draft PERIOD.
You simply just don't pass up the chance to select a player that could be the next Von Miller (or Rickey Jackson). And that player is Haason Reddick of Temple University.
ROUND 1 (#32 OVERALL) CARL LAWSON, DEFENSIVE END / EDGE RUSHER, AUBURN
It's been well established of course that perhaps the Saints' biggest team 'need' of them all is someone who can be a complementary player opposite of Saints All-Pro defensive end Cam Jordan, rushing the QB from off the outside edge. With both Missouri defensive end Charles Harris and Michigan defensive end Taco Charlton slated to be taken off the board somewhere in the mid-to-late 20's, it leaves the opportunity for the Saints to select the next best player available at that position at #32: Auburn University defensive end/ edge rusher Carl Lawson.
Lawson might just be the most overlooked defensive end / edge rusher prospect in this entire Draft, since he has battled with injuries throughout his college career that unintentionally had removed him from the watchful eye of analysts and experts that cover the Draft from year to year. After all, this is a young man who coming out of high school was poised to be the next great All-American defender in the SEC and at the FBS level, as the second rated player in the entire nation in 2013. But yet it wasn’t until last year, when Lawson "broke out" for 9.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss, that the NFL scouts themselves finally stood up and took notice.
Perhaps even worse, the injuries appear to have hindered his full development --- particularly that he lacks a full array or variety of pass-rushing hand techniques or "moves" that other players at the position already have. Nevertheless, when he is playing healthy and at 'full speed', Lawson possesses an intriguing blend of size, strength and athleticism that could allow him to eventually become a dominant pass rusher in the NFL. Like most elite-level edge rushers, Lawson has a quick "first step" and burst that allows him to beat opposing O-Linemen around the outside edge, and he is strong enough physically to win by over-powering opponents with a "bull-rush" from the inside.
Perhaps an even bigger appeal for the Saints besides Lawson's ability to rush the passer is his play while defending against the running game. Lawson is a a superb athlete who is able to maintain gap integrity, by staying in his rush lanes and containing or "bottling up" the runner when the opportunity presents itself. He is also a player that is smart and has a high football IQ, and is well-disciplined and knows where he is supposed to be at all times.
The biggest concern without a doubt for the Saints will be Lawson's injury history. Lawson torn his ACL in 2014 and missed the entire season that year; and then he several games in 2015 with a hip injury. And since the Saints have already experienced similar injury issues with the player who was supposed to be filling this very position with 2015 2nd Round pick Hau'oli Kikaha, a selection of Lawson by the Saints will certainly come with risks.
Perhaps the most impressive thing from my own perspective is Lawson's attitude and approach towards his future at the professional level. On Twitter just a few weeks ago, Lawson said this about his future: "Knowing how to rush the passer is just as important as having the physical tools to do it. The elite have both. I will be elite". You can't help but love Lawson's outlook on his situation, and if he can back up those words then one can certainly envision him teaming with Cam Jordan to give the Saints the pass rush that they've definitely lacked the last few seasons.
If drafted by the Saints, Lawson more than likely would be put in a rotational role with the recovering Kikaha and veteran back-up Darryl Tapp as a rookie, but if he can manage to stay relatively injury-free, Lawson could very well end up being one of the biggest potential steals of the 2017 NFL Draft class --- and for the purpose of this final Mock, he'll do it for New Orleans.
ROUND 2 (#42 OVERALL) KEVIN KING, CORNERBACK, UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON
Assuming the Saints don't trade for Patriots CB Malcom Butler within these next few remaining days before the opening night of the Draft, which as of right now doesn't seem as likely than it had been speculated a few weeks ago; then it's almost a given that they'll target the cornerback position with this pick. After an edge rusher to put on the outside edge opposite of Cam Jordan, the Saints' biggest team "need" is an outside cornerback to play opposite of Delvin Breaux, and King is exactly what the doctor prescribed for New Orleans.
A strong performance at the Combine has seen King rocket up NFL Draft boards, and assuming that LSU cornerback Tre'Davious White -- the player that the Saints really are hoping is still available at #32 -- isn't there, then getting King in this slot would be considered "the next best thing". As a part of the vaunted University of Washington Huskies secondary, King has seen his stock rise significantly in the past several weeks leading up to this weekend's Draft.
Amazingly, King didn’t allow a single touchdown in 2016 and only allowed just one in his last 28 college games. That ladies and gentlemen, is rather impressive. At 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, King has the "prototype" NFL size, speed and length. He furthered his cause last month at the Combine, posting a 4.43 second 40 time (impressive for a "big" corner), jumped almost 40 inches in the vertical and he additionally had what are considered "elite" measurables in other drills.
Pro Football Focus says that King has an excellent pass breakup radius, with length, height and leaping ability making it very hard to fit the football past him when he is in the area. They also note that King is good in press coverage, squeezing receivers to the sideline and giving them no space to work with. He allowed just three catches from 17 targets on "go" routes in 2016.
Now of course like every draft prospect, King has some flaws. PFF warns that he struggles against top-flight "speed" WR's at times and has some issues with missed tackles along with being a bit "grabby" at times (which could lead to quite a few illegal contact penalties at the NFL level), but all in all those are issues that can be worked out with the proper amount of coaching and game experience. Bottom line: the kid can play, and he would serve as a perfect complement to Breaux with this pick.
ROUND 3 (#76 OVERALL) CARLOS HENDERSON, WIDE RECEIVER, LOUISIANA TECH
With the departure of Brandin Cooks from the Saints offense following the trade to the Patriots, New Orleans finds itself without a true "deep threat" at the WR position, and likely will be looking for a replacement. But with one of the fastest rising WR's in the 2017 class having played his college career "up the road" in northern Louisiana at Ruston for the Bulldogs of Louisiana Tech, the Saints won't have to travel very far to get him.
Often compared to current NFL star Golden Tate of the Detroit Lions, NFL Draft analyst and part-time scout Ben Natan notes that Henderson scored an incredible total of 23 touchdowns last season: two on the ground, two on returns and 19 coming through the air. And Natan says that Henderson's nearly effortless speed made him impossible to slow down in 2016 as he went for 1535 receiving yards at 18.7 yards a catch.
Henderson had three games where he eclipsed over 200 receiving yards last year, one where he went over 300, three games where he had 3 or more touchdowns, including a game where he had five. Natan also adds that If Henderson saw targets during a game, he would completely take it over.
Natan says that the biggest concerns with Henderson are a problem with dropped passes at some inopportune times and the learning curve he'll experience coming from Louisiana Tech into the NFL. Natan also notes that Henderson is a bit smaller and though he plays much bigger than listed, he will need to make sure he can stay in that 180 range at 5-foot-10 because the much lighter receivers rarely succeed in the NFL.
However, Saints fans need to keep in mind that Cooks himself at 5-10 wasn't the most physically dominating player at the WR position, but he has the quickness to "blow right past" you before you even realize what has happened. Much in that same manner but without the recognition having played at Louisiana Tech and not at LSU, Henderson potentially could become that player for the Saints and fill the void at the WR position created by Cooks' departure.
ROUND 3 (#103 OVERALL) KAREEM HUNT, RUNNING BACK, TOLEDO
With the departure of Tim Hightower to the 49ers in Free Agency, New Orleans is now left without a reliable back-up #2 RB behind starter Mark Ingram --- but even if they sign free agent RB Adrian Peterson to fill that role as it's been rumored; the Saints also lack another dimension to their running game: 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? Meet RB Kareem Hunt of Toledo.
At Toledo, Hunt twice topped 1,400 yards rushing in a season, including 2016. As Toledo's "featured" running back, Hunt rushed for 4,945 yards in his career with 44 touchdowns. He had 1,475 yards as a senior, averaging 5.6 yards per carry with 10 touchdowns. But he also showed off his receiving skills -- something that the Saints and head coach Sean Payton covet -- as a senior with 41 catches for 403 yards, 9.8 yards a catch and one touchdown.
At the Senior Bowl, Hunt furthered his draft stock by rushing 15 times for 118 yards, including carries of 20 and 43 yards and was named the South team MVP. That impressed scouts enough to project him into the mid to late 3rd Round, which is where the Saints would take him with this pick that they got in the Brandin Cooks trade.
However, Hunt doesn't come without faults. He doesn't have the "breakaway" speed that Reggie Bush or Darren Sproles had, so he's not going to threaten to out-race an opponent's DB's in the secondary for an 80-yard TD run. The other knock is that because he relies so much on his lateral movement (he looks like a "human pinball" bouncing around back and forth in a handful of different highlights), Hunt can actually make too many moves instead of just putting his head down and earning the yardage. Additionally, Hunt isn't a great blocker; and he'll definitely have to improve that aspect of his game at the next level.
Bottom line on this kid is that he isn't in the 'upper-tier' of RB's in this class that include Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook, or Christian McCaffrey. But he is good enough to play at the NFL level and play well; and if he ends up in the 'right system' for his talents, he could potentially become a "draft day steal" for some lucky team. Perhaps that team could be the New Orleans Saints -- who have already worked out Hunt privately and may envision him wearing the Black and Gold.
ROUND 6 (#196 OVERALL) AVIANTE COLLINS, OFFENSIVE GUARD / TACKLE, TCU
There’s no doubt that the Saints could very well seek to draft the eventual replacement to long-time veteran right tackle Zach Strief in this Draft, given that the player originally drafted to replace Strief — 2015 1st Round pick Andrus Peat — ended up as the Saints starting left guard, instead. Which is exactly why a player who can be capable of a long-term solution this late in the Draft in what's considered one of the weakest offensive tackle classes in many years, could be an intriguing option.
Former TCU right tackle Aviante Collins first turned heads not last season, but actually during the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine early last month in Indianapolis. Collins led all offensive linemen in Indianapolis during the 40-yard dash, posting an impressive time (for a guy of his size) of 4.81 seconds, while 'wowing' a handful of scouts and observers on-hand in the process. Additionally, he also finished 2nd in the bench press with 34 total reps.
Dallas Morning News TCU beat writer Kacey Bowen reported that Collins impressed scouts and observers once again during the Horned Frogs Pro Day a few weeks ago, when 29 NFL scouts representing 26 NFL teams -- including the Saints -- were in attendance at the TCU campus in Fort Worth. Collins averaged a 24-inch vertical, an 8-foot, 6-inch broad jump, a 4.69-second short shuttle and a 7.85-second three-cone drill.
NFL.com Draft Analyst Lance Zierlein wrote in his scouting report of Collins that “the more you watch of Collins, the more you like," noting that you immediately notice his athleticism. Zierlein noted that it was his toughness and determination though that will “win you over.” Zierlein then named Collins as his most underrated offensive tackle of the entire class, and said this about Collins' ability at the next level:
Aviante Collins, TCU: Collins' incredible combination of speed (4.81 40) and power (34 bench-press reps) at the combine made him one of the most unique testers we have seen at the tackle position in quite some time. He comes from a family of sprinters, which accounts for his terrific athleticism. However, what might be slept on by some evaluators is his ability to sustain blocks longer than expected. While he's likely a zone blocker only, he has a shot at working his way into a starting role if he can carry a little more mass.
Collins started and played right tackle in all 13 games for the Horned Frogs in 2016. He won’t be an immediate starter right away in the NFL, but has the potential to work his way up to be an above-average starter. Eventually, Collins would likely be asked to play right tackle by the Saints, though many scouts have talked to him about playing guard in the NFL --- and like most prospects with that type of versatility, he's said to be fine with the idea.
Nevertheless, Collins clearly still has appeal as a tackle because of his athleticism; and for a Saints team facing the eventual retirement of Strief sooner rather than later, a selection of Collins makes a lot of sense for New Orleans. Also given the fact that the Saints probably wouldn't mind having another O-Lineman that can play both guard and tackle, the selection of Collins would be yet another "value pick" for the Saints in the "later rounds".
ROUND 7 (#229 OVERALL) DAVID JONES, FREE SAFETY, UNIVERSITY OF RICHMOND
The Saints have earned a reputation over the years for being able to draft and discover "small school gems" (with former WR Marques Colston of Hofstra University in the 2006 Draft being the most famous), and as they close out the 2017 NFL Draft with their final pick (and our final pick for this year's final Saints Mock) in the 7th Round, they find yet another one: University of Richmond (in Virginia) free safety David Jones.
Back in August of last year, Jones was projected as high as a 3rd-round pick after leading the FCS (a.k.a. Division II) with a total of 9 interceptions and ranking 2nd for the Spiders in team tackles as a junior in the 2015 season. That season ended for Jones with a broken forearm in an FCS playoff game at North Dakota State. He was healthy to start last season, but again broke the very same forearm in October. He only ended up playing six games, and as a consequence, his draft status slipped dramatically.
Nevertheless, Jones appears to be back to full health, and with scouts still remembering his "break out" 2015 season, he's still projected to be taken in the Draft, but projects anywhere between the 6th and 7th Rounds, which is where we have the Saints taking him here to provide further depth for the free safety position following the departure of veteran Jairus Byrd earlier this current off-season.
NFL.com Draft Analyst Lance Zierlein actually rates Jones as his top "sleeper" pick among the safety class of this Draft, and had this to say about Jones in his column breaking down the top safety prospects:
David Jones, Richmond: Ballhawking safety who came into Richmond at 165 pounds but now carries 205 pounds on a 6-foot-1 frame. Jones missed half of the 2016 season with a fractured forearm, but still managed two interceptions in six games to go with nine INTs in 2015. He doesn't always play to his 4.43-second 40-yard-dash time on tape, but with his size, speed and ball production, Jones could be a sleeper who makes noise in the NFL.
Jones will no doubt have durability concerns after those injuries, but players this size that can move (4.43 second 40-yard dash) and cover like he can usually are given the opportunity to prove that they can overcome such issues and eventually adapt to the physical rigors that are required of the pro game.
But make no mistake about it: despite the injury concerns and the "small school" label, this kid can play and "ball" with THE BEST of them, no matter what level it's on. If the Saints were in fact to select Jones and he could manage to remain injury-free, he'd have a black-and-golden opportunity to join the elite company that includes Marques Colston, on the Saints "small school gem" list......