The New Orleans Saints shocked many observers when they used the 28th pick in the first round of the NFL draft to select University of Houston defensive end Payton Turner. Several expected the Saints to address a huge need at cornerback with their first round choice, or perhaps address the linebacker spot or add a wideout.
Instead, New Orleans pulled one of the biggest surprises in the first round. A closer look reveals their thought process behind the pick. Defensive end Trey Hendrickson departed in free agency after leading the team with 13.5 sacks last year. Perennial Pro Bowler Cameron Jordan was not as productive as he’d been in years past. Marcus Davenport, the 14th overall pick of the 2018 draft, continues to struggle with injuries and has produced below expectations.
New Orleans has 145 sacks over the last three seasons, including 45 and 113 QB hits in 2020. Most of those were from a deep and talented defensive line. With that depth taking a hit this offseason, here’s a closer look at what to expect from the Saints 1st round choice.
PAYTON TURNER, DEFENSIVE END (HOUSTON)
Turner suffered an ACL injury during his senior year at Westside High School in Texas. He recovered enough to contribute 14 tackles (2 for loss), a sack, and an interception as a true freshman for the Cougars in 2017.
Missing the last two games of the 2018 season with a foot injury, Turner gathered 4.5 tackles for loss among his 42 total stops, while breaking up 4 passes and blocking a punt. He put himself on the radar of NFL scouts in 2019 as a junior. Turner had 34 tackles, but career-highs with 8 stops for loss and 4 sacks while also breaking up 4 passes.
Houston was limited to just eight games in 2020, and Turner missed three of them with a knee injury and a positive COVID test. Despite playing in just five contests, he led the Cougars with 10.5 tackles for loss and 5 sacks while receiving second team All-American Athletic Conference recognition.
Turner was a 217-Lb. defensive lineman when first arriving to Houston. He still has a lanky frame and lean lower body, sometimes struggling to set a strong base against the run. The Cougars moved him around the defensive line, so he has yet to develop consistent pass rush moves on the edge.
Turner needs to play with better leverage. His upright style gives blockers a larger target to engage, allowing him to be knocked off balance because of a narrow base. That also causes him to struggle at times to set the edge against the run. He's raw as a pass rusher and must develop counter moves once his initial charge is stalled.
Some scouts showed concern about Turner's durability, but he only missed five games in college. He has the frame to add bulk without sacrificing any of his athleticism. Has a rare blend of length, upper body strength, and athletic traits.
Turner has incredible agility and good explosion off the snap. Had the play strength and versatility to play inside for Houston and plays with intensity on every snap. He uses his long arms to keep blockers at bay and disengages quickly to get in pursuit. His long stride makes up ground rapidly when tracking down ball carriers.
As a pass rusher, Turner showed an improved bend around the edge as a senior. He’s light on his feet and can blow past slower blockers. He has a devastating inside move and has instant change-of-direction ability. His length can disrupt quarterbacks or affect a running play even when blocked.
Payton Turner may not have been highly regarded entering the draft, but had several scouts excited about his upside. He’ll be an immediate part of the edge rotation for New Orleans, with the potential to develop into an every down player. Has the versatility to play multiple positions, but the Saints plan for him is to be a disruptive force along the edge.